Sia promotes ‘1000 Forms of Fear’ without facing the cameras
By the standards of late-night television, the performance is pretty odd.
Sia, the pop singer with one of the summer’s biggest hits in “Chandelier,” delivers her song lying face-down on a bunk bed while “Girls” star Lena Dunham, wearing a platinum-blond wig, mouths the lyrics and flings herself around a stage. Eventually, Dunham climbs onto the bed and straddles Sia, who never shows her face to the camera.
Hardly protocol for a pop act looking to hype her latest work. But the bit, broadcast last month on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and since viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube, was firmly in keeping with the unorthodox rollout of Sia’s new album, “1000 Forms of Fear.”
A key element in the campaign is the music video for “Chandelier,” a visual stunner built not around Sia but 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler of the reality TV show “Dance Moms.” And a performance on “Ellen” had Sia standing with her back to the audience.
The 38-year-old singer hasn’t done many interviews; she’s done even fewer photo shoots.
Yet at a time when the prevailing promotional mantra appears to be “More is more,” Sia’s relatively reserved approach is paying off: On Wednesday, “1000 Forms of Fear” entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 1.
“Woah,” she tweeted after the chart news broke, “I can’t believe this experiment worked.”
Born in Australia and now based in Los Angeles, Sia (whose last name is Furler) first drew widespread attention in the early 2000s as a member of the electro-soul group Zero 7; her solo career later took off after her song “Breathe Me” was featured in the final episode of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”
But as she explained last year in a so-called “anti-fame manifesto” published in Billboard, Sia soon tired of the public scrutiny that accompanies celebrity in the age of TMZ.
“Imagine the stereotypical … mother-in-law character … criticizing you for an hour straight once a day, every day, day after day,” wrote the artist, who’s also described struggling with addiction.
So Sia turned to writing songs for others — and quickly established herself as a go-to source of sticky hooks and lyrics about overcoming emotional hardship. Among the hits she helped create: Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Beyoncé's “Pretty Hurts” and “Titanium” by the French DJ David Guetta, who ended up using Sia’s demo vocals on the finished track instead of a performance he’d solicited from Mary J. Blige.
She decided to make another album of her own, her first since “We Are Born” in 2010, only after being “pushed into it,” according to her manager, Jonathan Daniel.
“She’s such a great artist that I just thought it’d be something she’d regret if she didn’t do it,” Daniel said. “And with the success of her writing, she could think of it as Sia’s revenge.”
Daniel said he negotiated a deal with RCA Records that excused Sia from the normal promotional responsibilities (including touring), an arrangement the label’s president, Tom Corson, said he entered into because “Sia is one of the world’s best songwriters and singers.”
“The idea was, ‘Oh, she’ll do stuff, just not in the usual way,’” Corson went on. “That was fun for us.”
Val Pensa, who handles marketing at RCA, remembered an early meeting with Daniel. “He said, ‘She wants this blond bob to be the center of the campaign,’” Pensa recalled. “And we were like, ‘We can work with that.’” The haircut is on the cover of “1000 Forms of Fear,” and it featured in a recent performance on the Logo network that Sia did with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
It was also there on Jimmy Kimmel’s head during a gag on his show in which Ziegler taught her dance moves from the “Chandelier” clip to the host and his sidekick Guillermo.
Sia herself was highly involved in the planning for these events, people close to the singer said. “For Seth Meyers, she was doing research about where we could find a mattress thin enough to cut out a hole for her face,” Pensa claimed.
“She was very specific about the bed,” said Jeremiah Silva, who books musical talent for Meyers’ show. “She knew what she wanted.”
As precisely detailed as they’ve been, the stunts have worked in part because they follow the more conventional phase of Sia’s career, when she was less reluctant to discuss herself or her work.
That means there’s a long back story available to anyone whose interest is piqued by the notion of a pop artist ostensibly putting herself outside pop’s cult of personality; indeed, Pensa said Sia’s “Wikipedia numbers have been through the roof.”
“Her background gives this stuff some context,” said Corson, who added that with a new artist, the same approach “would look a bit gimmicky, wouldn’t it?”
Sia’s success is the result, too, of a strong record. As eccentric as it is accessible, “1000 Forms of Fear” balances booming beats and Top 40-tooled melodies with idiosyncratic textures and vocals that reveal appealing imperfections. Songs like “Free the Animal” — in which she asks a lover to “detonate me, shoot me like a cannonball / Granulate me, kill me like an animal” — invite a natural curiosity about the woman singing them.
Greg Kurstin, who produced the album (and has also worked with Pink and Katy Perry), said Sia’s signature sound has become “more accepted in the mainstream” as A-list stars have continued to record her songs.
“It’s not easy these days for music to speak for itself,” Kurstin said. “But it does happen.”
Which isn’t to say, of course, that Sia’s label has stopped searching for ways to maintain, and extend, the enthusiasm she’s cultivated so far. Given the effectiveness of the campaign, it’s not hard to imagine this kind of anti-promotion strategy — one clearly designed to stand out from the look-at-me! crowd — even catching on with other artists.
“The conversation now is, ‘OK, this is working — great,’” said Corson. “‘So what’s next?’”
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