Q&A: Kate Miller-Heidke On Jerry Springer, Williamsburg Snootiness, And Getting Courage From Ben Folds


She’s sung opera, Sondheim, and Gilbert & Sullivan. She took home, with her husband, grand prize in the 2008 International Songwriting Competion for “Caught In The Crowd”—the first Australians to do so. But Brisbane-based Kate Miller-Heidke earned a most singular distinction recently—her bouncy singalong “Are You Ready?” from her soon-to-be-released album, Liberty Bell, got picked to soundtrack ads for the New York Lottery.

“I’m not exactly sure how it came about,” confesses the singer/songwriter, reached by email in Australia. “I think they wanted a song with a lyric about being ready, and ‘Are You Ready?’ fit the criteria. It’s such a simple, upbeat little song. I was touring in the UK when we found out, and I said ‘Woohoo! How much are they going to pay us for that?'” Pragmatic, that. Miller-Heidke holds forth below on Jerry Springer, learning fearlessness from Ben Folds, and New York’s surliest neighborhood.

Your impressions of the Big Apple both on and off stage?

We’ve played in New York a few times and the experience was overwhelmingly positive. The city itself was just overwhelming on our first visit. We come from the small city of Brisbane in Queensland, which some of my cynical traveler friends have described as “a great place to do laundry.” By contrast New York is like another universe. The sheer cultural diversity, pluralism and sense of possibility you find there leave you feeling very alive and inspired.

After hearing about New Yorkers being blunt and impersonal, we were surprised when nearly all of the people we met were lovely and friendly. The notable exception was a couple of surly hipsters we encountered in Williamsburg, but they were definitely the exception to the rule.

You performed in an opera about Jerry Springer! Were you aware of Jerry Springer before the opera? Do you count yourself a fan? How does his life translate to the classical idiom?

I wouldn’t say I was a fan of Jerry Springer, though he is a very smart guy. The opera/musical is sheer brilliance, and I say that without hyperbole. Of course it plays on the grotesque trashiness of the show, but it’s underpinned with great humanity and emotional complexity. I played a woman who enjoys dressing as a toddler, being smacked and soiling her diaper. It is a great role.

You almost released Liberty Bell under a different name. Ben Folds talked you out of it. What did he say to change your mind?

I’m using a completely different voice on this record, and I sound unrecognizable. I played it to my band in the tour van, and they said ‘Who is this?’ I told them it was a band from London. It was quite a thrill to play my own music to my own band, and get their honest reactions (luckily they liked it).

I toyed with the idea of releasing it under a pseudonym, or not putting it out at all, because I didn’t want to confuse or irritate my fans. Ben Folds, who is completely fearless in his creative choices, told me to stop being such a precious dickhead and put the bloody thing out. (Well, not in those terms, he is usually very polite.) I wanted it to be heard, and I’m proud of the music, so I’m taking ownership now.

Plans for the immediate future?

I will be recording a new album in October. I also have a role in The Death of Klinghoffer with the English National Opera early next year, so I have to try to get my opera chops back up. I want to slot in another trip to the US sometime soon too.