It’s a craft day at Missy Higgins’ house. A dining table has been turned into a glitter, paint and glue station with coloured squares of paper and abandoned mini-projects covering every inch of the table.
In the next room, her two small children have moved onto Lego. Her littlest, three-year-old Luna, is explaining how she doesn’t have the right pieces for what she wants to make. Higgins looks at her lovingly, “I know,” she coos. “We need to get more of these ones,” she adds, picking up a flat piece.
Missy Higgins may be a five-time chart topper and nine-time ARIA Award winner-who has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Australia twice-but she’s a mother first. And as she raises her children in a global world with so much to answer for, her latest music project has never been more important in her mind.
“I felt like I was living vicariously through this character and it really freed me up to express things that I would normally feel a little bit too self-conscious to express.”
She’s talking about her new Brendon Love-produced mini-album Total Control, a pointed six-track heart-pumper inspired by the strength of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, and the fearlessness of Total Control TV show character Alex Irving (played by Deborah Mailman), an Indigenous senator in Canberra.
The mini-album marks two major firsts for Missy Higgins; it’s her first time speaking out on gendered and cultural injustices in this way—a timely project in the midst of music’s #MeToo moment—and her first time writing the full soundtrack for a TV show. Higgins became a crucial player for the ABC-produced show in its first season when she contributed a few songs, but the follow-up, released late last year, is all Higgins, with her outspoken fight for equality soundtracking the entire season.
Listen to Total Control below:
Sitting at a picnic table outside among the trees in regional Victoria, Higgins is sipping on tea. Her vegetable and fruit gardens are behind her and you can hear her chickens warbling just a short distance away. Her pumpkins are growing rapidly at the moment, sprouting all the way down the hillside, so are her blueberries and strawberries (her daughter’s favourite). With such a vast expanse behind the house and no visible neighbours, it’s unsurprising when not one but four kangaroos careen past and jump a nearby fence.
“I’ve never found song writing easy,” she confesses. “I’m not really that prolific, I don’t just sit down every day and bang out a song—and I’m not walking down the street and a song lands on my shoulders.”
This time was different. With the show’s scripts and scenes in her hands, the character Alex Irving’s motivations in her mind, and sexual assault survivors Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins sharing their truth and inspiring the world, Missy Higgins channelled their Herculean anger and mixed it with her own.
“[Alex Irving is] so fearless and kind of gutsy, and she is also so complex, because she has this big chip on her shoulder,” Higgins explains of the character. “She’s had a lifetime of oppression too. So she’s got so much anger, which she deserves to have, but it’s coming out in such interesting ways. It was kind of fun to live through somebody who was just letting it all out, living their truth in a way. And being unapologetic about it.”
Higgins watched in awe as Brittany Higgins and Grame Tame both walked into parliament and called out the abuse and systemic oppression happening in this country. And when thousands of allies and victim-survivors gathered at the capital in support of Brittany Higgins last year for the March 4 Justice rally, Missy Higgins felt bolstered by their strength.
“It was that rumble of female voices that was starting to happen, that was making me think about things that have happened in my life and making me more conscious of what women have always had to go through,” she says. “And also the fact that I’ve been so privileged compared to so many women. I think this whole movement has made me really wake up a bit as a woman and become more conscious of that.”
As a prolific artist who has been in the public eye since the age of 15 when she won triple j Unearthed, Higgins has had her fair share of oppressive experiences involving the male gaze.
“I remember at least one or two meetings with record companies, before I signed, when I felt as though the language was pointing towards what they would like to make me into, the potential that they saw in me,” she says.
“I remember them talking about clothes and the way that they would like me to present myself and the way they would like me to sing. A little bit higher, more girly. I just recoiled straight away.” Missy chuckles now, perhaps at the ridiculousness of it all. “I wasn’t about to let some old white guy in a suit tell me that I had to wear a short skirt.”
“I wasn’t about to let some old white guy in a suit tell me that I had to wear a short skirt.”
Last year, the Australian recorded music industry received its biggest shake-up in recent memory. Amid an independent investigation into Sony Music Australia’s workplace culture, three male executives at the local stable left the business and the company’s longstanding leader Denis Handlin was fired. For Higgins, this changing of the guard has many positive flow-on effects. While she understands that some cultural changes will happen willingly, and others begrudgingly—as certain gatekeepers take the room’s temperature and realise it’s within their best financial interest to move with the times—she’s just thankful perpetrators and enablers are listening.
“Even if you’re making change because that’s where you know the dollars are, at least it’s change,” she says. “It’s like the climate movement, people are starting to realise that coal’s actually not going to be making people money for much longer, so they’re moving to renewables. It’s like, ‘Whatever way you have to do it guys’,” she’s waving her hands in the air now, “just fucking do it.”
Missy Higgins says she can offer a fast ‘No’ when it comes to big projects with tight deadlines; but she must have a fearless voice that steps in because when she was asked by the TV producers of Total Control to deliver a cover of The Motels’ 1979-released single for the show of the same name in a matter of days, not only did she take it on, she wrote the music for the whole damn season.
“At first I said, ‘No, I can’t do that’. Which I usually do because I freak out, and then four hours later I’m like. maybe, maybe I could do this.”
Higgins’ cover of “Total Control” is an almost spiritual listen. She takes a song about sexual yearning and rage, and turns it into a feminist anthem for strength and autonomy, without changing one lyric. When I ask how she did it, she explains her process as if it’s easy, as if anyone could do it.
“I just wanted to listen to it enough to get the general chord structure and the melody in my head,” she explains. “Then I tried to forget about it and make its own story. So many of the songs in this album are about taking control back and getting yourself back and reclaiming your story. It just felt right that that song was aligned with all that as well.
“You just have to think it while you’re singing it,” she shrugs. “You just have to have it in your head. It just comes out that way; like conversation.”
“So many of the songs in this album are about taking control back and getting yourself back and reclaiming your story.”
That same fierce energy is woven all throughout the mini-album. It’s in “Watch Out”, which was directly inspired by the power of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins (especially in the lyric “ain’t nobody get away when the truth shines”). It’s in the foot-stomping piano song “Big Kids”, which features a dream team line-up of backing vocalists: Ainslie Wills, Claire Bowditch, Sarah Bekner, Clio Renner, Elsie Rigby, Maggie Rigby, Emma Donavon, Kee’Ahn Bindol, and Mia Wray. And it’s in “Take It Back”, which soundtracks a scene in Total Control where Alex Irving experiences racism from a taxi driver and puts them in their place in a mighty display of resilience.
“I just admired the strength of her character to fight back like that every time and to keep going, and I see that around me so much,” says Higgins. “I see that all around me. Australian First Nations people have to cop so much every day and they’re still surviving in a country that refuses to acknowledge our history. We really have never truly acknowledged the history of our country and I feel like we really can never move forward until we all acknowledge that. And especially the people in power, the people that run this country. For some reason there’s just been this massive, massive national denial for so long and it’s a horrendous history that we have.”
“Australian First Nations people have to cop so much every day and they’re still surviving in a country that refuses to acknowledge our history.”
In the scene in Total Control, Alex Irving’s rage at the racism she experienced, that she continues to experience throughout the show, reaches a tipping point. She calls the taxi driver a cunt in a moment of fist-in-the-air vindication for the viewer; as if the tired boxer found his second wind in the last round to deliver a knockout.
“That’s what a lot of these songs are; they’re the things you wish you’d said at the time. That’s why they feel so great to sing. It’s getting it all out and it’s saying exactly what you want to say to the person at the time that it’s happening.”
Higgins’ daughter Luna calls for her mum and the Australian music royalty is off in a flash to help fix whatever is wrong with the iPad. When she returns I ask her what it’s like raising a daughter amid the #MeToo movement. In a very thoughtful, ‘Missy Higgins’ way, she says:
“She’s definitely going to be as fierce as me. She is a little firecracker. Even more headstrong actually. […] The more important thing for me is to try and teach Sammy about gender and about his role as a boy, and to love himself and to not be ashamed of his masculinity. Which he’ll grow into obviously.
“She’s definitely going to be as fierce as me. She is a little firecracker. Even more headstrong actually.”
“So many of the issues that stem from all these problems we have at the moment is just boys not being brought up right. They’ve been, I think, oppressed as young kids and shamed for having any sort of softness and that turns into aggression because they’re not able to express it. And also on the flip side, I think it’s important not to shame him for having that kind of, I don’t know, that energy and that kind of fierceness as well.”
To the public eye, Missy Higgins has always been a self-assured linchpin in Australia’s music industry. When her breakout hit “Scar” seems to throw the Earth off its axis with such moving storytelling, she was still freshly navigating an industry with a flawed system. And yet, she has built a career on her own terms, with projects and collaborations that have continuously resonated with music fans who have an overwhelming amount of choice.
Her contribution to music as a whole is nothing short of remarkable. As she releases this latest music project, Higgins puts great stock into the idea that it’s not about her. Granted, she lives vicariously through real-life and fictional characters to expand the boundaries of her oft-trodden autobiographical release, but Total Control is an unstoppable demonstration.
“I feel proud that I know I’m speaking for every woman that I know.”
“I feel proud that I know I’m speaking for every woman that I know,” she says, contentedly. “I think this one more than anything I’ve done is speaking on behalf of other women as well. And channelling the rage of many different women that I’ve ever known.”