When Sydney Miller dropped her track “Out From The Inside” in the middle of 2020, the Melbourne singer-songwriter caused a clamour. Her dancefloor-friendly pop leanings suggested a steady diet of Britney, Ariana and Selena, but her curiously composed samples and glitchy, layered sonics have gleaned inspiration from Róisín Murphy’s debut solo album Ruby Blue.
“She’s a star. I’ve never really resonated with an artist and their progression so much,” states Miller. “My mom would play her dance music throughout the house, before I knew it was her. Once I got ahold of that 2005 album Ruby Blue, I listened to it every day, and it’s a huge reference for the production I learnt how to do. For that album they recorded vacuums and all this wacky sort of stuff, and I thought, why can’t I do that?”
Miller released debut EP The Inside on February 25th, and it’s jam-packed with field recordings, the ephemera of daily life, and manipulated found sounds, but – like Murphy – she has not created a sterile scientific experiment in sonics. Her richly atmospheric, hooky palette of pop flavours amounts to a joyful melange of glitchy, sweeping, artsy synthpop and vibrant, textured electro.
The restless, click-clack percussion of “Bad News” sounds like a spoon trailed over a long line of tall glasses. A thudding rave beat and the distant sound of a dropped-out phone line form the backdrop to Miller’s gorgeously girly vocals. Computer game-style bleeps and chords kick in about halfway through, giving a nostalgic patina to the hyper-fresh dance mood. She’s as inventive and strangely compelling as Billie Eilish, without the bleakly gothic, blackened heart.
“With ‘Bad News’ I was really tired of scrolling through social media and opening the news to all those classic COVID scares,” she reveals. “So, I wanted to make a song about that: sounds of phones, newspapers, books representing the idea of the media holistically. I made samples from that, came up with a hook, developed the lyrics and moulded it all together in a weird way.”
Miller is certain that the “rhythmic fixation” making its way kinetically into her music and songcraft stems from her years of studying dance. “I was a dancer growing up so that has a huge impact on the way that I write,” she proclaims. “I started with ballet and tap so the tap explains my interest in rhythm and textures, but as I got older ballet was too strict for me and I got much more into contemporary and jazz and I loved those.”
“In The Office” was inspired by the job she took up during Melbourne’s long string of lockdowns. As the supervisor at a call centre for COVID queries, she was working 40-hour weeks, often answering calls herself.
“The environment felt so loud because of the sounds and the fast-paced atmosphere, and what was going on at the time with everyone being freaked out,” she recalls. “I needed to make something that replicated the feeling that I felt going into it every day. It wasn’t an environment that I felt like I belonged in. Every day I’d walk in feeling frustrated that I was in that position, when really I wanted to be at home, making music. I felt frazzled and isolated going into that office.”
When developing the song’s sonic palette, Miller reached for the familiar. “I used a kit of chairs and pencils and that kind of thing, so that was pretty easy for me to manipulate at home…I have a weird chair that’s a bit squeaky, so I recorded that… Even knocking on my desk, I got good sounds of out that, wooden spoons, that kind of thing,” she explains. “I filled the gaps with typing on computers, mouse clicking, anything where I thought, hey – that sounds like an office!”
Miller’s singing and production skills go beyond her liberal use of household samples. Following years of choir and piano lessons from the age of four, she was classically trained as a vocalist, including three years under the tutelage of renowned Melbourne vocal coach Angela Wasley during her high school years. Miller holds a Bachelor in Interactive Composition from the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts, and the tiresome and demanding call centre job was her route to saving up to return to uni this year to complete her Honours.
“It’s a bit of a niche course, but it [involved] making and producing music for any art forms that we could get our hands on. I particularly took an interest in making music for installation art and that lead me into this art schooly, weird production thing for a conventional pop fusion,” she says.
Her professor put her forward when Dr. Heather Gaunt, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Grainger Museum, was seeking a sound artist to collaborate on an immersive exhibition within the museum.
“The museum was looking for a classical composer, a hip hop composer and a psy-trance composer,” explains Miller. “I did not fit into any of those categories at all… but I submitted anyway. The head of the Grainger was filtering through all the music sent and she called and said she loved the piece I submitted.”
Dr. Gaunt commissioned Miller to create a sound installation that accompanies by custom architectural and animated elements designed by Professor Rochus Hinkel. The exhibition is planned for mid to late March and will also be part of Melbourne Design Week; while the museum has been completely empty, Miller has been recording atmospheric sound and creating her own samples to fit the feeling of the different rooms, be they linear and wooden-walled or curvy and metallic.
While it might seem a far remove from her radio-friendly pop EP, she has approached the process of music making in the same way as ever: forming a concept, building a kit of samples, then methodically turning her song into a story.
“I’m very holistic about the way that I approach a song,” she confides. “I might want to make a song about being trapped in a maze, and then I will find and make all the sounds and create a bank of weird sounds that represent being stuck inside a maze.”
The process is both soothing and cathartic.
“These emotions I’m bottling up or experiencing, I’m then able to compartmentalise it into a piece of music that I can put those feelings to,” she says. “That process of putting my emotions together and going, ‘ah, it feels like this!’ and putting sounds to that… comes together into something complete and encompasses everything I’m feeling into three or four minutes of sound.”