Tonya Brewer

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Sia: Inside the World of A Reclusive Pop Icon

She's spent years as one of the world’s most in-demand songwriters, one of Australia’s biggest musical exports, and faced countless demons. Now, armed with her directorial debut, and having adopted two sons into her family, Sia has finally found the happiness she’s long searched for.

Sia Furler is a hard person to get hold of at the best of times. While she’s spent most of the last decade as one of the music industry’s most prolific names, her aversion to fame has seen her become just as famous for her reclusive nature as her songwriting and performing skills. She’s far more outgoing than the likes of Kate Bush, and far more photogenic than a musical JD Salinger, yet her ability to emerge to do promo only when she feels like it leaves her the envy of her contemporaries.

Even as this, one of her rare interviews, is set to take place, her avoidance of the public eye seems to appear once again. As a pandemic rages on, our initial chat is pushed back four days, due in part to the widespread protests surrounding the death of George Floyd. As the rescheduled date looms closer, things are delayed twice more, with the effects of a migraine – an ongoing ailment – putting the Adelaide-born artist out of action for a few days.

When the head of Sia’s security detail answers the call for our chat via FaceTime, the long-awaited event almost feels underwhelming. In fact, it feels normal. Almost too normal. Instead of some highly-anticipated reveal of Sia’s face as she steps out from the shadows in a lavish grand hall, the artist is found casually sitting at a table in the backyard of her Los Angeles home. 

She cheekily calls it “the bush”, laughing as if she’s glad to finally share this joke with a fellow Australian. She continues smiling as she uses her own phone to share a social media post regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I’m becoming way more aware of shit than I used to be,” she casually admits. “My head of security is black, and a police officer, so he knows all the rules; what’s supposed to happen and what’s not supposed to happen. So I’m just learning. I’m learning myself about systematic racism.”

For an artist whose career is accompanied by her well-documented distaste of the immediate limelight, and a playful, kooky attitude to almost every move she makes, Sia is a remarkably down-to-earth individual. Dressed in a summery, blue and white off the shoulder top with black eyeglasses, her excitable nature is on full display, while her unique blend of a South Australian and American accent peeks through occasionally.

Sia

Sia on the cover of Rolling Stone Australia. (Photography, wig, and makeup by Tonya Brewer)

Overall though, she appears relieved. The previous year hasn’t just seen the readying of her directorial debut and new music, it has also seen her adopt two adult African-American sons – a move she says has not only made her hyper-aware of the events going on in the world right now, but has also changed their lives.

Sia only began publicly speaking about her newly-adopted sons – now aged 19 – in May, explaining that they were ageing out of the foster care system when they came into her life in 2019. 

“The first year was just completely insane but now they’re both just fuckin’… different kids. They see hope,” she explains. “They have had extreme trauma and have been in 18 homes each over their entire lives. It’s been the best thing I have ever done; I just love them so much and it feels like that was my purpose. 

“I thought getting famous was my purpose and then I found that increasingly unsatisfying, and then it became, ‘Okay, well, what’s my purpose next?’. I wanted to write a song for Beyoncé and then it happened and then I was like, ‘Well I really want to make this movie but I’m embarrassed because I don’t want people to think that it’s a vanity project’.”

The movie is Music, a labour of love with a history that spans roughly 13 years. Having first originated as a one-page short story of hers written back in 2007, a film version was first announced in 2015, with children’s book author Dallas Clayton helping to flesh out the final script. 

“I was still a little bit insecure, but then when I started directing the video for “Chandelier” and most videos from there, I realised I was actually a pretty good director,” an endearingly-genuine laugh punctuates her admission. “I stopped hating myself, I stopped worrying, and I started believing that I could do it.”

“I stopped hating myself, I stopped worrying, and I started believing that I could do it.”

While Clayton helped encourage Sia to realise her directorial potential, the end result is far different from what had originally been envisioned. Despite being an appropriately titled musical, the film – which stars frequent collaborator and dancer Maddie Ziegler, actress Kate Hudson, and Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr – was never intended to be another addition to the popular genre.

Its origins stretch back to a casual conversation between Sia and Clayton. While professing their mutual fondness for a musical, the latter stated his belief that the former could make one even better.

“I hate musical theatre by the way,” she admits. “I generally hate musicals, and it was originally a narrative film. But everyone kept saying, ‘Are you stupid? Are you not making it a musical?’”

As with any project, Music quickly evolved as more thought went into it. Originally planned to feature Shia LaBeouf in a lead role, this was quickly changed to Jonah Hill. Eventually, the film’s lead was gender-swapped when Sia decided it would take the form of a musical.

Ultimately, the main inspiration behind its status as a musical came about when Sia realised she wanted to work with the likes of Odom Jr and Hudson. Reaching out via social media to recruit her cast, this move enabled the artist to discover talent she claims she would have otherwise been unable to find via traditional means.

“One [actor] I discovered, I just asked for a particular type of person that could dance, [their] size, shape and race,” she recalls. “I couldn’t find through any of the casting directors, so I tweeted it and I found someone perfect for the role who turned out to be an incredibly gifted actor. I love Twitter for that reason.”

Originally planned for release in 2019, the shooting of Music wrapped up four years ago, with much of Sia’s time since being taken up by the gruelling editing process.

“I know what it’s like to make a record and have them take 18 months to strategise how to put it out,” she notes. “When I was new, it was infuriating waiting for things to come out but now I really am in no hurry at all. That’s why it took so long editing it, because I really wanted it to be the best movie it could be.”

Sia has had a long history of unexpected success. Formally beginning her career over 25 years ago with Adelaide jazz-funk outfit Crisp in the mid-Nineties, a pair of releases with the band, a guest appearance as a wedding singer on Home And Away, and a long-forgotten solo album named OnlySee preceded a move to the UK, where she soon began working with the likes of Jamiroquai and, notably, Zero 7.

“I don’t know why I left Australia really, I just wanted to go on an adventure,” she recalls. “I never thought I would leave forever.”

“I don’t know why I left Australia really, I just wanted to go on an adventure. I never thought I would leave forever.”

During her initial time in London, it was a series of open mic night performances which led to a record deal with Sony sublabel Dance Pool.

“That was the beginning of my singing career, like, ‘Oh, people are paying me to do this? Okay, I must be a singer’,” she recalls with a laugh. Her infectious smile provides a peek into the excitement of these early days. “I literally had no big intentions. I thought actually I was going to be an actor and I’m very grateful that I’m not because it’s a much harder job.”

Fast-forward almost two decades, and the film world once again found itself at the forefront of Sia’s mind. With songwriting having taken up most of her time across the last decade, one could almost assume that making the move from writing chart-topping hits for the likes of Rihanna, J Lo, and BTS,  to writing a box office smash would be an easy one; especially when the latter is a musical. Ultimately, the decision to focus her efforts in this field was guided by the encouragement of frequent music video collaborator Daniel Askill, actress and writer Lena Dunham, and producer Vincent Landay.

“For me, writing songs and singing comes easily,” she admits. “I mean it took me 25 years to get to writing this good and quickly. I’m very good at writing songs because I know some of the songs I write are shit, but […] people like them and I know how to please certain demographics and certain artists. 

“But it took me 25 years to learn how to do that, and I just threw myself into this absolute baptism by fire directing the movie. […] I got real lucky with all the actors and with all the crew and with my colleagues it was just an awesome experience and then it was over and I wanted to fucking die.”

“I just threw myself into this absolute baptism by fire directing the movie.”

Music is itself an incredible creation. Self-described by its director as a “drama musical”, the film follows Zu (Hudson), a newly-sober drug dealer, as she looks after her autistic sister Music (Ziegler) following the death of their grandmother. While Sia was proud of the work Ziegler was doing, the young actress’ commitment to the role was even praised by Steven Spielberg.

“Nobody recognised her because she is doing such a stunning job of capturing what it is to be quite low functioning on the autism spectrum,” Sia explains. “I used to go to AA meetings and the sign language interpreter had a son called Stevie and I based her character exactly on him.”

A few days into the pre-production though, Sia recalls a time when the then 14-year-old Ziegler came to her in tears, fearful that her performance as an autistic teenager would be misconstrued as being insensitive. Promising the young actress that she wouldn’t allow her to become the target of critics, Sia made a point of ensuring that Ziegler’s performance was as faithful as it possibly could be.

“We sent it to the Child Mind Institute in New York and they watched it,” she says. “A whole bunch of people with autism watched it, a whole bunch of people who are caregivers, or people that are studiers of the brain – students of the brain – and they gave her 100%.”

Sia is looking towards the release of her debut film, a soundtrack album, and a new record of original material in 2021. (Photo by Tonya Brewer)

Though it’s not marketed as such, Music features moments of tension more powerful than any action film, and more emotion than any Oscar-winning romance. Ultimately though, Sia claims that its creation was rooted in a desire to make its viewers truly feel something, with its somewhat educational nature being likened to that of what she describes as “Rain Main the musical”.

“I wanted people to have feelings, that’s the main thing,” she admits. “There’s so few of those [films] at the moment. Where have all the Forrest Gumps gone, you know? Where have all the What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes gone? I was just really nostalgic for that period of film-making and how it made me feel when I watched those movies. I was really shooting for an all-round ‘break your heart, put it back together again’ feeling.

“I also wanted to give hope to the caregiver and to the autism community that it’s not all negative. They’re gifted.”

“I was really shooting for an all-round ‘break your heart, put it back together again’ feeling.”

As her friends, family, and followers would know, Sia has never been one to do things traditionally. In fact, the mere mention of her name conjures up images of a musical icon subverting expectations (and managing anxiety) by hiding their face with her now-iconic wig (“I’m an old dear, but the wig never ages,” she jokes).

However, this unconventional way of handling herself even manages to seep into the world of her filmmaking. Maybe it’s her aversion to traditional musicals (most don’t feature an on-screen cameo from their creator, after all), or maybe it’s a desire to constantly reimagine an approach to her craft. But one of the most unique aspects of Music is the way in which Sia’s songs are woven into the film.

While traditional musicals would tend to use a song to help progress the narrative, Music utilises Sia’s compositions to show the title character’s experience within the world; effectively showcasing each track as a self-contained music video to help the viewer appreciate not only the story, but the complexity of the neurodivergent mind. 

In fact, the clip for lead single “Together” is lifted directly from the film’s final scene. For Sia, this not only helped to tell the story she wanted to, but aided in the creative process, with a decision to exclude lip-syncing throughout the movie, meaning that script changes wouldn’t affect the narrative.

“I rewrote all the lyrics at the very end of the project so that it reflected the narrative of the film,” she explains. “They were dancing to different lyrics, but they were dancing to the same song, to the same production, to the same music but to different music.”

Sia purposely hadn’t written any music for the movie originally. Rather, she pitched a handful of songs she enjoyed, despite not being what she would call her best work. Even “Together” was written during the filming process, with its segment filmed as a reshoot.

As Sia shares an all-too quick glimpse of her backyard (revealing a hilly skyline in the distance, while palm trees surround an impossibly blue swimming pool), it’s clear that a weight has been lifted. The release of a long-awaited film should be a joyous occasion for any director, but Music follows a period which has kept its creator not only feverishly busy, but affected to the point of illness.

“The making of the movie was fun but the editing portion actually made me sick.”

“The making of the movie was fun but the editing portion actually made me sick,” she recalls. “I had an illness and severe pain. I really believed it was the fear of making something mediocre and the pressure I put on myself to make something outstanding.

“I couldn’t seem to find the right editor – someone who understood the magic I was trying to make happen. Finally we did, but I got really sick and also really depressed. My PTSD was just out of control, and I nearly didn’t leave the house for three or four years.”

It was during this time spent at home that Sia focused her efforts into the film’s editing process. With the only music arriving in this time being 2017’s Christmas album Everyday is Christmas (which hit number seven in Australia and followed the release of 2016’s chart-topping This Is Acting), the task of editing managed to give the artist a sense of purpose following her split with husband Erik Anders Lang in 2016.

“I spent about three or four years in bed after my divorce. I went gung ho into making the movie, which gave me purpose and helped to distract from the devastation and loss of that relationship.”

Throughout her life, Sia has repeatedly been candid about the struggles she’s faced in both her professional and personal life. Despite personal tragedy, relationship breakdowns, bipolar disorder, an autoimmune disorder, an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and even the contemplation of suicide, she notes that the last three years of her life were in fact what she considers to be her worst yet.

More than two decades into her career, Sia has found a new lease on life. (Photo by Tonya Brewer)

“I’m surprised I’m alive and I’m very grateful for Prozac,” she admits. “I was having very bad complex PTSD and a lot of suicidal ideation and as soon as I finally got on Prozac, six days later it was like my brain [had been] broken. I no longer had that suicidal ideation. It was just gone, just like that.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, PTSD really is just something in the brain and it needs Prozac to become normal again and its normal typically-functioning self’.”

Despite these dark days, Sia affirms she’s now got the worst of it behind her (“It’s been great not being suicidal,” she quips). In fact, even before she admits it, the pleasure is obvious. A brief visit from one of her sons results in a full-body hug that shows a glimpse of pure love, while her usual animated self boasts a smile larger than anyone would have seen in quite some time. Truly, it’s clear that the demons that once plagued her are no longer in control, replaced by a happiness so rare it almost could make one feel jealous.

“I have everything I could ever want and need, so my purpose is to make someone else’s dreams come true or to make someone’s day or do a good deed.”

“I’m on Prozac and then I’m on a number of other things,” she explains. “No opiates, but other pain treatments and they seem to be working.

“I’ve never been happier [than] this last year, never been happier. I think choosing my sons and helping them through their trauma — and being able to have the resources to help them through all of their trauma — has been meaningful to me and I’m really appreciative of all of my friendships.

“I met all my professional goals and now I have two sons that [means] I’ve met all my personal goals. I don’t have a boyfriend but I don’t long for one. If it happens, that would be fine and fun I’m sure, but I’m not…” she pauses. “I’m totally whole.”

This rare feeling of being whole has seen Sia begin to look outwards in an effort to ensure those in her immediate circles are taken care of. From her altruistic efforts which saw her donate $1 million to CORE, Sean Penn’s COVID-19 charity (though she later admits she wished she kept half to donate to the Black Lives Matter movement), to taking care of her family, Sia notes that her immediate thoughts are on others.

“I have everything I could ever want and need, so my purpose is to make someone else’s dreams come true or to make someone’s day or do a good deed,” she explains. “That’s what I like to do best, it gives me the same high that drugs used to.

“I’m in a really good place where my brain is sane for the first time; my brain feels happy. I couldn’t be prouder of the boys and how far they have come just in this last year and I can’t wait to see them grow and blossom.”

Despite everything that has gone on in these past years – whether it’s the creation of a new film, new music, and a new family – Sia insists she’s the complete opposite of a workaholic. Even with her own admission that she spends at least 18 hours a day in bed watching television on her ceiling, Sia reveals she not only has two more movies written, but that there’s a TV series in the works as well.

“My life is the most ridiculous pageant of the bizarre.”

“We’ve got a season of a new TV show that Dallas [Clayton] and I wrote just based on my ridiculous life because I am so private but my life is the most ridiculous pageant of the bizarre,” she explains.

“It’s super stupid and funny but he’s just like, ‘If you keep living the way you live, we’ll have like 16 seasons.’ I guess it’s based on me, but it looks like that one will come out next year at some point too.”

As she looks toward the future though, it’s clear that Sia’s thoughts aren’t focused on her. Though she had previously stated her main goal was that of having a number one song (which she achieved when “Cheap Thrills” topped the Billboard chart in 2016), her future ambitions aren’t centred around statues and awards. In fact, she doesn’t have a Grammy, she downplays her ten ARIA Awards (“I gave them to fans”), and says her focus on her own achievements is so minimal that she doesn’t even have photos of herself in her home – save for the pencil drawing that features in the “Chandelier” video.

Now though, the question of recorded music comes to the forefront of the conversation, with Sia having stated in early 2020 that she had two albums all set for release, though they wouldn’t arrive until after the film’s premiere. One of these albums is a soundtrack to Music, featuring the vocal talents of its actors, while the second features Sia’s own versions of the songs.

“After that, I have an album ready to go,” she adds, noting it won’t arrive until the latter half of 2021. “I’m only competing with myself if I put shit out, so that’s why I don’t just drop it all right now. 

“I have to be really smart about when I’m releasing things because I am quite prolific.”

Even with new music on the way, the future of Sia’s career might not look anything like what fans are used to. Her 2017 trip to Australia and New Zealand served as the last real tour she embarked on; those who missed out may be left wanting for a repeat engagement.

“I’ll probably never go on tour again,” she admits. “I’m not really a tourer, I’m a homebody.”

After so many years spent proving her resilience, fighting her way out of the darkness, and above all, achieving more than most musicians could in multiple lifetimes, it’s easy to feel proud of Sia. 

“I just have to do what’s going to keep me serene,” she explains. “I don’t have any particular goals with music and right now, I’m really focused on making my children’s dreams come true.”

She pauses, gazing out into “the bush” as she gathers her thoughts, seemingly realising just how hard she’s managed to push herself. 

“I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself my entire career. I’ve worked like a dog and I’ve worked myself to the bone, and on a number of occasions I have burnt out. To be happy is very weird.”

Sia’s Music is on track to be released in early 2021, while the soundtrack to the film will be released on February 12th, 2021 via Monkey Puzzle/Atlantic.