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How Sia Saved Herself

Before she could have a career unlike any other pop star, she had to learn how to live

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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan for Rolling Stone

Sia Furler is looking for love. This being 2018, that means using apps like Tinder and Bumble. She doesn’t use her real name, but she does post real photos of herself on the apps. Not that anyone recognizes her; although she’s scored hits like “Chandelier” (1.9 billion YouTube views and counting) and “Cheap Thrills” (which made her one of only a handful of women in their forties to have a Number One hit), she has for years obscured her face with an oversize blond wig whenever she performs. When a potential date asks what she does for a living, she’ll say she’s a writer. Eventually, she might say, “I’m actually also a pop star called Sia.”

“I went on a couple of dates, and they were nice,” says Sia, who grew up in Australia but has lived in Los Angeles for about seven years. “It was very funny, and it was great practice. I’m trying to practice intimacy. ’Cause we don’t date in Australia. We just get together.”

In the past, Sia has been trusting to a fault, jumping feet-first into love. She dated filmmaker Erik Lang for two weeks before they got engaged in 2014. Two years later, they were divorced. She’s trying to date with the same measured control she applies to her professional life. “I probably go on two or three dates before I say, ‘Hmm, I don’t think this is my person,’ ” she says. “It’s an interesting process, dating at 42.”

Most nights, Sia would just as soon be in bed by eight, watching TV with her dogs, Lick-Lick, Pantera and Cereal. She goes to 12-step meetings and hangs out with friends, most of whom she’s known since before she became a star. (I count myself among that group.) She’s made a few celebrity buddies as well, like Katy Perry, who serves as Sia’s unofficial “pop-star concierge.” “She gave me the doctor that comes to your house, the nutritionist,” Sia says. “I’ve inherited all my new pop-star ways from her.”

Stardom may not have come naturally to Sia, but she’s built a career that’s unique in modern pop. She’s a songwriter and singer in equal measure, a famous hitmaker who’s more comfortable behind the scenes. She has a huge, raw voice that creaks and breaks as if teetering on the edge of a cliff, or her sanity. She’s penned more than 100 pop songs for artists like Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Perry and Rihanna, whose “Diamonds” hit Number One. And she’s overcome more than her share of hurdles to get where she is today, including alcoholism, bipolar disorder, an autoimmune disorder and a suicide attempt (more on all that in a minute).

Today, things are pretty good. Stable. Her life no longer hangs in the balance. But years of therapy and medication and 12-step meetings have not entirely quieted the internal monologue that helped drive her to drink and drugs. What does that monologue sound like today? “Um, mostly, ‘Fat fuck, fat fuck, fat fuck. Tree trunk, tree trunk, fat fuck, fat fuck, tree trunk, tree trunk, loser, loser, fat fuck, loser, fat fuck, fat fuck.’

“I have dieted like crazy over the last 10 years,” she explains, “trying to fit into the stereotype of, like, ‘hot pop star.’ Somebody did say, ‘You don’t have to be a model. You’re actually an artist. . . . It literally doesn’t matter what you look like.’ ”

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: (Exclusive Coverage) Missy Elliott, Katy Perry and Sia attend The Creators Party, Presented by Spotify at Cicada on February 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Spotify)

Missy Elliott, Katy Perry and Sia attend a party hosted by Spotify at Cicada in Los Angeles, 2016. Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

I first met Sia early in 2011. We were both sober, both living on the same block in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. She had an effervescent personality, a sort of childlike enthusiasm that could obscure a quick wit. I assumed she was something of a has-been. She’d had a brief moment of fame years earlier, after her song “Breathe Me” was used during the finale of HBO’s Six Feet Under. But when I met her, she was living in a studio apartment with a Murphy bed and furniture she’d found on the street.

A few years later, after she co-wrote and sang “Titanium,” a hit for the French DJ David Guetta, her career surged and she bought a house in a nicer part of Echo Park. I remember standing in the kitchen as she told me her new plan: She was putting out an album, but she was never going to show her face; instead, she’d hide it behind a giant bob wig. She’d had a taste of fame and decided it wasn’t for her, didn’t want to be recognized in the supermarket. And I remember thinking, “What a dumb idea.” How could you make it as a pop star without showing your face? Weren’t there already photos of her online? Wasn’t this plan a bit . . . pretentious?

It worked better than she could have imagined. In the era of Instagram stories, where the audience has unfettered access to their favorite celebrities, her refusal to show her face felt almost transgressive. The wig, along with some extremely catchy hits, helped make Sia an icon.

In September, LSD, a supergroup she formed with Diplo and singer-producer Labrinth, will release their debut album. And Sia has also just taken on her most difficult project yet: directing her first feature film, Music, due out sometime next year. It’s a musical that stars 15-year-old Maddie Ziegler, the dancer from the “Chandelier” video, as an autistic child who comes under the care of her sober drug-dealing sister, played by Kate Hudson. It’s about finding your voice and creating your own family, two big themes in Sia’s life. She knows it’s a gamble — a massive undertaking that could be seen as a vanity project, even though it’s a story she desperately wants to tell. Part of her already regrets it. But part of her also feels like she has no choice but to take the risk. “A lot of people in my industry have to do the same things over and over because it’s what people want,” she says. “I’ve tried to work out ways to make this fun and to see what I can get away with, essentially.”

Sia hops out of an SUV in front of the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills and is greeted by her manager, her personal assistant and two production assistants. She’s suffering from a migraine, but still talks cheerfully as she breezes through the lobby. Upstairs, a production assistant leads her down a long hallway, which the crew has covered in a plastic film that pops and groans as we walk across it.

“Excuse you,” Sia says quietly.

“What?” asks the production assistant nervously.

“Oh, I was making a fart joke,” Sia says. A doctor is waiting in her dressing room to give her a shot of Tramadol — “my bum shot!” she says — for the migraine. Feeling lighter, she’s taken to meet the director.

“Do you want to know what’s going on?” he asks.

“Not really,” she says. “Just tell me what lines to learn.”

She’s filming a commercial for Google Assistant, and there are only a handful of lines plus facial expressions — or, rather, mouth expressions, since everything above will be covered by a beach-ball-size wig, half black and half blond. When Sia’s manager asked Google representatives if they wanted Sia with or without the wig, they were adamant: “Oh, it has to be with the wig,” they said. “The wig is famous!” For less than six hours of work, she tells me, the wig will make a million dollars.

There was a time when Sia wanted to be an actor. She was accepted into the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia (alumni include Cate Blanchett and Baz Luhrmann), but decided she wanted to travel instead. Her dad, Phil Colson, was a blues guitarist; her mom, Loene Furler, was an artist and teacher at the local college in Adelaide (they never married, and split when Sia was 10). Sia grew up watching arthouse movies and putting on plays, talking in funny voices, pretending to be other people, dancing and singing. “That’s what got respect and love in my house,” she says. “Entertaining.”

At 17, she got a job singing for Crisp, a sort of acid-jazz-funk band in Adelaide, her hometown. The first night she performed with them, she was terrified. Someone handed her a glass of wine, her first ever. For years afterward, she hardly went a day without a drink.

Her first love was a waiter named Dan Pontifex. The relationship lasted only a year and a half, but they remained friends, and were planning a trip to Europe in 1997 when Pontifex was killed by a hit-and-run taxicab on his 24th birthday. “It was my first big loss, you know?” she says. “So I drank a lot and did a lot of drugs with all of his grieving friends.”

LONDON - NOVEMBER 2001: Australian singer Sia Furler, of Zero 7, is pictured at 93ft East in November 2001 in London, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Sia Furler, of Zero 7, is pictured at 93ft East in November 2001 in London, England. Photo credit: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Pontifex had been living in a three-bedroom house in London with a dozen other Australians. Most had never met Sia, but welcomed her with open arms. They grieved, drank, got high, and in short order she’d moved into the house. She got a job bartending, but was fired for giving away too many drinks. She sang backup on some unreleased Jamiroquai tracks, and recorded two solo albums: 1997’s OnlySee, which sold roughly 1,200 copies, and 2001’s Healing Is Difficult. A critic for the BBC raved, “It’s not really a question of drawing parallels with other vocalists; rather that in years to come it is others that will be compared to her.” But even though the album’s lead single hit the Top 10 in the U.K., sales were middling, and she was dropped by her label.

Sia moved to the south of England, in with her alpaca-farmer boyfriend. One morning she woke up to a volley of e-mails from friends in the U.S. about “Breathe Me” being used in Six Feet Under. All of a sudden, the song was all over KCRW and other indie stations. The success was hard-earned: The night she had written “Breathe Me,” she’d tried to kill herself by washing down 22 Valium with a bottle of vodka. “Unfortunately,” she says, “you can only commit sleep on Valium — or should I say fortunately.”

Her next two albums were moderate successes, charting in the Top 40 but failing to produce hits outside Australia. And by late 2010, there was an even bigger problem to face: She still wanted to die. She was bottoming out again, drinking too much vodka, taking Xanax and OxyContin, watching too much TV, living in near-isolation. She decided to check into the hotel around the corner from her apartment and take all the pills she had. She wrote letters to the hotel manager and the maid, hoping to spare
them the trauma of finding her cold, dead body: “Please do not come in. I am dead inside. Please call an ambulance.”

Before she could leave for the hotel, her phone rang. Sia answered it and heard an old friend say, “Squiddly-diddly-doo!” That was how Sia used to answer, back when she still had a spark. “There must have been a part of me that really wanted to live,” she recalls, “because in that moment, I thought, ‘There’s a world out there and I’m not a part of it. But I might like to be.’ ” Instead of checking into the hotel, she called her dog-walker, who was sober. The next day, she went to her first 12-step meeting.

Sia is hoping to be out of the Google shoot by 9 p.m. — she’s been invited to Kanye West’s house, in Hidden Hills, for a party. But the shoot is dragging on, as they tend to. In her dressing room, she dons a white robe and sits down with her manager, Jonathan Daniel (whom everyone calls J.D.), to listen to a few tracks she recently cut with LSD. Daniel taps both feet to the first song, “Gen-ius,” a sort of back-and-forth between Sia and Labrinth, with references to Einstein and Stephen Hawking and a chorus that goes, “Only a genius could love a woman like me.”

Sia likes “Genius,” but says, “It’s still missing that amazing hook.” She turns to address Labrinth, who’s on speakerphone: “It’s shit lyrics, babe. It’s fun, but it’s shit. If you want, you could do way better. You can do better than ‘lock your heart’ or whatever.”

“I like ‘You’re the lock and I’m the key,’ ” says Labrinth.

“I agree it’s pop,” interjects Daniel.

“We did get Hawking in there,” she says. “And Galileo.”

Next they listen to what J.D. wants to be the second single, “Audio,” a slower song with a muted beat. Sia makes a vomit motion with her hands.

“It’s not your finest lyrics,” J.D. says with a smirk.

“It’s like I can’t steal any more from Grace Jones,” says Sia (who, by the way, never makes it to Kanye’s house, opting instead for her bed and the company of Lick-Lick, Pantera and Cereal).

These days, Sia doesn’t listen to pop music. Her iPhone is practically barren; all she has on iTunes is Keith Jarrett’s Köln live album, a Madness song and “The Macarena.” And she can be harshly critical of her own work. Of her biggest hit, “Cheap Thrills,” she says, “That one’s not cheesy, that’s straight fluff.”

When Sia met J.D. in 2010, she was desperate for a change — sick of touring, sick of interviews and promotion. She’d been diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder brought about, in part, by stress. “The music business was essentially killing her,” J.D. says. By then, Sia knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted to be a pop songwriter: invisible, behind the scenes and rich. “Well, do you like pop music?” asked J.D.

“I like Beyoncé,” Sia said.

Sia had written four songs for Christina Aguilera. None were hits, and subsequent attempts at songwriting went unsold. Daniel explained that most pop hits nowadays were hung on a single concept or metaphor — something precise and Googleable. Like Perry’s “Firework.”

“So, like, ‘Piggy Bank’?” Sia asked. “As in, ‘I ain’t no piggy bank.’ ”

“Exactly!” said J.D.

“Titanium,” her track for Guetta, took less than an hour. Most of the lyrics simply restated the central concept: “You shoot me down but I won’t fall. I am titanium.” It was like “Eye of the Tiger,” but for not being a doormat. When she sent the demo to Daniel, he knew instantly: “This is a hit song.” But Sia was adamant: “I’m not singing this kind of song,” she said.

In part, she was nervous about being seen as a sellout. Besides, she hated house music, and didn’t feel the lyrics were true to her perspective — she certainly didn’t feel bulletproof. Perry passed on it, thinking it was too much like “Firework.” Mary J. Blige recorded a version that went unused. Sia says she didn’t know her vocals were on the song until a fan tweeted at her, “You’re singing on the next David Guetta album?”

She was furious. “I had worked so hard to be this cool, credible artist,” she says. “And then finally, I’ve retired to just work behind the scenes, and then I’m on, like, a cheesy pop house song.” In the end, though, it was hard to stay mad. The song went double-platinum and paid for the house in Echo Park.

Several hits later, Sia usually gets 50 percent of the publishing profits for any song she writes, a deal known in the industry as an “urban split.” (As opposed to a “pop split,” where profits are split equally among the songwriters and all the producers.) A producer once asked why she deserved that kind of deal. “Because I don’t think I should have to pay for the fact that you need two people to do your job,” Sia said.

The producer replied, “But it takes you, like, 20 minutes to write and sing the song. Then I have to go away and spend two or three weeks producing it.”

“Yeah,” Sia said, “but it took me 15 years to take 20 minutes.”

Actually, she wrote “Diamonds,” Rihanna’s Number One hit, in 14 minutes. She was given a temporary instrumental track and started chanting along — singing nonsense words — and out of her mouth came the phrase “Like diamonds in the sky. . . .”

“It doesn’t feel like I’m doing it, it feels like it’s happening to me. It’s really fucking weird!” she says. In part, she has learned to trust her instincts, learned to relax the critical part of her brain long enough to channel a melody from . . . somewhere.

“I’ve never seen anyone write a melody and lyrics that fast,” says Greg Kurstin, producer for Adele and Paul McCartney, and Sia’s frequent collaborator. “She’ll sing it and write it and it happens in one motion, and then she’s revising. And then it’s one take. You’ve got to keep up with her, really.”

Sometimes, she’ll write to a backing track. Other times, she’ll just conjure up the melody, starting from the beginning and working toward the chorus. Then a producer will start working on the chords as Sia writes the lyrics, starting with the hook, which is usually a single concept from which the whole song will be hung, a metaphor or specific image: diamonds, titanium, a double rainbow. Later, she’ll shift into a less instinctual, more logical mode, filling out the rest of the song with lyrics that buttress the central concept, milking the metaphor for all it’s worth.

“I used to overanalyze my lyrics,” she says. “I really wanted to be cool.” Her pop songs, meanwhile, are almost dashed off. She says she realized at a certain point that people didn’t listen to lyrics, and as far as the hook goes, they want something empowering — “victim to victory,” she has called it. Or they wanted “fun jams.” “Usually, I’m writing from a character’s point of view,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll write one that I relate to. Those are the ones I don’t give away.”

The success of “Titanium” made Sia one of the most in-demand songwriters in the business. But she needed to put out one last album to get out of an old publishing deal. Sia said she’d do it, on the condition that she would have artistic control and do no promotion — no touring, no press, no media appearances. Sia didn’t expect much from the plan: “I thought I’d shit that album out and it wouldn’t do anything. And that I would be behind the scenes from now on.”

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 25: Sia and dancer Maddie Ziegler perform at Barclays Center on October 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Sia and dancer Maddie Ziegler perform at Barclays Center on October 25, 2016 in New York City.

And perhaps it would have gone that way, were it not for the “Chandelier” video. Co-directed by Sia, it was the first of many times she would work with choreographer Ryan Heffington and Maddie Ziegler, whom Sia first spotted on Dance Moms (Sia is a reality-TV obsessive). The video featured Ziegler, then 11, in a blond bob wig, dancing in an abandoned building, a mad, broken-doll smile on her face. It was inscrutable, like the wig, allowing the audience to project its own meaning. It was also a sensation,
becoming the 29th-most-watched music video ever on YouTube. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Sia says. “There’s no rise without the ‘Chandelier’ video,” adds Daniel. “We would’ve stopped. She was fine with not making records and just writing songs.”

Ziegler has become Sia’s recurring avatar, donning a Sia wig in videos and in live performances, and the pair have become close. “She’s like my second mom,” Ziegler says — though, she adds, “I feel like we’re the same age sometimes. Even though we’re years apart, she has qualities of a 15-year-old.”

By 2015, Sia’s profile had risen so sharply that she was invited to perform on SNL an unprecedented three times in one year, including an episode hosted by Donald Trump. After the show, she says, she was walking back to her dressing room when she heard her name. She turned to find the pudgy bronze face of our future president.

“We’ve got to get a photo!” Trump said. Lurking behind him was Ivanka, camera in hand. Sia froze. A self-described co-dependent, Sia lives in fear of hurting people’s feelings. On the other hand, she could imagine the outrage over a photo of her and Trump, arms around each other, plastering the Internet. And so she managed to meekly reply, “Actually, do you mind if we don’t? I have a lot of queer and Mexican fans, and I don’t want them to think that I support your views.”

After a beat, he said, “Oh, no problem. Then don’t.” He didn’t seem angry or hurt in the slightest.

“It was as if he viewed me as protecting my brand,” says Sia. “He respected that.

“I was like, ‘Thank you so much,’ ” she recalls, “and then I went into my dressing room and had crazy diarrhea.”

gentle rain falls onto Delfino Studios, a production lot tucked away in the foothills of L.A.’s Sylmar neighborhood. Sia is reshooting various bits and bobs for her film, Music, like a cutaway shot of a ceiling fan that they’ll do 11 different times. The crew members have decided that the ceiling fan’s ceiling doesn’t look weathered enough and did a few touch-ups with a paintbrush; now, they are literally sitting around watching paint dry. For an efficiency enthusiast like Sia, it’s maddening. “My main goal in life is to save time,” she says. “So this . . . it’s extremely confronting. It’s challenged me to be much more patient than I really am.”

At first, the film wasn’t going to be a musical. “Then I realized they’d give me loads more money if I made it a musical” — roughly $10 million more, she says, since the studio could make its money back on the soundtrack. Daniel wants to make sure it has a hit. That’s the biggest scene they’re shooting today — essentially a music video for a song Sia wrote a few weeks ago (it took her “maybe about an hour”) that will likely be the film’s ending. “Together” is a cheerful song that matches her personality much more than, say, “Chandelier.” The bridge goes, “I want love, I want to give it/I want love, please deliver it.”

The “Together” scene, to be shot in one take, features the principal characters and a half-dozen kids decked out in brightly painted jumpsuits dancing around a circle of chairs, arranged like a 12-step meeting (choreographed by Heffington, of course). It’s a long, complicated shot, a whirl of color, hugs and smiles, and if it is the ending of the film, it will be an exceedingly happy one. Sia watches the take breathlessly; it concludes with the camera panning up toward the ceiling. “Amazing,” Sia whispers. Then she shouts, “Amazing!”

Months later, the film is nearly finished. “I think it might be good,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s not exceptional yet. . . . I’m a little bit ashamed I couldn’t make it exceptional. That was my dream, to make the first movie an exceptional work. But what are you gonna do? I’m only human.”

Sia is still struggling with a handful of physical ailments — thyroid problems, neck and back pain, migraines, fatigue. She has a projector pointed at her bedroom ceiling, so she can lie in bed with her dogs and watch TV while resting her neck. I worry her work is taking its toll again. But Sia isn’t ready to stop. “I’ve set up a model where I can age,” she says. “You know, the wig never gets old.”

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