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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Dubai World Cup performer Sia Furler follows modern pop trend of songwriters turned pop stars

With the millennium we are witnessing a new crop of pop-stars who were songwriters first.
Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews
Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews

The enigmatic Australian singer Sia Furler leads something of a double life: a successful songwriter and high-profile pop star.

The 41-year-old, who performs at the Dubai World Cup concert at Meydan Racecourse on Saturday, became a major presence in US pop scene as a songwriter initially.

Rihanna (Diamonds), Beyoncé (Pretty Hurts) and Britney Spears (Perfume) all grace her mighty resume.

Furler was also an underrated alternative act before embracing pop.

In a way, her success follows a strong tradition of indie artists forgoing their career for a more lucrative trade as a pop music gun-for-hire.

Gregg Alexander (of New Radicals) and Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes) both famously swapped 1990s bands for background roles, from one-hit-wonders they became many hit writers.

The former wrote the 2002 Grammy Award winning song Game of Love for Santana, while Perry’s also contributed songs to big selling albums by Adele and Alicia Keys.

But with the millennium, we are witnessing a new crop of pop-stars who were songwriters first.

Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Ne-Yo all wrote for others. Ed Sheeran’s global status was greatly enhanced by working with established acts, notably One Direction and Justin Bieber.

That intriguing reversal is chiefly due to the vast teams of writers needed for today’s lengthy pop albums: there are few throwaway ‘filler’ tracks in the try-before-you-buy streaming era.

Promising new songwriting talents are also now easier to discover online and fast-track into the pop-writing business - it’s the perfect foot in the industry door.

Ironically, this broadband-led revolution is reminiscent of pop’s early days. Back in the 1960s, songwriting was a production line and a useful stepping stone for aspiring performers.

Neil Diamond worked at New York’s fabled Brill Building, and penned several hits for The Monkees including their defining 1966 anthem I’m a Believer.

While Diamond originally wrote these ditties for himself, the impressive credits soon helped him secure a deal.

Soul labels were particularly fertile talent factories.

At Stax, Isaac Hayes wrote classics for Sam and Dave (1966’s Hold On I’m Coming and 1967’s Soul Man) before embarking on an ambitious recording career.

Meanwhile at Motown, Ashford and Simpson penned hits such as 1967’s Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, then conquered disco in 1978 with Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman, but only became household names in the 1984 with their own smash, Solid.

These transitions can take time. The most successful female songwriter ever, Carole King, co-wrote countless sixties classics with her own singing career stalling by 1966.

She eventually tried again, wisely saving enough fine compositions for the 1971 album Tapestry, which also featured two ‘covers’ of her old standards: Will You Love Me Tomorrow and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman - it sold 25 million copies.

Furler took that idea further in 2015, with This is Acting, a whole album of songs rejected by other artists.

She called it ‘acting’, because those compositions were all written for specific voices. Sia’s process involves scribbling ideas on her phone, then selecting and developing them when another artist comes calling.

“I might have something called Bubble Gum,” she told Rolling Stone magazine, “and I’ll think, “Yeah, that’s not Rihanna, that’s more for a younger artist.”

Solid industry experience can clearly aid your subsequent singing career. It’s telling that Sia and Gaga each emerged complete with their own image: Gaga’s attention-grabbing outfits, Sia hiding her face completely. Such bold creative gambits are less risky when you have another career to fall back on, of course. Although a fabulous voice helps too.

Sometimes, the transition never happens. Take Elton John’s celebrated lyricist, Bernie Taupin. He made numerous attempts at performing, solo and with bands, but failed to generate much interest and eventually returned to his true calling.

Which is perfectly understandable. Why struggle on tiny stages, when you could be writing another Tiny Dancer?

Sia will perform exclusively at the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse. Tickets begin from Dh600 at store.meydan.ae

artslife@thenational.ae