Chances are you're familiar with the work of Sia. Even if you haven't knowingly heard any of the songs from her five previous studio albums, you've likely heard her plaintive voice soundtracking TV shows such as Grey's Anatomy or Six Feet Under. Perhaps if you don't have a TV you will still have heard her work via songs she's written for the likes of Beyoncé ("Pretty Hurts"), Rihanna ("Diamonds") or Britney Spears ("Perfume"). If you can't quite picture her then that's even better because Sia doesn't want to be famous. If Mariah hadn't already stolen that particular title, we'd call her The Elusive Chanteuse. Despite showing her face in videos and press shots in the past, she's decided not to for the campaign for her forthcoming album 1000 Forms Of Fear, choosing instead to focus her energies onto creating slices of visual art via her videos.
Premiered earlier this month, the video for first single “Chandelier” features 11-year-old reality TV star and dancer Maddie Ziegler sporting a blonde bob wig and channeling the song's unhinged despair via the medium of modern dance. Earlier this week, Sia and Maddie recreated the video on Ellen (below), this time with Sia performing the song stood at the back facing the wall, creating possibly the first example of proper performance art on mainstream US daytime television. While interviews with Sia are scarce, she agreed to speak to Dazed about how the video and Ellen performance came about, how she wants her bob to become her trademark and how reality TV influences the massive pop hits she writes for other people.
The “Chandelier” video doesn't look like anything else around at the moment. Was that your intention?
I'm addicted to reality television and it finally paid off because I had been watching Maddie for years and I'd always been drawn to her – she has something very magical and otherworldly. She's like a regular 11-year-old kid and then when she starts dancing it becomes a whole other beast. I'd been waiting for an opportunity to work with her and then I saw (choreographer) Ryan Heffington's show, KTCHN, and it was so mind-blowing. I'd seen photos of it on Instagram and was like 'what the fuck is this, it looks really interesting', so finally someone randomly invited me. I'd been Googling this show for ages and I couldn't find it, it's like this weird secret. So I went and it was so outstanding I immediately approached Ryan about executive producing that show and taking it to New York. It's very special art; performance art and dancing and general weirdness that I hadn't seen in ages. So anyway, we had discussions about that and then it was time to make a video for Chandelier. I've directed videos before and they were okay. Daniel (Askill, the director) and I had actually made my first video “Breathe Me” together.
“Basically I plan to put different people in blonde bobs, because the concept now is to create visual art”
What do you enjoy about working with him?
Sia: Daniel's the technical genius behind things for me. I have a vision and then he helps me with all of the camera lenses and that sort of stuff. I'd said to him that I wanted to get Maddie and that I wanted to get Ryan to choreograph it. My fantasy basically at the beginning of this process was to marry reality television with Nordic arthouse cinema.
That's the perfect description!
Sia: I just couldn't have done it without Daniel. He makes things look expensive (laughs). He helped me to simplify so that I can really use a budget to create a high production value so it looks expensive. Next stop was we started looking for the location. We had five locations to scout and we got to the first one and I was like 'cancel everything else, this is it'. It was destined; everything was coming together and the whole collaboration was beautiful. Everyone was just loving it and loving each other. Then the next step was my sponsee – because I'm sober – who is an incredible artist. She's like a 21-year-old fucking genius. So I asked her if she would bring all of her art to the set and then we dressed the set just sparingly with her art and it was beautiful. Maddie learnt the routine in two hours the day before with Ryan. I'd just tweak little things; she needed hardly any direction at all. The whole crew were amazing and we even got letters from the crew members afterwards. There was one letter from the producer who said 'I've never been so unprofessional to write a letter to the director but I want to say that I've been doing this for fifteen years now and you reminded me why I do this'. We had a feeling it was big. I flew Daniel and his little brother out to Palm Springs and my pad and we edited it by the pool for a couple of hours (laughs). Daniel and I found this really beautiful balance. He really helped me bring things to life and temper my very ambitious ideas so that we could achieve an expensive-looking product. I'm so proud of it.
Who or what does Maddie represent in the video?
Sia: Well that's not really what I was doing when I conceptualised. I already have a much larger concept for this album and for how I'm going to present it and that was: I don't want to be famous. If Amy Winehouse was a beehive then I guess I’m a blonde bob. I thought 'well if that's my brand, how can I avoid having to use my face to sell something', so my intention was to create a blonde bob brand. Throughout this whole thing I'll put a different person in a blonde bob and either they lip-synch while I'm doing a live performance or they perform a dance or do some sort of performance while I have my back to the audience, as with Ellen. I recently recorded a bunch of stuff for VH1 where a 78-year-old woman wears the blonde bob and is lip-synching on a treadmill. Then there's a black boy that Ryan choreographed a dance for, who's not a dancer, and he's in the blonde bob. Basically I plan to put different people in blonde bobs because the concept now is to create visual art. I know I can sing and I know I can write songs but this is my time to create visual art. Directing all these live performances is really exciting now.
“If you look back to any of my more poppy songs, most of the lyrics are about being fucked”
The Ellen performance was like a piece of modern art, with you sort of present and absent at the same time. Do you feel proud you got something like that on mainstream TV in America?
Sia: Absolutely. They were so supportive too. I just said 'I want to build this set in your studio, I want to bring Maddie out'. It was exciting for her because she's on a mainstream TV show too. Ellen was super amazing about it and the crew were so wild. I know that at the beginning of the day they were overwhelmed by my vision and were scared they wouldn't be able to pull it together in the time frame that we had. But by the end of the day everyone was so excited to be a part of something that was a little bit different. The day before in rehearsals Ryan asked if I wanted Maddie to interact with me and I was like 'what an excellent idea', so he had her climbing up my back and doing the little curtsey. It's a real collaboration. I'm directing the live things alone, but with the videos I plan to always bring Daniel with me because I need that kind of support.
There's a strange juxtaposition in having a child interpreting the lyrics to a bleak song. Why did you want to show it in that way?
Sia: I guess I've always done that. Historically if you look at the majority of the videos I've had a hand in, like “Buttons” (below) had this poppy fun vibe with the disturbing facial manipulation. I don't know, I thought it would be fucking cool basically to have this little representative, this little dynamo. I wanted to put all different types of people under those wigs and she's an amazing beginning. It's not a representation of a little me though. There was something in The Guardian about my parents neglecting me and being drug addicts and I was like 'yeah, my dad liked to party but I wasn't horribly neglected and they weren't drug addicts'. I'm the drug addict in the family!
So did you give guidance as to how you wanted Maddie to act?
Sia: There was this period right before I hit bottom and got sober that I wanted in there and so when Ryan was asking me what I wanted from Maddie I said I wanted her to be like on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I thought it would be really fucking cool to have this little child imparting this adult experience. Then, if you watch the video closely, you'll see a painting my godfather did of me right before I got sober where I was just like absolutely fucked. I sent him a photo of me one morning and at the time – this is how disturbed I was – I thought it was funny that I'd woken up with messy hair and had my mouth guard in from grinding my teeth, and now when I look at that it's a grand reminder to never go back. So I put that in there because a lot of the art in my videos is my art that I own and my sponsee's bits and pieces.
If you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics it seems almost like a party song, but the video and the Ellen performance sort of make it clear it definitely isn't.
Sia: It's about the desperation of the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings. If you look back to any of my more poppy songs, most of the lyrics are about being fucked (laughs).
The ones you write for other people obviously aren't like that though, are they?
Sia: No. When I write promotionally, I guess I give away the ones I'm less connected to. This one I wrote intending to write a pop song for someone else and then literally I was like 'uh-oh, I've just written a pop song for me'. I'm acting a lot when I'm writing for other people. I feel like I slip into a role and obviously I can write from past experiences, but as I said earlier I'm addicted to television. I love TV and I love movies and I pull so much content from the drama in all of those mediums and put them into songs.
Where can I get my Sia wig from?
Sia: Oh they're about to go on sale on my website (laughs). I think they go live in about a week.
When you come to the UK can I be onstage wearing one?
Sia: Oh my god, yes please. Seriously it's so fun. We had a hundred people in them in the audience for the VH1 thing I just shot. I've got someone who I can't talk about but is super special doing Seth Myers with me on June 9. She's the best person on the planet at this point in terms of successful women.