DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Sia is the Australian songwriter and singer Sia Furler who frequently appears in public with her face obscured by wigs or masks of various kinds. She has written and co-written songs recorded by such stars as Rihanna, Beyonce and Katy Perry. Sia's new album called, "This Is Acting" includes a number of songs Sia wrote for others but which she's reclaimed as her own. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Sia's "This Is Acting."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNSTOPPABLE")
SIA: (Singing) All smiles, I know what it takes to fool this town. I'll do it till the sun goes down and all through the night time. Oh yeah, oh yeah, I'll tell you what you want to hear. Leave my sunglasses on while I shed a tear. It's never the right time, yeah, yeah. I put my armor on, show you how strong I am. I put my armor on, I'll show you that I am. I'm unstoppable. I'm a Porsche with no brakes. I'm invincible. Yeah, I win every single game.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: With her vigorous work ethic and boundless productivity, Sia does indeed seem, as that title of that song has it, unstoppable. And the title of her album, "This Is Acting," suggests the key to Sia's appeal, at least to my ears. She constructs huge, billowy ballads and then inserts herself into them, portraying a woman tossed and torn by love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRD SET FREE")
SIA: (Singing) Clipped wings, I was a broken thing. Had a voice, had a voice but I could not sing. You would wind me down. I struggled on the ground. Oh, so I lost, the line had been crossed. Had a voice, had a voice but I could not talk. You held me down. I struggle to fly now. Oh, but there's a scream inside that we all try to hide. We hold on so tight, we cannot deny. Eats us alive, oh, it eats us alive. Oh, yes, there's a scream inside that we all try to hide. We hold on so tight, but I don't want to die. No, I don't want to die. I don't want to die. And I don't care if I sing off key.
TUCKER: I don't care if I sing off key. I found myself in my melodies, sings Sia on that song, "Bird Set Free." I like her singing in part because of its imperfections. She has an urgent rasp and belts out songs with unselfconscious vigor the way you or I might sing in the shower. The element of imperfection of not trying to hit every note at exactly the right moment lends her ballads far more humanity than many of the bigger name artists for whom she's written hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE ON FIRE")
SIA: (Singing) I don't like to wait too long, to wait too long, wait too long. Bring it on and bring it strong, bring it baby. I feel the pain and it feels good. I knew it would. Your heart burns through. I feel the pain and I cry out, cry out. I need you. I need you. Baby, I'm going to drink you in like oxygen, like oxygen. Baby, I'm a house on fire, and I want to keep burning. Boy, I'm going up in flames, and you're to blame, yeah, you're to blame. Baby I'm a house on fire, and I want to keep burning.
TUCKER: The concept behind Sia's new album, This Is Acting" is simple and almost daring. It consists of songs she wrote for other artists that for one reason or another, were not recorded. The first thing to occur to you might be, well, it's because they're inferior tunes, right? Not at all, it turns out. The title, "This Is Acting" would seem to refer to a couple of things. One is Sia's stage persona - presenting herself with her face obscured in a way that claims attention while pretending anonymity. And "This Is Acting" also suggests that writing for other artists is play acting - pretending or putting oneself in the shoes or voice of another to approximate what sort of song that performer might sound good singing. Take, for example, this song, "Reaper," which was written for Rihanna but Sia ended up using it for herself, making it very much her own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAPER")
SIA: (Singing) Broke down, thought that I would drown. Hope that I'd been found before I hit the ground. Sun rays out the corner of my eye, hey. Saw you weeping, saw you creeping, saw you sneaking in the shadows dawn. I feel so strong. Saw you out the corner of my eye. Don't come for me today. I'm feeling good, I'm a savor it. Don't come for me today. I'm feeling good. I remember when, Reaper.
TUCKER: Sia thinks like a pop music critic, telling Rolling Stone that she tries to, quote, "understand the will or nature of popular culture." That approach contributed mightily to her ability to turn out hits for others. Sia began her career as an introspective singer-songwriter composing personal material. But she really took off as a commercial force and as an artist once she cultivated a different talent for turning familiar phrases into hooks, for playing with language and pop song conventions. In a fundamental way, Sia became more authentic once she decided to stop being herself.
BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "This Is Acting," the new album from singer-songwriter Sia. On Monday's show...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD")
TOM HARDY: (As Max Rockatansky) My name is Max, my world is fire and blood.
BIANCULLI: Australian director George Miller, the creator of the "Mad Max" films, the latest of which is "Mad Max: Fury Road." Miller made his directorial debut with the first "Mad Max" film in 1979. He'll tell us how he went from that to writing the film, "Babe" and writing and directing the Oscar-winning "Happy Feet." Hope you'll join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.