From small beginnings driving the quiet, unmarked roads of Delungra NSW to serenading a sea of glittered movers and shakers at the iconic Byron Bay festival, Splendour in the Grass, Thelma Plum is a woman of wonder with a fire in her belly and stories to tell.
Plum’s debut album Better in Blak, released less than a month ago, has been nothing short of a success.
“I’m very happy, a little bit overwhelmed but very happy. I’ve had two days off this week after Splendour, I’ve been trying to take it all in and be present.”
Better in Blak is a musical tapestry of Plum’s life, woven with her experiences as an Aboriginal woman in the music industry, her childhood growing up in rural NSW and strands of politics, romance and family.
“I was a bit nervous at first, I felt like I was sharing a side of me that I hadn’t shared before, I felt nervous about being that vulnerable, but it’s been so nice. It feels good now, I’m excited and grateful people can hear it.”
“It was a healing process for me writing this record and being able to articulate how I was feeling – being able to read the songs and lyrics I wrote and reflecting on why I was feeling that way.”
Thulumaay Gii, meaning thunder and heart in Gamilaraay language, is the ninth song on the album and is also Plum’s middle name. It speaks to the relationships within her family.
“It was scary, I was worried I would hurt people by writing that song and sharing that information. But I can only be true to my own story, it’s my lived experiences and how I felt about that and maybe it was a selfish reason from me but again, it was so healing to write that.”
“A record is always going to be like that – if I was worried about all the people I was going to hurt I probably wouldn’t be able to make a record or write anything. I am really lucky that I have this creative outlet where I can take my trauma or bad things that happen to me.”
“I was very present when I was writing and recording. I get very sucked into it and will disassociate from my own life because I’m so into that creative process. I didn’t have the moment of ‘I love this’ but after I did. I felt so proud of what I’d made.”
Plum’s ironic and tragic commentary on Australian society and the music scene in songs like Woke Blokes and Nick Cave is to be applauded.
“I’m done with telling people what to do, it’s not my job and I’m really tired of it, eventually we’ll look back and I would feel much better knowing that I made a positive change and did the most I could do be a good person. And to be a good person to those around and help other people, and to be conscious of injustices.”
“We [Indigenous Australian musicians] have always existed and we’ve always been here, I think there’s a mainstream Australia now, there’s a bit of a push for there to be more representation of Aboriginal people and I think that’s really great and important and I love being a part of that. I think a lot of that is due to specifically Aboriginal women putting in that hard work and putting in that fight.”
“I’ll be really happy when I look back on my life but, it’s a lot more than what I can say for a lot of other people, particularly men in my industry that don’t put in as much work as us and don’t do all the hard work but will then be there benefiting and reaping those rewards.”
“I hope they will feel sad about not doing anything, I sure as hell won’t forget.”
Plum hopes to connect with and inspire young Aboriginal women across the nation.
“I’m singing a lot about being an Aboriginal woman in this country and what that was like growing up and what that feels like now.”
“I think so many Aboriginal girls can relate to these stories, I wish I had heard songs or saw an Aboriginal woman writing songs and charting in the mainstream charts when I was young. I hope a little girl sees it because they need to know they can do it too.”
Plum collaborated with some big names whilst working on the album. Made for You, features Sir Paul McCartney on guitar and was the product of a collaboration between Plum and Australian music icon, Paul Kelly.
For Plum, Kelly’s influence was a game-changer.
“It was unreal. Being able to work with people I’ve looked up to for so long. I grew up listening to him – he was the first white man I ever heard singing about Aboriginal people and doing so in a respectful way.”
Gang of Youths frontman David Le’aupepe featured in the track Love and War – written in the wake of the ABC’s Four Corners report into the Don Dale Detention Centre.
“Honestly, with that I didn’t sit down and go ‘We’re going to write this big political song,’ but it was the circumstances of what had happened. It was really hard – you can’t ignore that. I know there’s a lot of people in this country that can [ignore it] but I’m not one of those people and Dave isn’t either.”
“I think, there was nothing else we could really do, we had to write about that because I couldn’t go into the studio and be like ‘Let’s write a banger.’ It’s important for me with my song writing that I write about things that matter to me – and this mattered.”
With the album released and Splendour done and dusted, Plum finally has time to sit back and reflect on the enormous journey she’s had so far.
“It’s so wild and overwhelming. I feel so great and I’ve worked for a long time, it’s not always been the easiest journey, me getting here in this industry.”
“There was a time a couple of years ago that I thought I would never do music again, and I didn’t even know if I would be alive now, so this has been so special. I wish I could say to [myself] back then, ‘It will get better,’ because it really did.”
“It’s funny, I keep coming back to music. It’s like a need – also I’m not really good at anything else. I’ve always had this relationship with music, it’s a bit love-hate. I just can’t really seem to leave it alone, I’ve never been able to and I hope I’m never able to.”
Thelma Plum’s Better in Blak tour begins August 9. More information is available at: https://thelmaplum.com/
By Rachael Knowles