When award-winning Canberra-based singer and composer Sia Ahmad launches her new album double checks against the corner at the Uncharted Territory festival, she’ll be surrounded by a lot of expensive tech: an artificial intelligence retail robot named Pepper, dancing drones and all of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment’s flashiest game development and filmmaking toys.
Sia has something else in mind. Back in year nine of high school, she spied a second-hand electric guitar in the classifieds. At $90, it barely qualified for the ‘items under $100’ section.
“I had a birthday party and I told all my friends, ‘I don’t want any presents. Just give me $10,'” Sia remembers. It worked and Sia’s quasi-crowdfunded electric guitar was hers.
“I’ve still got it in my studio and I really love it,” Sia says. “I think this is the guitar for this show.”
But when Sia walks onto the Uncharted Territory stage in July with her beloved electric guitar, she won’t do so as Sia, but as Shoeb Ahmad.
Shoeb is Sia’s birth name. While using or revealing a transgender person’s birth name is usually pejoratively referred to as ‘deadnaming’, Sia has a different view.
“My identity as an artist has revolved around being Shoeb Ahmad,” she says. “I’m not disowning that. I’m not moving on from that. The story continues in a different way.
“In the world, people do know me as Sia – but in terms of my creative practice, as a solo artist, Shoeb Ahmad has lived a long life and continues to do so as the artist Shoeb Ahmad.”
As a kid of the ’90s who “wanted to be a rock star” and taught herself how to play guitar to the backdrop of an eclectic mix of rock and pop from the likes of Kylie Minogue, Crowded House, Sonic Youth and U2, fans of Sia’s may then be tempted to theorise ‘Sia’ is inspired by a certain other Australian musician. But Sia says her name is in fact derived from her birth name’s initials (SIA).
Anyone familiar with Sia’s work would, however, know that her retention of Shoeb Ahmad as a stage name does not mean her music is disconnected from her personal life or identity.
Quiver (“the first time I really laid my personal life or feelings on the table”) comes from the period when Sia began her transition in 2016 and double checks against the corner finds inspiration in her navigation of family life, parenthood and relationship breakdown.
“Where I am now as a musician, as a creative, it has to be from the heart and has to speak to me first and foremost,” she says.
“That’s not to say there’s not a universality within the works [but] it’s not about growing an audience or building an audience or doing something for an audience.”
“But it’s about,” Sia pauses, “it will connect with those who understand the situation.”
Connection is a word Sia uses often. When asked about the proudest moment of her career, someone from the outside looking in may very well predict a particular album, commission or overseas tour of hers to be the answer. Or perhaps singlehandedly bringing international acts to Canberra with her own record label or being a founding member of the Arts Minister’s Creative Council.
None of the above. Becoming the first lead artist of South Asian descent and the first transgender person to win an Art Music Award in 2022 is important to Sia, but for different reasons.
“Winning an award, I’m such a small part of that, but I hope that opens doors. So I can say quite tangibly, that does mean a lot because I’m a vessel for change,” she says.
But more often than not, Sia’s recollection of these achievements and experiences spanning the last two decades return to the same 10-letter word. Connection.
Fleeting conversations with anonymous college students in New York are recounted by Sia with the same vigour as winning a prestigious industry award.
“Human connection … to me is what music [and] art is about,” Sia says. “Connecting with people, meeting people [and] having great conversations.”