photo-icon Courtesy of THE ADVERTISER Library

Inspiring South Australian women: Sia Furler

People of Adelaide

Throughout the state's history, South Australia, and indeed Adelaide itself, has produced an ever-growing collection of truly inspirational women - trailblazers across politics, social reform, the arts, food, wine and so much more.

As a tribute to these pioneers, last year, historian Carolyn Collins and journalist Roy Eccleston penned the book Trailblazers - shining a light on the lives of 100 extraordinary South Australian women.

Among them is international music icon, Sia Furler. This incredibly hard working South Australian started out in high school bands before going on to work with bands including Jamiroquai and write songs for the likes of Beyonce and, or course, herself.

In this extract from Trailblazers, discover more about Sia Furler and how she became a global musical phenomenon. 

Singer, songwriter and music producer (Born 1975)

She is a soaring, swirling mix of contradictions: unconventional and childlike, yet astute; deeply self-critical, but resilient; a ‘cheesy’ pop song writer and avant-garde artist; drawn to fame but sickened by it. Sia Furler became a pop music phenomenon on the back of a powerful, versatile voice and skilful songwriting, but also competing personal traits that one moment drove her to the depths of despair and the next lifted her to superstardom.

Sia furler on roller skates ready to perform as a child in adelaide photo courtesy of loene furler

Sia Furler on roller skates, ready to perform as a child in Adelaide. Photo courtesy of Loene Furler.

Furler grew up in North Adelaide in a bohemian family. Her parents did not marry, and split up when she was young. She recalled a childhood watching arthouse films, dancing, singing and putting on plays. ‘That’s what got respect and love in my house,’ she said. ‘Entertaining.’ It was a musical family: her mother Loene Furler was an art lecturer and in bands; her father Phil Colson was a musician. That didn’t mean the Adelaide High School student would be talented. But she was, winning Outstanding Female Vocalist at the South Australian Music Awards in late 1996 for her work with local acid jazz band Crisp.

More than two decades on, and despite major setbacks in both her music and personal life, she has become one of the most lauded – and eccentric – forces in modern music, with hits like ‘Chandelier’ in 2014, with more than two billion YouTube views, and ‘Cheap Thrills’ in 2016, which made her one of few women in their 40s to have a number-one hit in the US. Her chameleon-like musical style has included jazz, hip-hop, reggae, alt-rock, trip-hop, folk, and power ballad, while her lyrics have swung from deeply personal to banal – depending, she said, on what moved her. ‘I’m very easily influenced,’ she said of her musical style.

But achieving success was a struggle, against herself and the industry she was in. Several times she was hailed as the next superstar, only to fall into obscurity again.

After her early success in Adelaide, in 1997 Furler headed to the UK, following her boyfriend, Dan Pontifex, ‘the first love of my life’. But a week before she arrived, as she had a stopover in Thailand, he was hit and killed by a taxicab on his 24th birthday.

She did well in Britain, backing funk/acid jazz/band Jamiroquai and then contributing vocals for chill-out band Zero 7. Her first album with a major label, Healing is Difficult, in 2001, was a mix of funk, hip-hop and soul and was well received by critics at the Guardian and the BBC. Although it spawned a top 10 single, she was dropped by the label. Then in 2004 came a breakthrough: the final episode of the popular US series, Six Feet Under, featured her song ‘Breathe Me’ from her album of that year, Colour The Small One.

In 2005 she moved to the United States and in 2009 she was asked by US star Christina Aguilera to write songs for her album Bionic, but none were hits. That year she met American Jonathan Daniel, who became her manager. Furler told him she wanted to be rich, but through writing songs for other people, not singing herself.

She adjusted her writing to suit pop music dictates and was soon expert at what she called ‘victim to victory’ songs – anthemic pieces with simple, repeated themes, lyrics about empowerment (that some critics called banal), and catchy beats with big hooks. The first was ‘Titanium’, which she said she wrote in under an hour, released by French DJ David Guetta, who included her vocals on a demo tape without her knowledge. It went to the top 10 in the US in 2011, and the success saw Furler suddenly pursued as a writer.

She wrote hits for other artists, including Beyoncé, Kylie Minogue and Rihanna, whose song ‘Diamonds’, with more than 7.5 million digital sales, became one of the biggest-selling songs of all time. Furler wrote with astonishing speed, although she pointed out ‘it took me 15 years to take 20 minutes’ to write a song. She added that not all her songs were hits, and it was by being prolific that she struck gold occasionally. Yet, like many artists, she was not satisfied with even her big pop hits, calling them ‘cheesy’, and describing her biggest commercial single ‘Cheap Thrills’ from This is Acting in 2016 as ‘straight fluff’. But they made her rich; the more pleasing ones, she said, she kept for herself.

While Furler had planned to give up singing, a record contract required another album. By the time 1000 Forms of Fear came out in 2014, she had stopped showing her face in performances, sometimes wore a bag in photoshoots, and used a massive wig to obscure her face. She said she was surprised when the album, boosted by avant-garde videos featuring child dancer Maddie Ziegler in a Sia-like wig, became an enormous hit. The album entered the Billboard charts at number one, and three videos featuring Ziegler were watched an estimated three billion times. Her songs featured in many films and television shows, including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Great Gatsby.

But Furler’s attempt to reclaim some anonymity backfired as the wig became a pop icon that only magnified her celebrity (and bank balance). In one six-hour advertising job for Google wearing the wig, she reportedly earned $US1million.

In 2016 she shone a light on two of her key drivers – a readiness to put herself down, and equally, a determination to pick herself up – in an article in the Guardian. She recalled how her father had, not long before the interview, shown her a tape of herself on The Have a Go Show when she was aged 11 or 12. ‘I was an average singer at best,’ she said. ‘I was a slightly overweight, spiky-fringed, rat’s-tailed 80s girl who was just showing up. That’s all I’ve ever really done to get here, just kept showing up. Even when I didn’t want to. That’s what I do. I’ve just got to show up.’

Trailblazers 100 inspiring South Australian women by Carolyn Collins, Roy Eccleston

The full story of Sia Furler, and those of 99 other inspiring South Australian women, can be found in the book:

Trailblazers by Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston - published through Wakefield Press.