Sia, the Power Balladist Who Wants to Party

Photo: RJ Shaughnessy

Sia Furler plops into a booth at the Landmark Coffee Shop & Pancake House. The platinum-bobbed Australian lives a few blocks away, in a Chinatown loft with her girlfriend, JD Samson of the electro-pop band Le Tigre. She has a shimmering and exuberant dance album, We Are Born, out this week, but the comfortingly nondescript location and her own pajama-like oversize oxford shirt and leggings are profoundly down to earth. She’s more Muppet than diva, as goofy and playful as the video of her new album’s first single, “Clap Your Hands.”

Sia’s best known for doleful ballads like her biggest hit, “Breathe Me” (the soundtrack for the final scene of Six Feet Under). That should change with the fat handclap beats, joyous choruses, gritty guitar licks (courtesy of the Strokes’ Nick Valensi), and unfiltered deliciousness of We Are Born. “It’s all about high kicks, the part of myself I’ve never gotten to show. If this album were a party, it’d be playing the Police, the Pretenders, Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Terence Trent d’Arby, the Bangles, Soul II Soul, and Malcolm McLaren.” The song “You’ve Changed,” already a hit in Australia, is a funky valentine to Samson, whom Sia jokes about stalking after she saw her on MySpace. (The couple, she says with typical candor, are currently “narrowing down anonymous sperm donors on”)

Her significant songwriting skills come from years of practice: four previous albums, writing hits for everyone from Zero 7 to Christina Aguilera, and simply watching how it was done back in Adelaide, where she grew up around Australian rock royalty in the heyday of New Wave. Her musician father was mates with INXS and Colin Hay, Men at Work’s front man. “My dad [Bill] played for a bit with Men at Work, but he’d push Uncle Collie out of the way to play the guitar with his teeth,” she says, giggling. “My dad is an egomaniac. There was no room for me, and I thought if I was successful like Collie, who he loved and looked up to, I’d get more attention. I could do an impression of my dad, but it would weird you out. Have you seen [Ben Kingsley] in Sexy Beast?”

Despite her early jones for success, Sia is almost pathologically afraid of fame. She says her current moderate level is “the most I could ever handle.” She finds interactions exhausting: “I get too involved with the people who come up to me—I’m a nosy Parker. Inevitably I need a lie-down.” (Granted, she has some odd fans: One in San Francisco “offered me her prosthetic leg, with a rainbow sock and a camper shoe.” Sia gave it back.) As evidence of her sensitivity, she describes a recent trip to Ikea with Samson. “Two hipsters were sitting on a couch. I thought they were looking at a dog near us, so I said, ‘Cute, right?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ ” As Sia and Samson passed, she heard them say (Sia’s tone gets snotty), “ ‘Hi, Sia! Bye, Sia!’ JD told me, ‘You can’t ever make contact with hipsters!’ ” She erupts into a peal of laughter. “But hipsters are not my demo—I’m not cool enough for them! Or maybe JD is making me cooler.”

While Samson is a downtown scenester, “I don’t really leave the house,” says Sia, which can be inconvenient when promoting an album. “I love the writing and performing, but everything in between sucks. If a transporter could send me from the bed with the dogs watching crappy TV to the stage five minutes before I go on, then immediately back to bed, I would love it.” She’s been vocal about wanting to quit the business to become, among other things, a dog therapist—something her manager wishes she’d stop saying. But a recent diagnosis of a thyroid condition has her reconsidering. “It’s a relief,” she says. “I realized I’m not lazy and I’m a nice person. Maybe,” she adds brightly, “I’m not mental!”

Sia, the Power Balladist Who Wants to Party