'I Was In Shock': Budjerah Talks Touring With Ed Sheeran, 'Therapy' & More

23 February 2023 | 12:12 pm | Mary Varvaris

"I think it's one of the best songs that I've ever gotten to sing."

(Pic by Max Doyle)

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Budjerah doesn't have the attitude of a typical 20-year-old. Making waves in the Australian music industry since releasing his debut single, Missing You just over two years ago, he’s transformed as an artist while retaining his humility, respect for family, and keeping his head from floating in the clouds.

When Budjerah connects to Zoom from his home, he's been running late due to some appointments and traffic, but he's apologetic and ready to talk about his whirlwind couple of years.

Throughout, he’s been guided by Matt Corby, who took him under his wing. Corby has produced most tracks by Budjerah and watched him go from a shy teenager to a celebrated artist in his own right. He now has two EPs to his name, 2021’s debut self-titled release, and 2022’s honest and playful Conversations. He’s collaborated with everyone from PNAU on Stranger Love to MAY-A on Talk, finding success with the latter on the luscious, soulful track, which proved to be a triumph for both artists.

Budjerah grew up in Fingal Heads, a coastal town in New South Wales, and is part of the first generation in a long time to have traditional names in his family. He speaks Bandjalang, the native language of the Coodjingburra people, and that impact isn't lost on Budjerah. "It's very special. My family... We're very lucky we didn't get moved on from our land. We're very lucky that we were able to sneak dances and our language," he shares, especially when his grandparents and great-grandparents were growing up, they weren't allowed to go over the river into town.

Budjerah continues, "A lot of Aboriginal communities don't get what I got. It's just how I live; I'm very used to it. My generation is the first generation to have traditional names like Budjerah again. We had to keep it a secret - my pop doesn't speak [Bandjalang]. My dad's generation, and then my generation, we got it back."

The accomplishments have been fast and plentiful in the last two years. Budjerah is now a two-time ARIA Award-winning artist after taking home Breakthrough Artist in 2021 and Best Soul/R&B Release in 2022. He also triumphed with an APRA Award for Most Performed R&B/Soul Work for the Corby co-written Higher. He was recently nominated for Best Single and Best New Artist at the 2023 Rolling Stone Australia Awards, and Aussie/Kiwi Legend Of The Year at the 2023 Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. 

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Last year, he was named GQ’s Breakthrough Artist of the Year while featuring in Vogue Australia as part of Baz Luhrmann’s guest edition. He also took to the stage as part of the AFL Grand Final with The Temper Trap, Gretta Ray, and Ngaiire. Now, he's opening for Ed Sheeran in stadiums across Australia.

"Oh man, I was a little bit nervous [when receiving the news about opening for Ed Sheeran]," Budjerah says with a smile. "This is like the biggest tour to ever come to Australia in history - it's over a million tickets." And, of course, he still hasn't gotten over featuring on a remix of Sheeran’s 2Step. "I was already in shock that I got to do the song with him. So I was like, I guess this is the next thing. I'm still in the same state when I heard the news. It doesn't make sense to me. Why me? I don't know. But I'm really grateful."

Budjerah's latest single, Therapy, is a beautiful, poignant number that will surely resonate with listeners from the moment they hear it. Written by Sarah Aarons (Zedd, Demi Lovato, John Legend) and Stint (Joji, Kesha, Panic! At The Disco), the track is an ode to the importance of therapy and open communication in relationships. With a guitar-led production and a punchy pop-soul delivery, Budjerah finds a new bold confidence that pays homage to his gospel roots. 

"I really love the song. I think it's one of the best songs that I've ever gotten to sing," he admits. While he was on vacation in Hawaii last year with his family, Warner Music Australia's A&R (artists and repertoire) representative, Marcus Thaine, sent Budjerah a demo of Therapy. The young singer's reaction was immediate: this had to be his song.

Therapy fit where Budjerah's mind was at the time - in slight conflict with someone he was dating and attempting to open up their communication on a different level. And, he does have experience with the practice of therapy, which perhaps made him even keener about the song. "I go to counselling; I go about once a month. I started going after I got back from an overseas tour with Vance Joy," he shares. "It was my longest trip and my first time overseas. We went to Europe, the UK, and North America in five weeks. I'd never been overseas or away from home for that long, so I went to counselling for a little while to help me take it all in."

It's been a rewarding but very full-on couple of years for Budjerah, he couldn't have expected that he'd constantly be on the road singing at such an early stage of his career. "I thought it would be a good idea to talk to someone and help me take in my emotions, even good things and bad things," he continues. "I think it's really important to be able to let our emotions out; it's good to get someone from the outside to help you understand. You know what's going on around you, but sometimes you might not be able to see what's behind you." He's right - how could a casual listener understand what his life has been like in the last few years?

Regardless of where his career takes him - from an RSL to a stadium opening for Ed Sheeran - Budjerah stays close to his roots. "I grew up in church and my family are musicians. So the way I like to sing is more of a traditional gospel style of singing," he explains about the gospel influence remaining in a new track like Therapy

"That's just how I sing. And no matter what I sing, I'm always gonna say that I'm singing a gospel song. That's where I come from; they're just the habits that I have from being around my family and playing music with them," he adds. Despite gospel music being his first love and closest influence, country music plays a big part in the life of Budjerah and his family.

"In the outback, there wasn't a lot of country music," he says, but his parents bought a bunch of CDs that exposed Budjerah to the country music genre. "I grew up listening to The Chicks, Randy Travis, George Strait, Dolly Parton, all of them. Garth Brooks, like, I love country music. My dad and I rehearsed in a shed, and we have a big print of Bob Marley on the wall, so I love Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and reggae music. What else have I got? My grandmother had this AC/DC record she got my dad when he was a kid, and I listened to that. Lots of very different music has been super influential to me."

That open-mindedness doesn't go amiss in Budjerah's collaborations. "In songwriting, the thing that you learn is how to read and understand people in some way," he shares. "And that's super important. If you're writing a song for someone else or even just being in the room together, I think it's helped me understand people better and learn how to connect." And Budjerah already connects, something we learned from watching him on ABC's The Sound throughout the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

The Sound, the brainchild of Michael Gudinski and produced in partnership with Mushroom Group, opened doors for Budjerah instantaneously. While Budjerah didn't get to spend much time with the Aussie music industry legend, he acknowledges the impact he had and appreciates the time spent with him. "I met him once and spoke to him on the phone. I met him once in person at a Lime Cordiale show. I remember, I did The Sound - they should bring the show back, because I think the show was wonderful for the country and for people to see what we have in our own country," he begins.

Budjerah was passed a phone with Michael Gudinski on the line, and at the time, he admits that he had no clue who Gudinski was. "I had just put out my first single, so I didn't really know anyone in the music industry. I didn't know who he was or what he meant to everyone," he says. Gudinski sounded coarse on the phone, but only had glowing reviews for Budjerah's appearance on the show.

Then, the two met at a Lime Cordiale show, with Teenage Dads opening, "and I love Teenage Dads," Budjerah quips, before Gudinski told him about his latest idea for an incredible concert: what we'd come to know as First & Forever, co-curated by Briggs and featuring a spectacular line-up of Indigenous Australian artists, including Baker Boy, King Stingray, Thelma Plum, Sycco, Tasman Keith, Kobie Dee, Alice Skye, Jessica Mauboy and more.

"Michael told me about this show that he wanted to put on. He called it First Sounds - this is back in 2021, and it became First & Forever. And he said, 'I'd love you to be a part of it. It's gonna be all Aboriginal Artists at the Hanging Rock.' And I was like, 'Wow, this sounds incredible. I would love to,'" he recalls. After Gudinski said goodbye, Budjerah's mum rushed over, wanting to know what Michael Gudinski said, Budjerah chuckles. 

"I never got to know the man but to see how he cared for me and Australian music in the short time that I got to know him, that really changed my perception on the Australian music industry in general and the whole entire industry and what it's really about," Budjerah shares. "It's about fun and good music and enjoying it. I'm super grateful that I got to meet Michael and so grateful I get to work with Mushroom as well, because they showed so much care, not just for me, but for music."

Budjerah is currently opening for Ed Sheeran across Australia. Buy tickets to the shows here.