Jessica Mauboy: 'I Want To Give Stories & Experiences. Most Of All, I Want To Empower'

8 February 2024 | 10:22 am | Mary Varvaris

Ahead of its release tomorrow, Jessica Mauboy unpacks the powerful themes behind her career-defining fifth album, ‘Yours Forever’.

Jessica Mauboy

Jessica Mauboy (Credit: Peter Brew-Bevan)

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A lot has happened since Jessica Mauboy first appeared on our television screens in 2006. After coming second to Damien Leith on the fourth season of Australian Idol, she signed a record deal with Sony Music Australia and released four albums: 2008’s Been Waiting, 2010’s Get ‘Em Girls, 2013’s Beautiful, and 2019’s Hilda.

In 2020, Mauboy departed Sony after 14 years and signed a new record deal with Warner Music Australia. In between her successful music career – while Been Waiting landed at #11 on the ARIA Albums Chart, the rest of her albums have landed in the top 10, with Get ‘Em Girls landing at #6, Beautiful at #3 and Hilda awarding Mauboy her first #1 – Mauboy has followed another creative path in acting.

She’s appeared in the films Bran Nue Dae (2010) and The Sapphires (2012), while fans have also watched her on television in The Secret Daughter and, since 2021, as a judge on The Voice Australia. 2024 marks a significant time in her career.

She’s set to appear in the new Stan series, Windcatcher, next month, for starters. But she’s also making significant strides in music. We’ve been familiar with Mauboy’s voice for 18 years, but we’ve never heard her quite like how she sounds on her new album, Yours Forever.

Her new album lands tomorrow, just weeks out from the fourth edition of First Nations music festival Treaty Day Out – which she headlines – and Mauboy is nervous about fans hearing her new body of work, despite how great it is.

Yours Forever is Jessica Mauboy at her realest and most transformative. She’s utterly genuine as she jumps between gospel-inspired soul (Give You Love), fierce funk (Flashback), effortless mainstream, vibey pop (The Loneliest I Ever Was, Whitney), trap (Tell ‘Em), and acoustic balladry (Goodbye). For fans of the whole album experience, ensure you listen to Yours Forever front-to-back (and press replay) to hear how the opening and closing tracks segue into each other.

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Most importantly, Mauboy has bravely decided to simplify her melodies and instrumentation – going for less is more and succeeding in the results. She’s also accepted that her voice has changed over time, with her vocals now packed with an at-times perfectly dirty rock and roll rasp. She’s not just the girl next door R&B singer you’ve come to know (or still expect). She’s so much more.

When The Music catches up with Mauboy from the Sydney Warner offices, she admits that she’s anxious about deep diving into the songs on Yours Forever. But those nerves fade fast when talking about her wonderful new music video for Forget You, which stars her adorable dog, Leo.

Bright-eyed with excitement, Mauboy exclaims, “Oh my gosh, I’m so hyped about this song because it really takes me back to when I wrote Pop A Bottle (Fill Me Up) and Inescapable.” She explains that Forget You has a similar vibe to those songs because it shares elements: “How do I say this… it has so much anxiousness in it, but then it has this kind of flip like, you know what, I'm just gonna do me and I'm gonna get by. I'm gonna brave it up, and I'm gonna kick fear out, and I'm gonna not take shit.”

Mauboy and co-writers Sam de Jong and Graace were engulfed in the song’s disco, pop, and electric feel as it was built in a Surry Hills recording studio. “All of a sudden, there was this sense of, like, Whitney [Houston] kind of came to my head.”

Mauboy asked herself, what would Forget You sound like if Whitney Houston sang it? That’s where one of the album’s first revelations (and panics) set in: was she making music that was too simple?

Mauboy laid the vocal down, and she was singing so high. That’s when she had an idea: “I just imagined I would sing the octave below,” she says, “And when I did that, it made the song feel even more full.” She’s glad she pushed herself with Forget You, as it’s an essential part of her new album’s story.

“It's one of those songs where you feel so uplifted and like you're on your own in the world, but then you listen to the lyrics, and there's that tug of war; there's pain and struggle,” she explains. “So, this is a perfect mixture of having a song like this out in the world for people to hear in their headphones, and right now, I think it's the best time.”

Because the song challenged and means something to her, Mauboy didn’t want to make your typical pop-star music video. “I didn't want to just create a dance video where I'm strutting around; I wanted to create something that could reflect on me and my daily routine,” Mauboy shares, wanting fans to have a little peek into her day-to-day life. “I was talking to the producer, and I said, ‘Look, I want it to feel like it's almost a dream and at the end, it's like, by the time she wakes up, she's fallen out of bed,” she laughs.

And so, she recalls a list of things she wanted to happen in the music video: putting on a shirt that rips on the counter of the cupboard, falling into the toilet, attempting to apply makeup that goes everywhere, coffee spilling – all the things that can happen when a person is running late. The ideas reflect on Mauboy herself: a person who’s always late.

“My New Year's resolution was, ‘I'm not going to be late to anything in 2024’,” Mauboy admits with a laugh. “So, this fits perfectly with who I am, in my normal day-to-day life where I'm just trying to get by and things go wrong, but you got to keep pressing on.”

Having Leo in the music video and seeing her ideas come to life made Mauboy feel “super grateful” about sticking to her guns. Something else she’s thankful for regarding the Yours Forever process is collaborating with Nick Littlemore (of Empire Of The Sun and PNAU fame).

Mauboy admits she was “fangirling” as she and Littlemore worked together. She recalls telling him how she loves Empire Of The Sun, and watching him stand before her was surreal. Calling Littlemore a “genius”, Mauboy praises the musician’s ability to “take something out of the mould and rip it apart, and then put it in a place you don’t expect it to be.

“That’s how I’ve always dreamed about wanting to do stuff,” she says. “It's not about making the charts, it's not about making a number one, it's about the process of really making a song, and it being completely from the heart.” All Mauboy wants to feel is “satisfied and feeling of success of like, ‘I didn't have to force that’.”

Littlemore encouraged a brand-new process for Mauboy during the recording of Yours Forever, consisting of 30-minute plus jam sessions that worked to “really inspire” her and clear any “blockages”. “I had really settled and was allowed to be free and open,” Mauboy smiles, “I felt so exhilarated in those moments after those 30-minute sessions. That felt hard to do, but now I feel a real sense of relief.”

Those sessions saw words and melodies pour out of Mauboy. “I swore to him that that's the only way I'm going to write ever again; there was no other way,” she says. Since creating Yours Forever, she has felt safe, secure, and trusted. “I’m totally open, and the way I feel is so important to me because I've never known any other way apart from what I learned from the age of 16, which was, you know, get into a booth, follow the structure and go by the guidelines.

“I just thought that was the only way, and then setting myself up for that routine all the time and putting pressure on myself to create a number one, make sure it hits the music charts, like, wow… With this record, all that went out the window,” Mauboy continues, “I could really be free in the way I was gonna sing something, and that was going to come genuinely. I feel like, on every song, that exists. I'm so proud of myself because I set myself up to that standard.”

Mauboy adds, “I personally made that choice, not anybody else. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but I stuck to it, and that was my routine, and that was my structure.” She calls the making of Yours Forever “very spiritual, but also scary” because it was like she was hearing herself for the first time.

She explains, “I listened back to Underwater, and I'm like, ‘Whoa, who is that?’ And I know that's me. But I hid her for a really long time. I've really covered her up for a long time – that blues and that soul that comes through in that song and that growl that comes through, like, she's been away! Maybe she popped up in The Sapphires a little bit or on stage, but never in a song where I got to be there and dive deep and do it in that moment. I've been covering her.”

Yours Forever enabled Mauboy to feel courageous and admit that she was concealing parts of herself, and she’s proud of herself for voicing that.

She sings a bar of The Loneliest I Ever Was and talks about her apprehension about “so much space” in the song: “There was so much space, and there was me thinking, ‘Oh, I got to fill it’. No, I didn't need to fill it; I needed her to be heard. I needed her to be understood, to be present, and to feel okay. She can hold the room; she’s strong enough to do that.”

And then there’s Quiet Like You. “It's probably the quietest song I've ever done,” Mauboy muses. “It’s the most selfless kind of song I've ever done.” Mauboy sings again before explaining her “born again” experience while making the song. “All I kept thinking was, this takes me back to being weirdly in my mother's womb in this dark and safe and innocent place.”

All the while, she channels “this instinct, knowing that through that light is bigger and scary. You enter it, and it's like you're meeting this person for the first time, but there's so much undeniable love there. I don't even know what that is yet.”

In a way, Yours Forever follows from a Jessica Mauboy track over ten years old: Never Be The Same. She says that song was “unresolved”, but Never Be The Same, and this album, provide an “outlet” for conflicting emotions. Mauboy wants to enjoy her career as an artist while representing her community, a balance that isn’t always easy to find.

“[Never Be The Same] touches on my cultural experience as a First Nations woman in this beautiful, rich country. And yet, there's a sense of a divide, and my heart kind of pulls on both sides,” Mauboy tells. “I want to be an artist, and I want to write the truth. I want to be with my mum, and I want to fight for the right things.

“What are the right things? This kind of question is all my reflection of, like, well, I go through that, and I don't have the answer, but I know not to give up. I know not to let it go. I'm always going to have that feeling underlying feeling; I'm always going to wonder, and I'm always going to try to fight these emotions in music to find the answer. I'm always going to be battling that. Music is that outlet for me.”

For Mauboy, music allows her (and other artists) to have difficult conversations through song. The questioning inherent to Yours Forever is “wonderous” and “joyous”, she believes, elaborating, “Trying to discover along the way is the greatest gift you could ever be given in this life.

“When I think about this album, that’s all I want to give. I want to give stories, and I want to give experiences. Most of all, I want to empower. Second, I want to have people reflect. And then third, I want people to feel that they can figure things out or get the courage to just do it.”

Yours Forever is out via Warner Music Australia tomorrow – pre-order/pre-save the album here. Jessica Mauboy is embarking on a three-month tour in support of the album starting in March. You can find all tour dates here.