January 28th saw Kate Miller-Heidke playing at the Plenary alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The performance follows from her much-applauded concert at last year’s MOFO festival with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and marks the beginning of a national orchestral tour. The music was beautifully and simply arranged by Iain Grandage and conducted by Benjamin Northey. Australian filmmaker Amy Gebhardt provided hypnotic visuals and Miller-Heidke’s partner, guitarist Keir Nuttall, accompanied her where the orchestra couldn’t.
The one-night-only performance saw Miller-Heidke perform pop hits from her new album The Best of Kate Miller-Heidke: Act One and included two from her award-winning opera The Rabbits (based on a picture book by John Marsden and Shuan Tan). Her range was truly impressive; a classically trained singer, Miller-Heidke gave the audience the soaring soprano they were waiting for, as well as growls, screams, trills and whispers. It was an incredibly well rounded performance: full of both drama and explorations into the banality of everyday life.
Indeed, one of Miller-Heidke’s great talents is taking those small, kinda bland moments and elevating them into something powerful. In ‘Mama’, for example, she uses repetitive off key chords, mercilessly hammered into her keyboard while she belts out her gripes and desperation’s to her parents – universally relatable and full of discord and frenetic energy. ‘Are you Fucking Kidding Me’ is another example of this: a story about waking up to see your ex has sent you a friend request on Facebook, it’s filled with the pathos of heartbreak and hilarity (And I don’t give a shit what your stripper name is/ Or if your Kitty had a litter/ Look, just follow me on twitter./ I don’t care about your family tree/ And I certainly don’t want you poking me, again.)
She is political too, unafraid to make her own social commentary. She tirades against male chauvinism in ‘You’ve Underestimated me Dude’, a badass ballad about coming face to face with masculine arrogance, interspersed with operatic shrieks that ring like war cries. In the two songs from The Rabbits, ‘Where’ and ‘My Sky’, she highlights the tragedy of colonialism, the orchestra behind her providing extra weight to her words. ‘My Sky’ was particularly impressive, the vocals seeming to mimic Australian native birds while the orchestra became the sound of the wind in the eucalyptus and the gathering clouds: an impending doom looming on the horizon.
Nuttall’s acoustic guitar accompaniment provides solo backing for half the program and he plays with a mixture of joy and gravitas that you can feel in your chest. His fierce strumming in ‘Humiliation’ in particular is dizzying. The orchestra, of course, is transcendent, soaring and swooping as it translates Miller-Heidke’s pop melodies into perfect orchestral covers. Offbeat humour and impeccable comic timing add levity to a performance full of sighs and swells, swooning anthems and poignant self-awareness.