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Tilly Tjala Thomas Embraces The Power Of Indigenous Language & Culture With 'Sanctuary'

23 September 2022 | 9:00 am | Carley Hall

"It was a special process, to be able to learn more of my own language while teaching other people as well."

(Pic by Sia Duff)

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“I feel like my songwriting and everything I’ve been working on is starting to pay off. As I get a bit older, people are starting to recognise who I am as an artist, because I have been developing my artistry since I was 11 years old. So to start getting the recognition now and play at the festivals that I want to perform at has been really amazing.” 

That’s the sound of growth blossoming within Adelaide singer-songwriter Tilly Tjala Thomas. In the space of about two years, the 19-year-old’s soulful take on electro-folk with a strong storytelling bent has already seen her nominated for Best New Talent at the NIMAs after receiving the Unearthed Award at the 2021 NIMAs, enticed regular rotation on triple j with English and traditional Nukunu language-fused track Ngai Yurlku Nhiina, and performed at the Made In Adelaide showcase at this year’s BIGSOUND.

She even recently found herself opening for Bernard Fanning and Something For Kate.

“Oh, that was really random!” Thomas laughs. “I literally got offered to open for those guys like a few days before, so it was really last minute and I wasn't really expecting it. That was one of the first times where I was playing at a big festival. And I was like, ‘Okay, this is really cool.' 

“And obviously being able to connect with those artists who have been in the industry for a lot longer than I have, you know, people that I aspire to, well, it was cool to make those connections with them and hopefully do things with them in the future.”

Despite always having an eye on the future, Thomas has built a following by fusing stories of her past with her upbeat, dance-pop-electronic tracks that are culturally rich and compelling. The Nukunu woman insists the blend of her ancestral language and English has been a natural by-product of her creative spirit and not a hard goal to hit in her songwriting. Having said that, she’s also happy that she is preserving her culture for her future generations.

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“I didn't necessarily just want to sing in language to the point where that’s what I'm only known for; I think it's just kind of happened,” she said. “My first release, Ngai Yurlku Nhiina, was special to me because it was my first release in language. And I do like to write in language because it helps me stay connected.

“And it’s also been nice to look at languages through songs, because like other people, my family’s carvings and artworks form part of our family web, and this is me having a bit of my culture and language that I can preserve and pass down to my kids and their kids. 

“So it was a special process, to be able to learn more of my own language while teaching other people as well. There's definitely been more interest in Indigenous music and culture in general. I love doing events and festivals with all types of different people, but to have some festivals that are dedicated to Indigenous artists I think is important. 

“I think people are interested in learning more about Indigenous culture and music. I think the only issue is it can be such a sensitive topic that people are scared to broach or are unsure how to maybe even support Aboriginal culture respectfully. But I think it's better for people to just try to embrace Indigenous culture in the way that they can and not be scared.”

The cultivation of Thomas’ musical streak and storytelling prowess began early when family road trips to visit family were soundtracked by and large by the great Paul Kelly. But she also cites alt-rock outfits like Wolfmother, The Strokes and Tame Impala as key inspirations behind her bent for strong, hooky melodies. When it came time to record her latest EP Sanctuary, the storytelling side featured strongly amid the lush, smooth beats and her captivating, breathy vocals. 

“I think there's different inspirations for each song, but I don't really try to stick to one topic for every track,” Thomas explains. “Like Sanctuary - when I was writing it, it started off as like a boy whose parents are quite strict and restricting him at an age where he kind of needs to find his freedom and independence. That was kind of what the song was about. 

“But when I started writing more of the lyrics, like ‘how far have you come / when will the day come / when you can see the sun’ - I was like, no, this song is actually about refugees finding sanctuary. 

“I can't necessarily relate to it, but I'm always learning about other people and now seeing the relevance it has to the conflict with Ukraine and Russia. So I found that my writing has been focusing on migrants finding their place in Australia. Where do they feel like home? There's a lot more we could do to make people feel welcome.” 

Sanctuary is out now.