Sia: The Reluctant
Pop Star

“Everybody thinks that everyone else wants to be famous”

Upon its debut in July, Sia Furler’s 1000 Forms Of Fear became the #1 album on the Billboard 200. I can hear some of you asking, “Who? What album?” The name Sia may be new to some, or perhaps vaguely familiar to others. To a certain extent, that’s exactly how Sia wanted it. But now is a good time to start paying attention.

Sia’s presence has been felt at the top of the charts for years, articulated by the auto-tuned voices of Ke$ha, Britney Spears and many others who don’t typically write songs all that well by themselves. (Or sing them, for that matter.) But Sia was fine with being the “go-to-girl” for ghost-writing, as she had already tried the fame thing on for size. It didn’t take.

The story, in a nutshell: a bi-polar manic-depressive personality is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. She turns to alcohol and drugs to cope, then attempts to commit suicide by ordering “two of everything” from a drug dealer and locking herself in a motel room. Thankfully, suicide didn’t take either.

Now rehabilitated after committing to a twelve-step program, Sia has elevated her craft, using her abundant songwriting chops to craft massive pop hits for other artists. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard these ones before: Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You,” Katy Perry’s “Double Rainbow,” Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts,” Eminem’s “Beautiful Pain,” Britney’s “Perfume.” These are just a few of the compositions that allowed Sia a flourishing career without having to leave the house.

Hardly surprising, that last one was recently the topic of embarrassment for Britney Spears, as somehow she was caught lip syncing to Sia’s original “Perfume” vocals during one of her performances at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. The snafu was uploaded to Instagram for all to see, naturally.

Sia doesn’t fit the traditional blueprint for “pop star” the way the people she’s written for do. By pop standards, she’s “old,” currently pushing 40. Standard record label doctrine will tell you that age is fine for Madonna or Cher — women that have already had their day in the sun — but not a “new” artist like Sia. And she doesn’t have “the look” of a Katy Perry or Christina Aguilera—she’s not in incredible shape, nor does she give off the hyper-sexualized vibe of Rihanna or Beyonce. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sia has preferred ghost-writing all this time, as sad of a statement as that may be.

I first took note of Sia, the singer, on a brilliant 2006 compilation album called Exit Music: Songs With Radio Heads, which found artists such as Questlove, Mark Ronson, and RJD2 doing covers of Radiohead songs. Sia was one of the unknowns of the set, doing “Paranoid Android.” Further investigation would lead me back to some old Zero 7 CDs, realizing I’d been listening to her since 2001, completely unaware.

Previous album covers featured Sia scribbling on her own face with magic markers

Ironically Sia’s desire to stay out of the spotlight backfired after she submitted demos for “Titanium” and “Wild One” to superstar dance music producer David Guetta, finding out “on Twitter” that her versions made it on his album, despite originally being meant for Alicia Keys.

“That was not supposed to have my name on it,” she told Howard Stern of “Wild One,” back in June of this year. “‘Titanium’ was the first one I wasn’t supposed to be singing on—I wrote that for Alicia Keys—and then Mary J. Blige cut it, and then [Guetta], without telling us, he just took her vocal off and put mine back on, my demo vocal.

“Because I’m not a fan of EDM… I was thinking ‘Fuck, all of my fans are going to be like ‘What the fuck?’ And then my manager was like ‘Oh, okay, this has happened. I think it would be bad politics for us to make them take it off of the record, because they pressed all the albums, and blahty-blah’ and also, I like David. He’s so nice. How could he know that I didn’t want [to be on the record]. Everybody thinks that everyone else wants to be famous.”

Sia’s latest album went to
#1 on the Billboard 200

Guetta, who hosts a party and has released a series of accompanying compilation albums called Fuck Me, I’m Famous (there are nine volumes), addressed the evolution of “Titanium” in October of 2011. “The first time I heard what Sia did, because she was not in the studio with me, I fell in love with it… I didn’t even want to give it to anyone else; it was perfect the way it was.”

Both “Titanium” and “Wild One” became genre-defining hits of the stateside electronic dance music explosion of 2011–12, with the former being her biggest song to date, certified platinum in several countries. Despite Sia’s attempt at maintaining a low profile, fame found her anyway.

The David Guetta incident was the sort of happy accident that has led to the release of 1000 Forms Of Fear, Sia’s sixth (!) album, yet her first to land at #1 on the Billboard chart. This is her first “pop” record, as in the past she took a more indie approach, with album titles like Some People Have Real Problems, the cover featuring her scribbling on her own face with magic markers.

Sia’s recent Billboard cover: peeling away the decal reveals her face

By contrast, the cover to 1000 Forms of Fear doesn’t feature Sia’s face at all, just her most marketable feature—her blonde hair — over a black silhouette of her face. Anonymity is the angle this time around, as she recently performed on VH1’s Soundclash with her back to the audience, while various performance artists with blonde wigs lip-synced and interpreted her lyrics. She also appeared on the cover of Billboard with a brown paper bag over her head that read: “This artist is responsible for 12m track sales, has a new single on The Hunger Games soundtrack & doesn’t want to be famous.” Peeling away the decal reveals her face, a clever marketing tactic designed to address Sia’s reluctance towards being thrust into the image-centric pop music machine.

As I’m already a fan, listening to “Chandelier,” the first track on 1000 Forms Of Fear, my reaction went a bit like this: “Hmm, this song kind of sounds like Rihanna’s ‘Diamon… Oh.. damn!” The song opens with a mellow, trap-driven drum line then immediately explodes into a crescendo of vocal acrobatics. While the song, in her words, is about alcoholism, the image of Sia swinging on the chandelier is metaphorically akin to the path her career has taken. It says, very loudly, “Ladies and gentlemen, Sia has arrived.”

Sia simply being herself

Sia adapts to the varied styles of production quite naturally, taking songs in unpredictable directions, such as on “Burn The Pages,” which features her riding a roller coaster of range, taking her vocal chords up and down with what seems like the greatest of ease. Or on “Free The Animal,” which finds her launching into an unsolicited freestyle reggae breakdown. As track nine of the set, it’s clear she’s just showing off at that point.

But the meatiest cuts on the album are the sweeping, Elton John-esque, piano-driven ballads, like “Eye Of The Needle” or the bittersweet “Straight For The Knife,” both of which showcase the pain behind her voice, which tells its own story. Don’t be surprised if your eyes well up.

It’s such an impressive, top-to-bottom LP in its concise, twelve tracks, that when the final act of “Dressed In Black” begins to close it out — with a collage of Sia harmonizing over crashing pianos — when that final key is hit, you know that it’s over, and it feels too soon.

Sia’s vocal performances throughout 1000 Forms of Fear really showcase how far ahead of her competition — whether artist colleagues or check-writers — she actually is. It’s no wonder David Guetta preferred her vocals over anyone else’s, as the advantages to working with Sia are quite clear. There’s a certain vulnerability in her voice, which she allows to crack freely all over the album (in key, mind you).

Her performances are real, raw and unpolished. And they sound amazing.

In a rare moment, Sia performs facing the crowd

The triumph of Sia is that despite her hardships, ultimately her talent has superseded the shallowness of much popular music and the superficiality of fame. There is no need to create a false backstory with Sia, no need to turn her into a product. Like Adele or Amy Winehouse before her, her raw abilities and her underdog story is the marketing angle. Even Ms. Winehouse saw what the labels refused to for so many years, as Sia revealed in the Stern interview.

“[Amy] played the guitar — we were at The Chateau Marmont — and she played us an old song of mine called ‘Little Man’ on the guitar and was like ‘That’s one of my favorite songs, girl,’” Sia told Stern. “And I was like, ‘We should work together,’ and she was like, ‘no fuckin’ way, man. I’m like totally intimidated by you.’”

The fact that Sia has shunned stardom — literally turning her back on fame — seems to be cultivating the coveted mystique, an elusive quality that many artists strive for but rarely obtain (think Sade or Daft Punk). In a strange twist of fate, the ambiguity around Sia could be the factor to help make her the most famous of all.

Follow DJ Pizzo on Twitter @djpizzoHHS.
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