Left – Missy Higgins. Photo – Cybele Malinowski
She skips onto the stage, offers long rambling introductions to her songs as if chatting over coffee, mucks about doing ballet dance leaps, dedicates songs to her mum and forgets which key to play in. Missy Higgins is probably the antithesis of a diva superstar.
But as she starts to belt out her familiar melodies, singing stories of love and loss and heart-felt need, the petite young woman in the spotlight holds the whole audience in her thrall.
Opening her Melbourne show, she said having with so many friends and family in the audience had given her “more butterflies than usual” but, even performing for the first time with about 60 members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra behind her – as well as her four-person backing band – she seems unfazed and in complete control. But then she has already played with the local symphony orchestras in Sydney and Brisbane as part of this tour, with only Perth and Adelaide to go.
But yes, after introducing the song Red Moon from her latest album – a song inspired by her “end of the world obsession” and new view of life having just brought a child into the world – she genuinely forgot which key to start in but still managed to keep her cool and joke about guidance from ‘God’ via her earpiece instructions. The audience loved her all the more for it.
The upfront, unassuming girl-next-door, has been gradually winning Australia’s hearts since 2001, when she won ABC radio Triple J’s Unearthed talent hunt with a song she wrote for a school assignment.
With a power-packing, crystal-clear voice, an ear for making memorable melodies and a talent for storytelling, Melissa ‘Missy’ Higgins was born to be a musician. Her gift for connecting with an audience via a sense of fun and honesty takes her gigs to another level of intimacy and showmanship.
Mixing up her award-winning hits with new material and songs from her album Oz, which comprises covers of classics by other Australian singer-songwriters, Higgins also alternated between playing with full orchestral backing and pieces played purely with her band.
The band alone – keyboard, lead and bass guitar and drums, with Higgins alternating between guitar, ukulele and keyboard – can pack a decent punch on its own, but those songs picked for full orchestra are lifted to a whole new level.
The dramatic build up of strings and horns for her cover of the Drones’ Shark Fin Blues was superb, and was one of many pieces complemented with projected images – in this case sea and sky – onto backdrop curtains.
Another gorgeous opening to Everyone’s Waiting employs horn and harp in perfect harmony, while Sweet Arms of a Tune removed bass and drums and instead features the gentle percussion of cellos playing pizzicato.
But a particular highlight was the dramatic Oh Canada – Higgins’ heartbreaking piece evoked by the story of Syrian refugee Abdullah Kurdi, the sole survivor after his family drowned at sea and whose three-year-old son Alan was famously photographed washed ashore on a Turkish beach. Introducing the piece, Higgins admits to “feeling broken” by the image and received warm applause for her comments of empathy with those fleeing war. It is played without orchestra but one of the strongest pieces in her powerful repertoire.
Much of her strength comes from knowing how to use dynamics, creating drama with a building swell of emotion, then fading to a quiet vulnerability that would draw empathy from the hardest of souls.
It oozes out of Warm Whispers and The Special Two, and is the solid strength even in boppier hits such as Scar, which she said had her “husband dancing around like a teenage girl”.
Standout covers included the Angels No Secrets and Kylie’s Confide in Me, which with full orchestra sounds like a perfect movie title piece – especially as it was played directly after Run So Fast, a piece Higgins introduced as ”written for a movie but it was never in that movie”. For the latter, she calls her support act Ben Abrahams back on stage for a duet; he has a complementary melodic voice and came alive on stage with Higgins in a way that didn’t happen when playing solo.
While Higgins admits to being more attracted to the dark side of life and minor keys – even her ode to her young son Sammy is tinged with fear and trepidation – she purposefully ends the night on a positive note, with Scar, followed by Perry Keyes’ New Year’s Eve and then Steer, telling the packed house of fans to “follow that voice inside you” and “do what makes you happy”.
For more than a few, that probably involves listening to Missy Higgins.
Frontier Touring presents
Missy Higgins and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
With Special Guest Ben Abraham
Venue: Plenary, Melbourne and Exhibition Convention Centre
Date: 27 November 2016
Tickets: $91.50 – $152.67
3 December | Kings Park Perth
with The West Australian Symphony Orchestra (special guests George)
10 December | Bird in Hand Winery Adelaide
with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra