Mia Dyson plays Jim Dyson guitars. That's not a sponsorship announcement - given the extraordinary depth of passion in her voice, her soulful feel for electric and lap slide guitars, the maturity of her writing and rare magnetism as a performer, it's a fact of life. She's been breathing her luthier father's sawdust since the day she was born, in a mud brick house her parents built in the Victorian bush an hour north east of Melbourne. It was to a very similar house that Mia returned to record her first album, Cold Water, in the winter of 2002. The first tangible fruit of a rapidly escalating stage reputation on Australia's east coast, it was promptly acknowledged among ARIA's Best Blues and Roots Albums of 2003.
Mia's apparent overnight success began at the family piano when she was five years old. She remembers playing the rhythm part to Ry Cooder's version of 'Dark End of the Street', with her sister Ariel on guitar and Dad playing slide, when she was all of six or seven."It was quite an isolated existence," she remembers of her first home, just outside the spring water town of Daylesford. "I think the significance of that time was that I wasn't exposed to any trends or fashion or commercialism. It was straight-up country living. All I heard was Mum and Dad's records." With Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Steely Dan and Bob Dylan firing Mia's nascent musical imagination, the family moved to the seaside town of Torquay when she was eight.Turned off the piano by an overbearing teacher, Mia picked up one of her father's guitars at 14. "I took it up under the terrible pretext of keeping up appearances," she confesses, "but within six months I was totally in love with it."
She started writing songs at 16, feeling for the qualities she'd long admired in roots music: "music from the heart," is the best way she can describe it, "music that's trying to be honest. Genuine music." With the new aspirations came new influences: Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Tom Waits, Nick Cave. "I learnt by imitating people, trying really hard to sound like them," she says, "but then over a stretch of about a year, I started finding my own voice." In her last two years at highschool, Mia started performing in local pubs with a variety of rock and roots ensembles. Then, one New Year's Eve, she wrote a song called 'Precious Thing'. It was a revelation. For the first time in her modest writing experience, it was a song she really liked."I don't know why, but I didn't enjoy performing," she remembers. "lt was the songwriting that got me excited about the possibilities of playing and it was that particular song that drew me into the idea of being able to continue and grow, the possibility of writing, recording and performing better and better songs." Jim gave Mia a lap steel guitar for her 19th birthday. She'd been inspired by revered Melbourne blues player Matt Walker and approached him for a few lessons. "I'm not an expert by any means," she insists. "I wanted it as a tool for songwriting more than anything. If it can spark an interesting song, I'll use anything."
Moving to Melbourne, Mia hooked up with bassist Dean Addison and drummer Carl Pannuzzo for her first residency, at the Dan O'Connell Hotel in Fitzroy, in November 2000. Over the following six months, they threw themselves into the songs that would become Cold Water. "It seemed natural to head back into the bush to record," she says. "It was another mud brick place that belongs to friends of my family. We had rooms to stay in, left the recording gear set up. We just recorded the songs we'd been playing, basically live, over a period of a week." In the immediate wake of Cold Water, Mia sought out a permanent rhythm section to pursue a growing demand for her live performances. Bassist Lucas Taranto and drummer Daniel Farrugia became an integral part of the sound, the arrangements and the dynamic live momentum of her new material. Mia intends to record her second album "when it's ready". Meanwhile, a steady trickle of new songs has fuelled her shows from the Port Fairy Folk Festival to the internationally renowned Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, from pin-drop supports for the likes of Eric Bibb, Tony Joe White and Renee Geyer to ever-swelling crowds at her headlining gigs.
Whatever the bill, Mia Dyson's arresting voice, her sometimes poignant, sometimes fiery guitar technique and palpable, infectious belief in the power of song ensure a rapt gathering of instant converts."I feel quite awkward on the microphone," she admits with a laugh. "It doesn't seem to matter though. I'm aware from going to concerts myself that people just want to hear a bit of who you are. I guess when you're open to an audience, they'll be open to you."
Cold Water is available through Black Door Records distributed by ShockMichael Dwyer, January 2004.