‘Oh, you’re f***ed’: Sia on being suicidal and adopting
Twenty minutes. A mere 1,200 seconds. That's how long Sia remembers it took Maddie Ziegler to learn the now iconic four-minute choreography to her 2014 hit song Chandelier, a routine that irrevocably changed both their lives. At the time, the two had little or no expectations that the film clip was going to explode the way it did. Ziegler, then an 11-year-old prodigy from reality TV show Dance Moms, had flown to the west coast from her home in Pittsburgh for the job after Sia (a fan of the show) reached out via Twitter.
"It was completely insane, especially for a whole new language of dance for her. I couldn't believe how professional, sweet, grounded and talented she was," remembers Sia of the young dancer who they filmed flinging around in what appeared to be a dilapidated apartment wearing a white-blonde wig and dirty nude leotard.
But Sia jokes she's been told she has a gift for curating things ("Even people for dinner parties and stuff"). Her high-octane chorus matched with erratic choreography from Ryan Heffington and the choice to use Ziegler - who until that point was the epitome of all-American wholesomeness - for a song about partying and alcoholism, was gold dust.
"I thought it would be really interesting to pair [Maddie] with Ryan's really super-refined modern dance choreography, my pop song and my direction of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown," she says of the calculated choice. "I feel grateful that I took the chance on throwing that whole thing together, the actual mishmash of what you wouldn't ordinarily [see]."
Six years on the video has been viewed more than 2.2 billion times on YouTube - the equivalent of nearly a third of the world's population clicking to watch. The song catapulted Sia to a whole new stratosphere of success in the US and also marked the beginning of a mentorship with Ziegler, who recently celebrated her 18th birthday.
Despite their difference in age and background, (Sia's originally an Adelaide girl, after all), she concludes: "I think that's just the universe's will that we were supposed to be in each other's lives."
The young dancer has since become a visual moniker for the Australian pop star, rendering her the 'invisible singer' by donning matching wigs on the red carpet, dancing alongside her on The Ellen Show and Saturday Night Live appearances and starring in subsequent film clips Elastic Heart, The Greatest and Cheap Thrills, among others. The pair's latest project, a film Sia both wrote and directed and starring Ziegler in the title role, is the reason for this cover shoot with Vogue and also her first fashion shoot in five long years.
Speaking via Zoom propped up in her bed in Palm Springs (a place where Sia jokes all her important business calls and meetings take place), it's the day before her scheduled shoot with Nicola Formichetti, more commonly known as Lady Gaga's stylist. The 44-year-old is coming out of hibernation for good reason. Helming not only a film but also a musical - and one titled Music at that - she says is her boldest creation to date.
"It's the scariest thing I've ever done. Much scarier than putting out music or playing a tiny role on a TV show as a cameo or whatever … because it all fell back on me," she explains. "There were times where I thought: 'Oh, I'm going to put this movie back on the shelf and no one will know I ever tried.' But I'm so glad that we just tried more and never gave up and finally we found its rhythm."
The idea of Sia directing a film isn't entirely unexpected. She co-directed Chandelier with fellow Aussie Daniel Askill and had a hand in crafting all her film clips since. But, she says: "I didn't know if I was really a director or whether I was a singer with good ideas and he was just letting me co-direct because it was some sort of vanity thing. I was afraid. Although I felt like I could direct, I still had my doubts, like 'what if I blow it?' I'd had this story for such a long time …"
When Sia says Music was a long time coming, she's not exaggerating. It's been more than a decade since she first came up with the premise and almost four years since it was filmed on the streets of LA. At its heart, it's about an autistic teenager - named Music - who finds herself being cared for by her sober, drug-dealing half-sister Zu. The film is an interpretation of how Music sees the world, with the plot playing out via a series of Sia-style musical interludes that clash bright colours, textures and choreography to reflect her alternate sensory experience.
When pressed, Sia admits she's not sure where the initial concept or inspiration came from. "If you're a storyteller, you know how that sometimes you just get an idea in your head? That's what happened and I just wrote it down. Then for 10 to 15 years I thought about it. It's a movie to me, and a movie I want to make."
As she sat on it, her career kept churning. After having what she's previously described as "mediocre success" with her early music she moved to the US in 2007 before releasing We Are Born, an album that generated Clap Your Hands (which reached number 13 on Triple J's Hottest 100 in 2010) and was nominated for four ARIA awards and won two. Then came hits Titanium with David Guetta and Diamonds for Rihanna, which she wrote while releasing her own music, which resulted in nine Grammy nominations and many more ARIAs.
Jumping to 2016, Sia says it was "probably two years after we finished writing [Music] I got a divorce and everyone was saying: 'You should make your movie, you should make your movie'," she reveals of the concurrency with her split from husband Erik Anders Lang in making Music. "I guess it was like jumping off a cliff, but it was definitely a baptism by fire. It isn't much different from making a music video except that it's so much harder because of continuity and availability of actors that I can't even believe one movie ever got made! You know, you only need between one and five people to make a song," she says with a laugh, by way of comparison.
The format of Music morphed over time, too. Sia says it was originally a narrative film starring Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as brother and sister, then it was Shia LaBeouf as the elder sibling, before the gender was flipped and the role of Zu was given to Kate Hudson.
Likewise it was never Sia's intention for Ziegler to play the largely non-verbal lead character but, as their collaborations continued, Sia says she became the perfect choice, because "when you're playing someone on the autism spectrum it's actually more of a choreography".
She eventually accepted it had to be a musical, too, explaining she checked her ego. "I really wanted to be seen as a real filmmaker and not just a token singer making a movie. I was really fixated on that … Because I historically hate musicals, the last thing I wanted to create was something I detest."
Instead Sia set out to create something "exceptional", which she admits was almost her downfall. "I loved pre-production. I loved writing it. I loved writing the music for it. I loved directing it. I loved being on set every day. Then editing came and I literally became suicidal," she reveals.
"I think it might be that it's a technical sport and I'm not a technical athlete. [It was] discovered that I'm a musical savant, which means all the audio filtering processes are different in my brain to everybody else's brain. But what that gift - or curse - can also mean is I can have some parts of my brain, which are receiving a lot less energy. The neutrons aren't meeting the places that get to the neural pathways like carrying them all the way, the train to the station … I was pulling my hair out after a year of editing and I just had to walk away."
The film's producer stepped in, with Sia checking progress once a month. "It made me sick. I actually couldn't get out of bed," she continues. "Basically that's why it took four years to come out [after filming] because I wouldn't put out anything unless I thought it was exceptional. I decided, like, that was the word that I've ruined myself with," she says, chuckling. "As soon as I said that, I was like: 'Oh, you're fucked.'"
As both the actor chosen to play Music and Sia's mini-muse, Ziegler knows how confronting it's been for her mentor. "There's a lot more pressure riding on her because this is her baby - she wrote and directed this. The whole vision only came together because of her," she says. "I think most people expect her to be great, but I think this is going to blow people's minds just because she did the best job ever and has such a fresh take on directing because she doesn't come from an acting background."
Ziegler credits Sia - who is now also legally her godmother - for helping her mature as a performer. "When we first met, I was still filming a show where I was still in a group of people and not really finding my voice yet," she explains. "But I think what's cool now is because I've found my voice more, she's helped me get a better understanding of my style and what I can bring to her vision. It is more collaborative. I'm older, I'm able to speak my mind and give my opinion, and I think that's incredible because we both have such a similar goofy sense of humour and the same weird eye as well."
Sia, who says she's thankful Zeigler's mum "let me butt my nose and take on a bonus mum role", took a separate massive maternal leap last year when she adopted two 18-year-old sons seemingly out of nowhere. Explaining how it came about, she reveals: "I am obsessed with reality television and documentaries, and I watched a documentary and saw my son. I was like: 'What? Like, he doesn't have anybody. Oh my god. I'm going to find him and I'm going to be his mummy.' And so that's what I did." She says by the time she tracked him down he was 18 and ageing out of the foster system so it was considered an adult adoption. "He asked if he could bring his friend and I said: 'Well, yes, I've got two bedrooms so why not?' Like an absolute maniac," she says with a laugh. "So suddenly I had two teenage sons. It's just like, oh my god, I was constantly buying condoms [and saying]: 'Please wear these. Please wear these. Please wear these.'" In all seriousness, she says, "it's definitely the best thing I've ever done. It's one of the hardest, but I have obviously such an overflow of love that I could definitely see myself doing it again, but not for a while. The next thing I'm planning to do is foster actual infants. Maybe [their mother] is drug-addicted and then I could help look after them until, you know, their mum can get back on the wagon or an adoptive home is found. If I can do that then I think I'll feel like I'm superhuman."
While those within the singer's inner circle are well versed in Sia's spirit of generosity, the rest of the world caught glimpses in the past year, mostly through a series of donations - some public, others secret. Last thanksgiving Sia pretended to be a woman named Cici who'd won the lottery and paid for everyone's groceries in the local Walmart. She also awarded $100,000 to her favourite Survivor contestant who missed out on the top prize, because she was so moved by his compassion for animals. More recently she pledged $100,000 to community bail funds in support of Black Lives Matter and continues to campaign passionately for justice for both Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. In August she donated the same amount again to Fitzy and Wippa on Sydney's Nova FM to support Australians in need. "I've always been generous financially and have been a good friend, but, yeah, right now my only focus is on trying to make the people around me [their] lives better," she surmises.
"And the people I don't know either because that's fun, too … The best credit is when nobody knows you've done it."
Sia explains her approach: "Even though I'm not as rich as all the other pop stars think I am - I don't tour, I'm not the face of an olive oil cream or I'm not doing tea commercials and stuff like that - I get good money from publishing [songs] and definitely I would consider myself rich. Looking at my future, me trying to spend the amount of money that I have or that I'm going to earn is just absurd."
She says royalties from her biggest evergreen tracks Diamonds and Titanium provide a guaranteed income for life, so that sets her apart from other celebrities who might not be "quite so willy-nilly with their cash".
Not that you could ever quite compare Sia to another celebrity anyhow. Along with her unique career evolution and unconventional decision to stop showing her face during performances, she's always been brazenly honest - an increasing rarity among the world of publicists. Never is this more evident than her willingness in being open about past traumas and her mental health with the media. "For me anyway, I had to start telling the truth," she recalls of her decision. "I created this whoop-dee-doo indie-pop character I could no longer maintain after 15 years in the industry and I completely had a nervous breakdown and started using drugs and eventually became sober.
"When I first started working with a trauma therapist five years ago I was what is known as complexly disorganised, what used to be known as complexly fearful avoidant, so I have complex PTSD from a number of incidences throughout my life and some reoccurring ones during my childhood. I figure, if we don't talk about it," she pauses to reframe, "we are just the same as everyone else and maybe our brains work a little differently. But if we're interesting [enough] to be on a podcast or on the cover of a magazine then I certainly think it is our duty to be honest about who we are and where our heads are at because selling a dream is negligent. If you ask eight children out of 10 today what they want to be when they grow up they say 'famous', and that is terrifying. They believe that will solve their problems, and I did too. I thought when I got famous I would not be mentally ill."
For the record, Sia says lately she's been really good, despite also suffering from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, which cause her chronic limb and joint pain as well as fatigue (and the reason she really does take business meetings from her bed). She jokes she is semi-retiring because "my body has done enough for 500 years", but in the next sentence rattles off music that's just dropped or upcoming. It includes Del Mar, featuring Ozuna and Doja Cat; Let's Love, an 80s-inspired collab with David Guetta (their ninth); the cast soundtrack for Music; her own soundtrack with songs she's originally written for the film; and another regular Sia album that's ready to go for 2021. "So that's why I'm lying down at the moment," she says, laughing again.
One track she doesn't mention, but has resonated this year is the single Together, which has enjoyed solid airplay since its release in May. Written specifically for Music, it's a catchy pop song brimming with hope and positivity that champions a collective charge against the odds. While Sia may not have intended it as the musical remedy for 2020, it has succeeded in offering the world a bright sliver of optimism.
"Living in the present moment there is absolutely nothing wrong," Sia says of where she finds herself right now. "I am totally equanimous with this moment I am having right now … I am pretty much living my life as a typical person, although that is a luxury because I have an income and most people are suffering because of the coronavirus. I see how privileged I am in that sense. But I am excited for this movie to come out. I am excited to watch my sons grow and learn. I'm in a pretty good place, actually."
Music will be released in Australia in early 2021.
Don't miss Vogue Australia's October issue, with Sia on the cover, on sale October 19.
Never miss an issue of Vogue with a subscription. As a Vogue VIP you'll enjoy the magazine delivered, member-only event invites, insider access and exclusive offers.
Originally published as 'Oh, you're f***ed': Sia on being suicidal and adopting teenagers