Sia Furler is simultaneously the most distinctive and anonymous figure in pop. She has dozens of multimillion-selling songs to her name, but before this year, her biggest dance hits were the hooks to Flo Rida and David Guetta songs. As pop goes, that’s as anonymous as it gets. Occasionally, she’ll step out from behind the scenes to coach hopefuls on The Voice or tweet video chats with fans. But she has a lifelong aversion to the spotlight, avoiding conspicuous promotion and public schmoozing and signing a contract that says she doesn’t have to tour. She even wrote an “Anti-Fame Manifesto” this year, which reads in part: “Imagine the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character and apply it to every teenager with a computer in the entire world. Then add in all bored people, as well as people whose job it is to report on celebrities. Then, picture that creature, that force, criticizing you for an hour straight once a day, every day, day after day.”
On the cover of her new album 1000 Forms of Fear, she is faceless: The only part of her that’s visible is her trademark blonde bob. The star of the video for her solo breakthrough, “Chandelier,” isn’t her; she gave the video’s striking ragdoll choreography to Dance Moms‘ Maddie Ziegler, who’s dressed as her. On late-night TV, she’s Lena Dunham in a wig. Her writing voice is singular, a mix of Pharrell’s New Age-isms and notes cribbed from night-school self-help courses. Her literal voice is even more so — throaty and almost slurred, like syllables are mouthwash and she’s swishing them around. It can sound quirky or wounded, depending on the song, while remaining distinctive and seemingly inimitable — or at least difficult for another singer to mimic. But they do: Sia has written for artists as big as Rihanna (“Diamonds”) and Britney Spears (“Perfume”), but they all end up sounding eerily like her. Even Beyoncé, on the Furler-assisted “Pretty Hurts,” displays flashes of Sia’s unmistakable tics.
Sia often describes herself as a survivor — fame has been hard on her, and she’s spoken candidly about her addictions and suicide attempts. But she’s a survivor in another sense, having weathered multiple shifts in the music landscape. She began her career in the mid ’90s as a vocalist with Adelaide acid jazz act Crisp, after founder Jesse Flavell heard her sing and was “stopped in [his] tracks.” (It’s striking how much contemporary Top 40 radio you can hear in an obscure Australian downtempo act from 1997.) Acid jazz became trip-hop, and Sia followed that path on both her earliest solo albums as well as with Air contemporaries Zero 7. But trip-hop had an expiration date, and the legions of often-female guest vocalists the genre depended on suddenly found their careers stranded. Sia escaped that fate mostly due to serendipity; in 2005, the austere “Breathe Me” closed out the Six Feet Under finale. Nine years later, it’s still turning up on shows, from Oprah to Demi Lovato specials. It’s arguably one of two songs (the other is Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”) that dictated the aesthetic of TV syncs from then on, and it singlehandedly made Sia a striking example of how a confessional singer-songwriter might have a viable career in the ’00s.
This wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The stigma of the genre is that it’s pretty glum, and Sia quickly picked up a similar reputation. Her voice was reduced a husk of itself, so as not to overpower its backing. Ironically, the era most people knew Sia for was the one in which she sounded least like herself.
She started writing for other artists at the suggestion of her manager, who hoped to draw her out of a personal slump, and the success of this tack largely came down to two then-unlikely people: Christina Aguilera and writer/producer Greg Kurstin. Aguilera recruited Sia, along with indie dance artists like Ladytron, Le Tigre and Santigold, to write songs for her attempted 2010 comeback album Bionic. Sia’s humble balladry didn’t generate as much hype as her counterparts, but she had the distinct advantage of actually getting her songs on the record, including the single “You Lost Me.” Better yet, her contributions were by far the most acclaimed moments on a largely derided album that few people bought or liked. Sia’s approach on Bionic informed much of her writing afterward, both in its reflectiveness as well as its process — Aguilera’s one of many singers who’s described writing with Sia as “a therapy session.”
The piano ballad “You Lost Me” isn’t much of a departure from “Breathe Me,” though, and it didn’t do much to move Sia beyond territory she’d previously traveled. For that, she needed Kurstin. The former Geggy Tah instrumentalist, and later one half of indie-pop act the Bird and the Bee, had been a working songwriter since the early 2000s, and Sia was among his earliest collaborators. He wrote one song (“Death by Chocolate”) on Some People Have Real Problems, and plenty more on follow-up We Are Born (2010). Kurstin and his collaborator Inara George were among many writers brought in to brighten Sia’s sound on that album, along with Dan Carey (Hot Chip, Bat for Lashes) and Lauren Flax (CREEP). But while Carey and company kept their material safe within the confines of indiepop, Kurstin had a knack for high-contrast hooks. Later that year, he contributed the title track to Ke$ha’s Animal; later still, he found ubiquity via Kelly Clarkson (“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”), P!nk (“Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”) and Ellie Goulding (“Burn”). Fortunately for Sia, Kurstin doesn’t abandon his collaborators; he still works with his first artist, Lily Allen, and he’s all over 1000 Forms of Fear.
Like much of Sia’s previous work, Fear is shot through with wry, masochistic humor and a confessional mien. It’s a standard pop songwriting technique to play with a given image or slang phrase (a recent NYT Magazine interview describes her riffing on “polygraph”), but Sia tends to take these to unusual places: “Look at me, I’m such a basket case/ delivered to you wrapped in cellophane.” Even on lead single “Chandelier,” her melodies shy away and brood as often as they leap for the big hook. The only feature is the Weeknd, smuggled in on Hunger Games cut “Elastic Heart,” and (perhaps given the kid-friendly tie-in) he does very little of his usual lecherous routine.
If We Are Born was pop, this is hyperpop: cavernous space, percussion that hits with bullet force. Tracks like “Eye of the Needle” and “Burn the Pages” are easily the biggest-sounding she’s ever recorded, blowing the deep piano-bass hooks at which Kurstin excels to amphitheater size. Sia had already shown hints this might be the natural scale of her voice — say what you like about Guetta’s productions, but they’re at least big — and the setting lends her a swagger she’s seldom shown before. Given how much Sia’s written for other singers in the past few years, it’s hard not to mentally A&R 1000 Forms of Fear: “Hostage” is P!nk fronting a girl group. “Big Girls Cry,” which skews the cliché as well as the inspirational melody, is a little like Tori turning to pop, and the cello-driven “Fair Game” suggests there might be a fourth genre evolution in Sia yet: torch songs. Throughout the album, she weaves nimbly through percussion, curls her voice almost past the melody and rushes lyrics. Even the weaker tracks, like “Free the Animal” have little moments like this: rapid-fire call-and-response, stuttering and pitch-shifting a rolled R into something oddly similar to a Major Lazer sound effect. Lead single “Chandelier” is astonishingly canny: a vulnerable song about drinking that — in drinking-song tradition — sneaks in a nagging enough “1-2-3-drink” hook that ensures it’ll get actual party play. It’s also got a big carpe diem belt that’s about as subtle as The Phantom of the Opera. It’s also undeniable.
Whether 1000 Forms of Fear will net Sia commercial success as a solo artist is yet to be seen — (“Chandelier” broke the Top 40, but not by much). If it does, it’ll be remarkable. Other successful writers like Bonnie McKee and Ester Dean get work by cutting demos that are compatible with the singing styles of a host of different artists; Sia gets work by making everyone sing exactly like her. After Max Martin, she might be the single person who’s done the most to shape the way pop sounds in 2014 — she’s certainly the one who’s done the most for its vocals. But while her writing resumé might appeal to label execs, audiences don’t often connect with that on its own. Most of writers who successfully go solo — most recently, Ke$ha, who’d written for Britney Spears, among others — do so by developing outsize, gonzo personalities, demanding fans engage, loudly making their own case. Those who don’t, even when they’re talented, tend to struggle, as McKee and Dean have. What makes Sia’s album so good is that it’s the rare work of its ilk that succeeds on songwriting — on pop chops — alone. What’s harder to determine is whether or not that’s enough.