Bold pop records of unwavering consistency, depth, finish, and pleasure do not suddenly drop out of the sky, and that is the case with "We Are Born," the fifth proper album from the long-formidable Australia-born singer and songwriter Sia. These dazzling fourteen songs, produced by noted Los Angeles producer Greg Kurstin, are full of finessed immediacy and stark power and kinetic rhythmic motion. Yet they sacrifice none of the raw emotionality that distinguished Sia's often more inward-leaning and languorous work, both with the cinematic U.K. duo Zero 7 and on her own previous recordings. The new songs comprise a kind of collection Sia has longed to unveil for years.
"We Are Born is the album I've been wanting to make since Colour the Small One," explains Sia, referring to her 2004 album. "But I wasn't allowed to." She is talking about her former record company's wholesale refusal a while back to accept music from her that left the downtempo universe then at its height of fashionability, and she mentions her earlier albums. "I'm really impressionable about music," she begins. "When I was hanging out with hip-hoppers I made 'Healing Is Difficult' in 2000. When I was hanging out with Zero 7, I made "Colour the Small One'. In 2008 I made 'Some People Have Real Problems' -- because," Sia sniffs, " apparently I was a downtempo artist exclusively. 'We Are Born' is the album I've made when I've been hanging out with myself."
That is fascinating company. In conversation, where she sparkles and excels and which she punctuates often by laughing her head off, Sia is hardly a downtempo lifer tugging at her turtleneck and staring at her boots. "I grew up on television," she eagerly offers, "so anything romantic or happy-endy -- just magic -- I'm into. I like television more than anything in the world. Apart from dogs. I have two. They're the best people."
She's not done with the television comments: "I don't actually listen to music" she insists. "I'm way more of a visual person. Along with TV and movies, I like drawing. I'll draw for fun. I'm particularly fond of the medium of nail polish on glass -- just making lots of squiggly little lines and dots on glass. I can do that for hours and hours and hours. It's the only thing I can do for hours, apart from watch television, of course. I think that a lot of people who are in music love doing music. They actually love to pick up a guitar, and they can do that for hours. I sing in the shower, but I don't pick up a pen and write a song nilly-willy. I write when it's scheduled."
In general, the foundational thinking of this actually very conscientious pop music artist, of this gifted singer and natural songwriter, is the following remark, which Sia makes much in the same lightly disarming manner that she says most everything: "I'm the one who does this," she maintains, "and I know that there's nothing particularly special about it all; the mystique that I think some artists create around their art is, to me, bullshit. It just doesn't exist."
Here, for example is Sia on her singing style -- the considerable technique that represents a highlight of the Sia jukebox of 'We Are Born," a rich and sometimes slightly distressed soprano facility that skats and swoops seamlessly through "The Fight," soothes and gallops in "Clap Your Hands," testifies and charges on "You've Changed," and, in a remarkable interpretation of Madonna's "Oh Father," builds off-hand narrative urgency into kitchen-sink ariatic soul. Sometimes she's singing in the studio. "I sing it five times. We play it five times. And then we choose the best take. I like that; I like it because I like being with my bands, who are my friends. It's really fun, the first time the songs come to life after being usually just one instrument and my voice. So we start to fill things up and create music; I like that flowering."
Laboratory conditions don't always prevail when singing live, though. "Sometimes I'm there and sometimes I'm not," Sia guesses. "It's probably one of the only times that the squirrels aren't at work. I'm just able to be present with what's happening. And then there are the times when the squirrels are talking during, like, a song I'm singing. And then I'm thinking about the laundry. Or I'm thinking 'Oh shit, I forgot to write that fan before his gig to say that I was putting them on the guest list.' Or "Fuck, I have to remember I'm supposed to do a shout-out to Owen from Amsterdam,' you know. So there's some times when I'm thinking those things and it's, like, a learned response. But after I've been singing for a couple of weeks, I can think about anything pretty much during the singing and I still can remember to sing in tune and sing the right words. Even with the squirrels chattering."
The songwriting that Sia does not while overcome with inspiration standing in wheat fields but rather, as she says, during her essential scheduled writing appointments is something that she does with dispatch. "To me," she believes, "the important part of songwriting is just writing and getting it right and then singing it. That's the part I like." What happens when she doesn't get it right? "When it feels right," she says, "you get, like, a rush of endorphins; it releases some natural opiates. And when it's wrong, you don't get that kind of rush. You get more like an intuitive feeling of 'Danger! Danger! Bad Song! Bad Song!'." She has lately written songs with other artists, such as Christina Agullera.
"I write fast," Sia beams. "I can write a song in two hours. It doesn't mean I'm a good songwriter but what it does mean is that I can write fast and we can then lose what is shit and what is good. So I think that is why now I've become in demand as a songwriter for other artists. It's because I'm prolific. That's really what I think my gift is, that I can just write really fast, blurting out tunes, and they might not be good but the great news is that, you know, you'll get a bunch of material and you then can cherrypick the best stuff. We never leave the room empty."
Sia is squeamish about where the dramatic situations in her songs come from; initially she always believes that they are inventions of her fictional imagination however years later it dawns on her that no, they are autobiographical. "Every time a record comes out," she laughs, "people say 'What's this song about?' and I say 'It's fictional, I just made it up.' Years later, I'm like, ha-ha-ha, I'm just a liar. That totally was what was happening with me then.'" Yet as impressionable as she admits often to being about music, Sia doesn't feel a similarly when it comes to her lyrics.
"The music is just how things get enveloped, really," she thinks. And she has been and remains serious about their fictional bases. "I used to read a lot of tea-time fiction in the Reader's Digest at my grandparents' house growing up," she remembers. "It was like two-page, two-and-a-half minute fictions, where you had to weave a whole romance into that compact space. I've definitely gone through my storytelling phases."
From acid-jazz ecstasies to downbeat atmospherics to international pop; from Kate-Moss-on-the-guest-list! to Hollywood and HBO soundtrack hits to Owen in Amsterdam, Sia is a woman of phases -- all of them, as she explains them at the same time artistic as hell and satisfyingly down to earth. Certainly their vibrant combination got her to the big bold distillation of the Sia everything that is 'We Are Born'.
She laughs for about the millionth time in an hour. "They were real," Sia says of her earlier recordings. "They did happen. They were important to me. They represent real times that I went through. I just try to move out of the way and let whatever happens happen as wondrously as possible. I control nothing."