Debbie Kruger
Breakthrough Songwriters
July/August 2002


Debbie Kruger

The APRA Board recognises that there is a wealth of songwriting talent in the Australian composing community that is not necessarily acknowledged in any of the established award categories. So each year an emerging composer or group of composers will be acknowledged for their achievements in the past year as having literally “broken through” in terms of public awareness, public acceptance and critical acclaim.

In this inaugural year of the Breakthrough Award, it was decided to give two awards, reflecting the extraordinary breadth of rising songwriting talent in our midst.

Grant Wallis & Jennifer Waite
Just as Sheryl Crow emerged from the backing singer line-ups for Don Henley and Michael Jackson, so too Jennifer Waite was waiting in the shadows as a back-up singer for Savage Garden. Her “big fat lyric book” went everywhere with her, and when she showed some of her writing to Daniel Jones, his response was immediate.

“He said, ‘You should leave Savage Garden. You shouldn’t be doing backing singing, you should go and follow your heart and write your own stuff”,’ Waite recalls. She took his advice and teamed up with long-time friend and collaborator Grant Wallis, who had been writing since the age of 16, but with decidedly different musical leanings.

“I was learning guitar to Ramones records,” Wallis says. “Most of the stuff that I listened to when I first started out wasn’t at all melodic or leant itself to great songwriting.” He was also attracted to the sounds of Nick Cave and The Birthday Party.
“It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I started to appreciate pop music. I used to be very anti-pop; I was very snobby when it came to pop music. But since then I’ve changed, maybe matured. I started to get away from being so elitist when it came to different styles of music.”

The combination of Waite’s personal but accessible lyrics and Wallis’s guitar-based melodies translated into Aneiki. Not that the line has ever been drawn that evenly between them in terms of songwriting duties.

“With some songs Grant would bring an entirely produced piece of music to me and go, okay, now put some lyrics over it,” Waite explains. “Then with other songs, like ‘Pleased to Meet You’, I had the lyrics written basically and we sat down together with a guitar and wrote music to fit around them. And some of them have started with just one line, and I’ve let Grant and even Dan have an input into which direction the lyrics should go.”

With the demise of Savage Garden, Daniel Jones had made contact with Waite to see where she was up to with her own work. He got together with her and Wallis and decided he not only wanted to help them write, he wanted to become their publisher. A year later Aneiki has had a major hit single, recorded an album in Sweden, and won the inaugural APRA Breakthrough Songwriter award.

Having the opportunity to sit down and write with one half of the most successful Australian songwriting duo of the past decade had its obvious attractions. Relocating to the other side of the world to write with total strangers was another thing, but Jones felt certain that it was what his newly signed songwriters needed. STIM members Tommy Ekman and Christer Sandelin worked with Waite and Wallis on polishing up “Pleased to Meet You” as well as the rest of the forthcoming album, Words in Place of Objects.

“Their idea of pop music is a very pure focused radio-friendly straight down the middle pop,” says Waite. “We were coming from a different tangent, maybe having the songs a bit edgier, and we actually had quite a fight with them. And it was a fight that Daniel did predict. He said that we were going to crash heads with these guys because we were on different wavelengths, but where we did meet in the middle was actually a really good spot.

“I’ve always been a lover of pop music and I love hearing a great pop song; there’s nothing better than a really cleverly written well-structured cool clever lyric pop song. The Swedes trimmed back everything that we were doing that wasn’t important to that clean-cut great pop song vibe, and that was fantastic. The conflict with them was part of the fun of it.”

Performing pop music these days automatically means being a pop star. It didn’t sit comfortably with their mentor, Jones, and surprisingly it isn’t the most comfortable hat for Waite or Wallis, even though they certainly look the part.

“We’ve always considered ourselves as songwriters and not so much as popstars, but we realise that the other side is such a big part of it and we have to do that. We feel a lot more comfortable with the writers’ hats on,” says Wallis.

“And I think the fun bit is getting as many people as possible to hear something you’ve written and hear your thoughts and opinions on things, and getting that to as wide an audience as possible,” Waite adds. “Or performing at a gig and seeing people singing my lyrics back to me and knowing the song, it’s just amazing. If I hadn’t written the song it wouldn’t be fun for me.”

“Winning the Breakthrough Songwriter Award is more important than anything else,” Wallis states. “With having a really successful pop song like ‘Pleased to Meet You’ we did get thrown in the barrel with a lot of other acts that may not have written their own songs also. So that made us feel really good about ourselves.”

On the other hand, being in the songwriting “barrel” with Sia was a happy event. “I was really happy that we co-won with Sia as well,” Waite affirms. “I’d been listening to her album non-stop before the APRAs. It’s pretty cool that we were up there with her, too.”

Her profile is bigger in the UK than her home country of Australia, but Sia Furler, known primarily by her first name, made such a major impression on the APRA Board of Directors that acknowledgement for her songwriting was viewed as imperative.

Hip-hop, R&B, jazz and classical influences combine on her album Healing is Difficult, written in the wake of the sudden death of her boyfriend in 1997. Grief, love, and others’ attitudes to grief and love are dealt with in confrontational and confessional lyrics. From sampling Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in her hit single “Taken For Granted” to providing a reggae backdrop to “Fear,” a brutally open study on the terror of trepidation, Sia covers a range of musical styles throughout the album. On most of her songwriting she prefers to collaborate. “I don’t want to write everything just because I can,” she said in a recent interview. “Ownership is something I need to address, because I think it’s more important to create something beautiful than to own it.”
Based in London, Sia was unable to attend the APRA Music Awards to accept her Breakthrough Songwriter award personally, but in a special video message she explained that her inspiration has come from her mates and observations of the people around her. “Now I’m writing more songs about being freaked out about getting successful!” she exclaimed playfully.

“It’s nice that what I’m writing resonates with anybody else; it’s nice to know I’m not alone,” she said, adding that receiving the Breakthrough Songwriter Award was “a wonderful honour.”


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