Missy Higgins On Indie 103.1

Well, not really, not until next week.

I spent all morning at the House of Blues, doing a radio show in conjunction with Sat Bisla’s Musexpo. None of the acts were bad, a couple quite good, but what I was struck by was how different these international artists were from their brethren in America. They could all play their instruments and none of their music was formulaic. It was like they’d all stopped listening to American music in the early seventies, when the Band petered out. I think each and every one of them wanted fame, but their raw desire to be famous didn’t come first, that space was reserved for the music. How did things get so screwed up in the States?

I’ve got to blame Bill Clinton, and I’m a registered Democrat, I voted for the man twice. But when the country turned right, or the mainstream media told us it turned right, he signed some questionable legislation, like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which ruined radio.

That’s right, ruined it. Radio went from a local voice to an homogenized national outlet, peppered with 22 minutes of commercials an hour to pay for the debt incurred in acquiring the stations. Radio was a Wall Street game, the music was almost irrelevant. Just take a listen, do you think these outlets program for human beings? Call-out research is employed to deliver music that offends no one, and satisfies the target demographic. Sure, radio was always about the advertisers, but there was more than lip-service to the music, now there’s not even lip-service.

What have we got in America? Top Forty, plowed into our brains by the mainstream media complicit with those with bucks, known as the major record labels, and indie artists who could never be big ever. You might like the Shins and Vampire Weekend, I don’t need to criticize them, but they would have been niche in the seventies, the system isn’t holding them back, you’re just trumpeting them to show your uniqueness, as a badge of identity. None of these Musexpo artists were shoegazers. Their music wasn’t thin. The vocals weren’t nasally. If America is so damn influential, why does the rest of the world not want this kind of music, why are they not imitating it?

It was band after band on the hot stage of the House of Blues. I was sandwiched in between Seymour Stein and a nice bloke from Channel 4 in the U.K., listening to these endless acts, commenting upon them. And you don’t see the upside in being negative. But, I’ve got to tell you, I’m not into unsigned music. Sure, it’s a thrill for the scouts of the world, that’s fine, but I want what comes through the filter, the best stuff, at the end of the day, my life is too short, I want quality.

I don’t want to go to the gig and hear a bunch of material I don’t know. I realize that’s the new paradigm. You go to the festival and SAMPLE! I’m not a grazer, I don’t want to go to the buffet, I want to sit down at the best restaurant and order something of quality. Furthermore, I can name fewer than five acts who were so great that I got them the first time through, hearing them live, not knowing the material. Hell, I’ll say one. Jackson Browne. Opening for Laura Nyro. The guy was fucking fantastic.

And speaking of Laura Nyro, even she couldn’t get on Top Forty radio in her heyday. Then again, who wanted to appear there? And, her material was featured by a whole host of acts, from the 5th Dimension to Barbra Streisand. But if you ever saw Laura Nyro live, you tingled, it was a religious experience. She appeared on stage, but she seemed to be somewhere else, a better place, one of loveliness and equanimity, that she was channeling. But not without pain, great artistry has an element of pain. Pain is truth. But we live in a society where truth is abhorrent. It’s like we’ve got a Stepford country. So when we actually experience truth, we sit up straight, we pay attention, it’s so foreign, it’s so RIGHT!

As the morning wore on, and I was getting beaten down, I told myself to hang in ’til the end, because at the very end, Missy Higgins was going to perform. At least that’s what the syllabus said. But 1 o’clock came and went and she was nowhere to be seen. The broadcast ended. Had I come all the way from Santa Monica for naught?

Then, in the corner of the stage, I saw a girl, wearing flip-flops, like a tourist stumbling in on this West Hollywood landmark. Could it be? Had to be. This was Missy Higgins.

Maybe it’s the privilege of being a star. Then again, Mariah Carey and the divas go nowhere without hair and makeup people. Their image is as important as their music. And the image they project is fake. One no woman can achieve without thousands of dollars and a desire to be static, to never move. Missy Higgins’ hair looked like she’d just gotten out of bed, she hadn’t checked her look in the mirror. She was wearing shorts on this blisteringly hot spring day.

Sat said we were going to tape Missy’s performance, for next week’s broadcast. This was incomprehensible to me, since she was the star, but there was no time left.

Then Missy sat down at the Kurzweil and said she was going to perform the first single from her latest album, she started playing "Where I Stood". And I started to melt.

I don’t know what I’ve done
Or if I like what I’ve begun
But something told me to run
And honey you know me it’s all or none

What does Mariah say? To admire her curves, to touch her body?

Well, I’m a guy. I don’t have a surgically-enhanced chest. I can’t relate. It’s so simplistic, so vapid. But love, relationships, they’re so complicated, so hard to keep together. Sometimes you lose track of what brought you together, the person is now different from who you thought they were. Do you stay or do you go? Especially if you’re twenty five, like Missy Higgins. You’ve got your whole life in front of you, you don’t want to be held back, but what if you’re making a mistake, what if you should soldier on? And how is your significant other going to feel about being abandoned?

Talent, charisma… These are qualities that register immediately. Everybody else is a wannabe. Maybe good, but not good enough.

Turns out the keyboard didn’t have a sustain pedal, and after trying to make it work to no avail, Missy gave up. She picked up the guitar and played two other songs. The second because the assembled multitude demanded it.

But she wasn’t performing for us. When her eyes were open, she was looking somewhere into the distance, above us. She was entranced, the music was coming from deep inside. And what was inside wasn’t the construction of song doctors, but an amalgamation of her experiences Down Under, where she grew up.

Seymour reflected that Missy was a superstar in her native Australia.

Here she’s an unknown. With very little chance of getting traction. She doesn’t cut Top Forty material, not of the stripe that gets played in the United States. Her music is not about rhythm, but melody. She’s a throwback, but very much of the now. It’s our country’s exposure system that’s taken a left turn, into the ditch.

And she wouldn’t win on "American Idol" either. There’s no melisma. Her voice is rich and powerful, but not enough for Randy and Simon. But Missy’s no vessel, she’s a conduit for her own material, an expression of her life.

I’m mere feet away, and I can feel it. You know the feeling. That’s the power of music, it involves you. Your mind starts to drift, you begin thinking about your own life. How did you get here? Did you make the right choices? Maybe you made mistakes, but listening to the music it’s all right, the music is exquisite, it’s an end unto itself. It doesn’t need a commercial, no video game, it’s enough by itself.

I find the music world overwhelming. It takes too much to digest the scene. There’s no one station playing the best of the best, true quality, not researched niche product. And those looking to make it are not singing from their hearts, but their wallets. They want fame. They’ll change their looks, get plastic surgery, to acquire qualities the system says you must have, but what does the public really want?

There’s all this ink about piracy, P2P, MySpace, money. But there’s no national debate on quality. Magazines and newspapers are no help, they review everything equally, they don’t raise quality above dreck, they don’t separate wheat from chaff.

Music is our most powerful, most immediate, most truthful medium. When done right. Today, in the middle of the afternoon at the House of Blues, Missy Higgins did it right. She can’t do it wrong. As long as you channel your inner truth, as long as you don’t change yourself for a theoretical market, you’ve got a chance to truly resonate with the audience, the real audience, not the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, but those buying tickets, merch, who need your music to make it through the gauntlet of this lonely, confusing world.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.