It’s been a big week for Sia — one that was impossible to imagine just a few short years ago. Days after Sia performed at the 57th annual Grammy Awards, where her smash hit “Chandelier” was nominated for the two top song prizes, the Australian singer-songwriter’s voice appeared on “Wolves” a new song by Kanye West (also featuring Vic Mensa) that will serve as the opening track to his hotly anticipated seventh studio album. Oh, and two of Sia’s songs, “Chandelier” and current single “Elastic Heart,” are currently in the Top 40 of the Hot 100 chart.
All in a typical week for the fascinating 39-year-old, who effectively ended her singing career following the release of her 2010 album We Are Born and morphed into a legitimate pop star over the next half-decade. No one expected this, least of all Sia, who released her first album in 1997 and spent years trying to carve out a niche in the U.S. pop landscape. Now is as good a time as any to declare that Sia has unquestionably arrived, and did so following the unlikeliest of paths.
So how did Sia pull it off? Here are the 10 steps that Sia took to reach the critical and commercial acclaim she currently enjoys:
Step 1: Retire. After a string of moderately successful full-length releases that resulted in more burnout than big hits, Sia Furler decided to end her solo career and focus on writing for other artists. In her 2012 Billboard cover story, Sia professes that this decision was a genius move, especially for someone suffering from an addiction to Vicodin and Oxycodone: she got to spend time on self-improvement, relax and work in his Los Angeles home, bring in new income from writing projects and generally re-charge her creative batteries. She also happily signed a contract with RCA Records that made sure she didn’t have to tour or do press to promote any future projects: “It shows the power of saying ‘no,'” she said.
Step 2: Guest on two Top 10 hits.
On both David Guetta‘s “Titanium” and Flo Rida‘s “Wild Ones,” Sia recorded vocal demos that eventually were chosen for the final singles; both songs also blasted up the Hot 100 chart, to No. 7 and No. 5, respectively, when they became pop hits in 2011. The unwitting collaborations with Guetta and Flo Rida resulted in lots of “Who’s singing that?” inquiries from unfamiliar Top 40 listeners, and not-so-quietly re-introduced Sia’s name to diehard genre fans.
Step 3: Co-write for superstars. As if appearing on two Top 10 hits as a featured artist in 2011 wasn’t enough, Sia’s career accrued more positive momentum when the veteran songwriter started taking on more co-penning projects with top-line talent. Some of these tracks, including singles by Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera, never caught on at U.S. radio, but two of them did: Rihanna‘s “Diamonds” and Ne-Yo‘s “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself).” Both songs were smashes co-produced by StarGate that returned Sia’s name to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 chart.
Step 4: Refuse (most) interviews. As Sia’s fame as a songwriter and a supporting artist grew, interest in the Australian artist also flourished — but Sia refused to place herself back in the spotlight, and explained why in an anti-fame manifesto in Billboard in 2012. Sia very rarely discussed her career on the record (and still does) and declined to be photographed in support of her music (she appeared on the cover of Billboard with a paper bag over her head), but her selective anonymity only generated more interest in her career, to the point where another solo outing made sense for the reclusive artist.
Step 5: Appear on some big-name soundtracks.
After contributing the song “Kill and Run” to Baz Luhrmann’s star-studded soundtrack to 2013’s The Great Gatsby, Sia linked up with Diplo, Greg Kurstin and the Weeknd later that year for “Elastic Heart,” from the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. Although the song fizzled when it was originally released as a single in late 2013, “Elastic Heart” served as Sia’s first song with top artist billing since her 2010 album We Are Born, and a splashy preview of her solo return in 2014. The single was also revived as a solo single in early 2015, and peaked at No. 17 on the Hot 100 upon the release of its official music video.
Step 6: Save one of your hugest choruses for yourself. No pop song released in 2014 had as epic of a hook as “Chandelier,” the lead single from Sia’s solo comeback album, 1000 Forms of Fear. Yet “Chandelier” was more than just its soaring chorus: Sia delivered its powerful verses in a slurred daze, and the production of Greg Kurstin and Jesse Shatkin proves increasingly dramatic, effortlessly expressing the highs and lows of the singer’s alcohol-fueld trip. Not only was “Chandelier” a towering pop single — Billboard.com named the song the best single of 2014 — but it beguiled Top 40 radio as well, becoming Sia’s first Top 10 hit as a solo artist.
Step 7: Release an imaginative music video with a tween star.
Who says that the music video, as an art form, is dead? Sia’s “Chandelier” clip, which featured Dance Moms star Maddie Ziegler whisking herself around an abandoned apartment floor in a nude leotard and blonde bob (the latter mirroring Sia’s own hair), became instantly iconic upon its release, and conjured up countless Internet memes, an MTV VMA nomination for Video of the Year and a new level of stardom for 12-year-old Ziegler. Current YouTube view count: 533 million. That’s better than most Katy Perry videos!
Step 8: Team with an expert pop producer. Sia and producer Greg Kurstin worked together on five songs from We Are Born, but 1000 Forms of Fear, her sixth studio album released last July, sounded so cohesive because all of the album’s 12 tracks were co-produced by Kurstin, the alt-pop whiz behind hits from P!nk, Kelly Clarkson and Ellie Goulding. Kurstin’s lush, cozy approach to pop music proved to be a perfect match for Sia’s songwriting, and 1000 Forms of Fear became her first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart last July after receiving rave reviews.
Step 9: Create must-see performances with your back turned.
The best way to perform live on television when you don’t want anyone to see your face: keep the focus on elaborate set pieces and wrangle some guest stars to perform the choreography. Ziegler has been a trooper joining Sia on Ellen and Saturday Night Live, but the singer-songwriter has also gotten Lena Dunham and Jimmy Kimmel to don the blonde bob, turning what could have been an awkward live setup into can’t-miss performances. Speaking of which…
Step 10: Own the Grammys without winning any awards. Sure, it would have been nice if “Chandelier” had cashed in on one of its four Grammy nominations, including for record of the year and song of the year. But once again, Sia used her singular performance approach to command the awards ceremony, powering through “Chandelier” with the help of Ziegler and a wigged Kristen Wiig. The performance was hailed as one of the highlights of the show, and days later, Sia was popping up on Kanye West’s new song, “Wolves.” It’s all in a week’s work for one of pop’s most enigmatic, in-demand heroes.