There are piano riffs, and then there are the opening bars of “Scar” by Missy Higgins. The endlessly catchy first single from the singer-songwriter’s debut album Sound of White has been an Australian radio staple since 2004, when it debuted at number one on the ARIA charts. It’s probably been stuck in your head ever since.
Back in 2004, Missy Higgins had a pixie cut and a lot of feelings. The image of her passionately banging on piano keys and singing her heart out feels incredibly nostalgic, although listening to “Scar” in 2018 reveals the song to be as endearingly earnest and, to a degree, angry, as it ever was. Those coded lyrics about triangles trying to squeeze into circles still sound familiar, and still hit close to home.
Higgins no longer sports a pixie cut, and she’s has followed up Sound of White with a string of successful records, the latest, Solastalgia, out now. Even 14 years after the release of "Scar," there's still debate over what it's really about. We caught up with the iconic artist to hear the story behind one of Australian pop music's all-time staples.
Noisey: People have read a lot of meaning into “Scar”. So let’s settle this now and forever: is it a song about songwriting, or sexuality?
Missy Higgins: You got it right the first time! It’s about the music industry, about the experience of recording professionally for the first time. My label had set me up with some co-writers, and up until then I had only written songs for myself. I was really sceptical, because my songs are so personal, especially my lyrics. I went to America and I co-wrote with some people, and I felt they were trying to make me into something that I wasn’t. One co-writer was some sort of 80s German pop star—I can't remember his name. I remember him specifically trying to change my lyrics so they could be relatable to a young teenage girl. I thought that was so insulting, because he was trying to take the edginess out of it. Trying to make it palatable for a wider audience.
Do you mind that people think it’s a song about queerness?
No, not at all. I think when I wrote it I kind of knew that people would potentially read that into it. But I didn't really mind. I can't actually remember if I was in a relationship with a woman at the time or not, but it was around that stage when I was discovering that side of myself. I think it may have actually been written before I was in a relationship with a woman for the first time, so perhaps subconsciously I knew it was a part of me that I wanted to explore.
There was a lot of weird open speculation in the media at the time about your sexuality.
It was pretty awful. I think it was something that I was trying to figure out by myself at the same time. It wasn't something that I felt comfortable talking to strangers about, because all the journalists that were interviewing me were trying to get an answer out of me. And trying to use all these different angles to manipulate me into to saying something about me being with a woman. I was still really unsure at the time and trying to figure out if I had to classify myself as something, or if I was 100 percent one way or the other way. It was confusing, especially when you're in the public eye and you know it's going to be made a big deal out of. It makes it even more nerve wracking to say it publicly. I just wanted them to back off until I figured it out myself. That was hard.
You were really young when this was happening, right?
Yeah, I was about 19 or 20.
The beauty of “Scar” is that it’s such a confident song. How did you know to take a stand like that?
I think I've always had a pretty decent amount of inner confidence as far as my musical ability goes. I think at that stage I was very strong-headed about not becoming the next pop starlet that used her looks or her sexuality to sell music. I took myself very seriously as a musician, and I didn't want to be about anything but the music. Ultimately, it’s been a good thing but in the early days I had to go through a few dodgy experiences to learn those lessons.
Take me back to the moment when you were writing the song.
I ended up co-writing it with a lovely guy, Kevin Griffin, in New Orleans. New Orleans is really magical and quite slow-paced, but there's a vibrant music scene there as well. I felt really immersed in that culture and by that point I’d had these bad experiences with those previous co-writers and I think felt like I needed to get them off my chest. To be honest, I don't think Kevin knew that my lyrics were about my bad experiences with co-writing because for most of them I wrote them in my hotel room. It was kind of funny and ironic to be writing a song about hating co-writing in a co-writing situation.
That tension and anger really come through.
I think that the best songs are written when you’re feeling very strongly about something. I think that's why it's harder to write songs when you're feeling content—because the emotion isn't as strong. It's not as powerful as resentment or anger or frustration.
Did you have a sense that it would be a hit?
It was totally a surprise. I didn't have a clue what would work back in those days. I mean, I still don't. I was writing so many songs at that point too, I was just churning them out.
Did “Scar” stand out?
No, although I knew it was catchy. Actually, to be honest, I thought it was too cheesy at first. I didn't want to use the hook, I was like “Nah, let's try something else.” Then I think it was a few days later that I realised I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was reluctant at first, because it was too catchy, too obvious.
Can you remember the moment you knew it was going to be massive?
I don't remember hearing it on the radio for the first time or anything, but I do remember that I was supporting Pete Murray at the time, as the song was just sort of skyrocketing. And I was just getting so much attention—people were coming to the shows to see me support him, and just screaming when I played that song. By the end of the tour, I think my album had been released at number one and my manager came back to my tiny little backstage room with a bottle of champagne. It all happened during that support tour, and very quickly.
Who were your influences at that stage in your career?
Sarah McLachlan was one of my first big influences. I was probably listening to her when I was 15 and writing the first songs for Sound of White. And then Fiona Apple was a big influence too. I was really obsessed with Tidal. I loved Damien Rice's first album too, I remember referencing that when I got into the studio. I wanted cello, and I wanted it to be really raw and stripped back.
The Sound of White period was a really iconic time for Australian music. Did you feel part of a particular scene?
Looking back at that time, it was definitely quite acoustic and guitar-driven compared to what it is now. It's super electronic now. It was me, John Butler, The Waifs, George. And there was Jet, Eskimo Joe, and Powderfinger of course. It's interesting the way things have gone; my new album is quite a departure from that sound and that era as well, which is funny because I'm finding that I'm having a lot of trouble playing my songs acoustically. They were written electronically.
“Scar” also had a pretty memorable video. What was the filming of that like?
Yeah. We filmed it in Brisbane, in an old kind of weatherboard house. I think they'd found a prop piano somewhere. The idea was that I played this piano and it kept falling apart and then I'd stick it back together with different things, like chewing gum. It was quite fun, it was probably the first time I'd done a proper film clip before.
It was an important addition to the Vanessa Carlton-style ‘woman playing piano in a music video’ genre.
When I first started songwriting that was the reason I loved Sarah McLachlan—because there were not many female singer-songwriter piano players out there. And then all of a sudden there were heaps. Delta came onto the scene in Australia, and then there was Alicia Keys and Vanessa Carlton. Like, damn it! I should have gotten in a year earlier.
“Scar” was a huge hit to have so young. Do you ever feel resentful of its success?
I feel like I've gone through different stages of emotions with the song. In my twenties I was sometimes a bit resentful of it, because I continued to feel like it was a little bit cheesy and a little bit too obvious, and I felt like I was more than that. But it's such a cliché—almost every single artist that has a hit single thinks that it's not their best song. I've grown to appreciate it heaps more these days. It's now in this category of nostalgia. It's this piece of my past that has helped me get where I am now. Not to mention people just love it when I play it. Which is the best feeling, when you start to play a song, and everybody looks so happy. You can't be ungrateful for a song like that.
Katherine Gillespie is a New York-based writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter.