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Sia: A Powerhouse of Vocal Elasticity

In this article, I explore 10 songs that depict how I have understood the development of Sia’s voice and music. The lyrics and themes of each songs are briefly analyzed, and some aspects of my life experience are intertwined in the discussion.

Sia has a large catalogue of music, including a plethora of collaborations, contributions to soundtracks, and songs she’s penned for other artists, so this is really a minute sampling of her work, which spans from her days in Zero7 to her work with LSD.

My Introduction to Sia: “Destiny”

In the winter of 2002, I was 13 years old. I lived in northwest Indiana in a labyrinth of suburbs surrounded by flat, empty land, chain restaurants, and strip malls. In early January, just after Christmas, my mom went to Costa Rica for a short solitary vacation. When she returned, the first thing she told me about was Sia’s voice, although at the time, she didn’t know her name.

One morning during her trip, as she sunbathed near a large swimming pool, a cloud of mellifluous, intoxicating sound drifted across the water to her. A gentle voice confessed, then declared:

When I’m weak, I draw strength from you. And when you’re lost, I know how to change your mood. And when I’m down, you breathe life over me. Even though we’re miles apart, we are each other’s destiny…

Being a fearless socialite, my mom immediately stomped over to the owner of the portable stereo that generated the intriguing music. The person playing the music happened to be in charge of public relations for a musical duo called Zero7. They chatted with my mom, gave her a copy of Zero7’s debut album, Simple Things, and told her that the song that caught her attention was called “Destiny.”

When my mom returned to the States, the album wasn’t even available here; you couldn’t even purchase it online. So, I borrowed (read: stole) the album from my mom and listened to it for years. But one morning, right before I filched the album, I walked into the kitchen to find my mom reading through the liner notes of the album. She furrowed her brow and said, “I think her name is Sia.” “Whose name?” I asked. She handed me the booklet. “See? Sia. The singer. Sia Furler.”

This was where my love for Sia’s voice began.

“Somersault”

This song has always been one of my favorites from Sia’s Zero7 era, taken from their second album, When it Falls. (I even performed this at a high school pops concert when I was 17. I played the backing keyboard chords as my friend sang the lead vocal.) It’s a playful song about being in love and feeling inspired, awed, and calmed by your lover.

“Somersault” exists in a dreamy, serene world, and like “Destiny,” ends with a long instrumental outro. These extended endings provide the listener with space to sit for a while, maybe by a pool, maybe by the ocean, and take in the sensation of the sunlight on skin, the sound of the waves, the sand on our feet, perhaps in the shared company of someone we love.

In this song, there is no rush, nowhere to go. Sia is flirty and relaxed; her vocal performance is precise, yet effortless.

“Don’t Bring me Down”

Colour the Small One was Sia’s first solo album since Healing is Difficult, and in terms of tone, is much more somber, and at times darker, than any of her work with Zero7. The album utilizes piano, marimba, strings, and guitars, in addition to beats, drums, and keyboards. If Sia’s songs on Zero7 were dreamy, light, and even playful (especially on tracks like “Waiting to Die” and “Pageant of the Bizarre” from The Garden), Colour the Small One is moody, melancholic, and introspective; it is blue.

Although the song “Breathe Me” was this album’s most commercially successful song, for me, the song “Don’t Bring me Down” most accurately captures the essence of this album. It is soft, downcast, and quietly desperate. It is a muted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to repress and push away feelings of sadness and despair.

The lyrics read as if the singer believes they have some self-agency, but the tone of voice, music, and the production emphasize the reality that the person has, in fact, already fallen into despair:

I’m going down, I don’t wanna change. I’m going down, going down the drain.

The words, as well as the music, paint the portrait of a person who has rested, if only for a moment, in a state of contentment. Then, a shadow passes over their eyes. They know the feeling is coming back. They are powerless to fight it, they’ve already lost the battle. Even in the final lyrics of the song, Sia is still conflicted:

There’s nothing left to choose. And so I fight a war in my head. Stay the night. Protect me.

“Little Black Sandals”

The brief opening drum roll of “Little Black Sandals” is the sound of being woken up from the blue sadness and solitary introspection of Colour the Small One. Although the themes of Some People Have Real Problems revolve around addiction, death, neglect, and relational conflict, the production and arrangements on this album are more energetic, creative, and often playful in comparison to Sia’s previous album. The backing band also feels much more present on this album, as if Sia is singing with the band rather than over the band.

This song tells the story of a someone running away from a Big Bad Man, a Golden Giant Man who stalks the singer. He could be an abusive lover, a drug dealer, or the personification of an addiction. To me, this is a song about walking away, but only after hitting rock bottom. It starts and ends with feet, the physical movement of putting one foot after the other and the metaphorical movement of leaving a situation or a relationship behind.

The lyrics evoke the sensation of freedom that arises after having made the decision to choose life over death. Sia sings:

These little black sandals are walking me away. These little black sandals are heading the right way. These little black sandals are walking me away. These little black sandals saved my life today.

Sia’s voice gradually builds until she fully releases it at the end of the song, riffing over the chorus, expressing wordless joy, celebrating her self-liberation.

Side note: I was privileged enough to see Sia perform live during this tour. I can still remember her standing several feet from the microphone. Her voice was so powerful that she had to stand at least two or three feet away from it, otherwise her voice would have distorted and possibly even destroyed the speaker system.

“The Co-Dependent”

Sia’s next album We Are Born is significantly more adventurous and upbeat in comparison with Some People Have Real Problems, yet the content feels explicitly autobiographical, even confessional, particularly in the song, “Oh, Father,” and the track I’ve chosen for this list, “The Co-Dependent.”

Codependency has been defined in many ways, but in metaphorical terms, the codependent person has given their heart (and perhaps their mind) away. Their heart belongs to their addicted lover, to the boss they fear, or to a demanding professor. Really, their heart belongs to everyone else. Therefore, their happiness is dependent on whether everyone else is happy. There is no real self-agency.

For me, this is what it felt like to have an alcoholic parent. My needs did not exist; I did not know what they were because my sense of self and my experience of the world was completely dependent on someone else’s sobriety and psychological stability. Sia sings:

I’m gonna watch you drink it all. I’m gonna watch you fall. You’ll find me by your side, if you find me at all.

This song beautifully captures the reality of codependent relational dynamics in a way that is honest, yet compassionate; it is truthful without being judgmental. Toward the end of the song, several layers of Sia’s vocals demonstrate one of my favorite things about Sia’s voice: her ability to build up and evoke such intense yet playful emotions by simply singing “Da da dah!” over and over again.

“Chandelier”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of “Chandelier” in Sia’s career. It was commercially successful worldwide, has over 2.4 billion views on YouTube, more than 1 billion streams on Spotify, and was featured on several television shows, ranging from Transparent to American Dad. In addition to the raw, sometimes overwhelming, emotional power of the vocal performance, I imagine its success also resulted from how relatable it is. People all over the world clearly resonated with a song that is explicitly about substance abuse and self destructive behavior, which, in a sense, demonstrates the universality of these issues.

At bottom, this song is a confrontation with self-destructive, suicidal behavior. It’s about life and death. The singer’s perspective oscillates between disembodied flights of mania and painful collisions with reality. Alcohol and other addictive substances may temporarily free us from intolerable thoughts, memories, and emotions, but they eventually wear off, and we are left with the painful, inescapable immediacy of our bodily experience, as well as the choices we’ve made, and the consequences of those choices.

The lyric “Keep my glass full until morning light” speaks to the obsessive need to deny reality. In other words, “Keep me drunk and distracted so I don’t have to think about myself, my life, or how I really feel about it.” Some emotions are so painful, so utterly unbearable, that we would rather numb ourselves than experience them. But if we don’t consciously engage with these feelings and reach out for support, the situation will only worsen.

In the words of Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, “Every addict knows that death is the end of the addiction.”[1] That is, if you carry out self-destructive behaviors through to their extreme end, they culminate in death. In the context of the song, we are left wondering what happens to the storyteller. Her last words are, “I’m just holding on for tonight.”  The singer is left hanging from the edge of a cliff, which is where the song leaves us at its conclusion.

“Alive”

On This is Acting, Sia released several songs that were originally written with other singers in mind, and although I think this worked against any sense of cohesion on this album, it still has some solid songs.

To me, “Alive” is sung by the person who survived “Chandelier.” You could say it’s Sia, but you could also say it’s Sia’s soul, or something within her that is shared by all of us: the potential to choose life, to celebrate being alive after having weathered a storm of life-threatening proportions.

This is Sia not only unleashed but thriving, singing with her entire body, her voice radiating through her  musculature, declaring, praising, screaming: “I’m alive.”

“The Greatest”

The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida in 2016 was devastating for all, but especially those in the LGBTQIA+ community. At the time of this shooting, I was working at a gay nightclub in Chicago, so it was a particularly frightening experience to witness, even from a distance. I remember thinking, “That could’ve been us.” Soon after the event, Sia released the music video for “The Greatest.” The first time I saw the video, my skin erupted in chills, and as it ended, I was crying with dancer Maddie Ziegler, whose tears melted into the rainbow streaks on her face.

It is a song (and music video) about death, grief, and perseverance. This song is a beautiful example of the power of music to transmute and transform horror into melody and heart-pounding panic into rhythm. If you read the lyrics without the music, they are quite grim, but with the addition of the vocals, beats, and in the case of the video, dancers, it infuses them with life and the possibility of moving forward.

The public recognition of the effects of this massacre, even in the form of a music video, helped many people initiate the process of grieving. It gave them a place to start, and I imagine it continues to do so.

“Underneath the Christmas Lights”

In 2017, I was completely unaware that Sia was about to take a seasonal detour and release an album called Everyday is Christmas. And honestly, I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.

I chose the song, “Underneath the Christmas Lights” because, for me, it exemplifies the truest feeling of Christmas. Growing up in a Midwestern family that was Christian on paper but not in practice, our focus during the Christmas season was largely on the trees, the lights, the decorations, and of course, the presents. As Christmas neared, we’d drive around town and admire the houses intricately wrapped in Christmas lights, “Ooh-ing” and “Ahh-ing” from the car. It always felt like the glow emanating from the Christmas lights was contagious; their electric light lit up something within me, they warmed me up, just by looking at them. That was how it felt when I was young, and sometimes when I listen to this song, it still does.

Sia’s voice is calm and sweet here, but still maintains its characteristic confidence and sense of conviction. The upper register of her voice truly shines during the pre-chorus, like fresh snow sparkling in the morning sun.

“Thunderclouds”

In a sense, LSD, which consisted of Labrinth, Sia, and Diplo, felt like a return to Sia’s collaborative roots, like Crisp or Zero7, except with more vocal presence and more command in the creative process. The song, “Thunderclouds,” (and its fantastical music video) reminds us that even when we feel we’ve lost our love for someone, it’s still there, perhaps hidden behind the clouds. We might say hateful things, the house might be burning down, but, as Labrinth and Sia sing:

Here in the ashes, your soul cries out. But don’t be afraid of these thunderclouds

When I listen to this lyric, I imagine the soul is crying out “Don’t be afraid,” because the soul grows from these experiences; it is forged from conflict, struggle, and even trauma.

Sia is at her most powerful in the final pre-chorus and in her outro vocalizations, which were subsequently sampled and used throughout the song. These vocalizations come from the depth of her being: she sings with her entire body, pulling breath from the earth up through her feet, singing into the sky.

In a sense, her character in this song is like the grounded, healed version of the singer in “Chandelier,” or the lost, desperate character of “Don’t Bring Me Down,” who was powerless to change her fate. By the time we reach “Thunderclouds,” she can freely traverse the sky, even if it is filled with storm clouds.

Early on in her career, Sia sang to survive, but after nearing the edge of death, she chose life, and in persevering, radically strengthened her voice (and, I imagine, her sense of self). Scars might remain, but the wounds have healed. She is now free to sing in celebration of herself and of life itself, in all its chaos, silliness, pain, and love.

References

1.Crumley, R. (Producer) & Greydon Reid, A. (Director). (2009). Dancing in the flames. Canada: Capri Films.

Written by Daniel Siuba

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