She may be small, but Sia Furler makes a lot of noise. Much to the annoyance of the other diners in this swish north-London restaurant-pub, the ambience has been shattered by her uncontrollable laughter. Undeterred, the diminutive 28-year-old Adelaide-born singer, in long johns and denim mini, breathlessly tries to complete her story of the day that she duetted with Beck.
It's a simple enough tale. Beck heard her sing in LA with the British duo Zero 7, to whose 2001 debut album Simple Things she contributed two songs, was captivated by her jazzy slurring, and asked her to duet with him the following night. As a joke, she suggested they sing "You're the One That I Want" from Grease. He liked the idea and, after a few modifications, they performed it as a "country stalker anthem".
The cause of Sia's hilarity, however, relates to the news that she wasn't his only female partner for the evening. "He told me that Beth Orton and Norah Jones were duetting with him, and that I was going last," she snorts, reliving the horror. "I thought, 'Great! No one knows who the hell I am, and I've got to go on after them!'. So I asked them to screw up a bit to give me a chance. And, kindly, they did - one messed up the key, the other the words. So, when I went on, everyone just wanted someone to sing the right words in the right key!"
Evidently, Beck was impressed - he asked her to join him for the rest his US tour, and ended up co-writing the hazy lullaby "The Bully" for Sia's second album, Colour the Small One. It's a deceptively sweet song - a cosy apology to a boy she tormented at school - that characterises the album's gentle demeanour and dark undercurrent. For all Sia's bound- less energy and outward displays of jollity, the last three years have not been her easiest.
Back in 2000, the release of Sia's strident debut single, the Prokofiev sampling "Taken for Granted", had her hailed as both the best thing to come out of Australia since Kylie, and the saviour of UK R&B (well, she does live in London...). Jo Whiley had her play live on her Radio 1 show, Trevor Nelson raved about her unique style, and the single went Top 10. Then, record-company politics caused her album, Healing Is Difficult, to be delayed by six months, by which time "everyone who had been interested in me ceased to be".
A change of management followed - she's now looked after by the team behind Robbie Williams - and following her performance with Zero 7 at the 2002 Mercury awards, she quickly signed a new record deal with the Island subsidiary Go! Beat!. But then, during the recording of Colour the Small One, Sia suffered an emotional breakdown. "I just went bananas," she says, with a flippancy that belies the severity of her condition at the time. "The inner dialogue completely took over. The day we recorded 'Breathe Me', I went home and went properly nuts: vodka, Valium, I totally lost it. That's why the vocals are so small and fragile on that track, because that's how I was feeling."
Though her career's false start no doubt contributed to her collapse, so poetically relived in "Breathe Me", and the late-night diary confessions of her first single, "Don't Bring Me Down", the cause resides further back. Through therapy, she's traced it to a long-held fear of abandonment, and the death of the man she describes as her first true love, who was run over on Kensington High Street in 1997, just one week before she was due to join him in London.
"The first album was nearly all about Dan dying. I was very gung-ho, I was going to get through it. It was a deflective album. I wasn't coping, but I didn't know it," she offers, uncharacteristically subdued. "Someone made a good point recently that perhaps Healing Is Difficult was intellectualising everything, and this album's feeling it. That might be true."
The musical sea change from Healing Is Difficult's hip-hop driven R&B to Colour the Small One's hushed laments, she credits to the influence of Zero 7's Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. "It was when I started touring with Zero 7 that I actually started listening to music properly - until then, I had only owned two albums, Jeff Buckley's Grace and a Jackson 5 Best Of - and I fell in love with it. After doing 'Distractions' and 'Destiny' on the Zero 7 album, there was a natural progression, and that's really what my latest album is."
'Colour the Small One' and 'Don't Bring Me Down' are out now; Sia plays Cargo, London, tomorrow, and Spitz, London, on 26 February
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