"During that time, being back in Brisbane and living there again, I was just thinking about the things that make me very happy and that I value."
The ascendant pop star Thelma Plum released a culturally resonant debut album in 2019's Better In Blak. But the COVID-19 pandemic hindered plans for her blockbuster follow-up. Now the Gamilaraay singer, songwriter and storyteller has resurfaced with a restorative EP, Meanjin, inspired by her Brisbane hometown, family and lockdown nostalgia. And it feels like the beginning of a new era.
Plum, in glamourously boho attire, is discussing Meanjin – and an accompanying tour – on a Monday afternoon from her label's headquarters. "I'm in the Warner office, yeah, here in bloody sunny Sydney," she cheerfully confirms over Zoom. "It's cold!" The 27-year-old is charming, carefree and chatty, often demurring with an "I don't know" as she considers responses or offers comic asides. Plum turned to jewellery-making as a quarantine hobby and she shows off a delicate (and symbolic) bracelet. "One of my best friends made this – you can't see it, but it does say 'Meanjin'." That evening, Plum will fly to Melbourne, which she "loves", despite "the beautiful, insane weather."
In 2012 Plum broke out as a teen folkie with the single Father Said, which she'd uploaded onto triple j's Unearthed platform. Eventually, Plum signed to Warner Music Australia, issuing the Monsters EP. But she arrived with Better In Blak. The musician revealed an adroitness at reformulating, and individualising, modish pop paradigms to explore both personal and social themes relating to her First Nations identity. Better In Blak traversed heartland rock, retro-soul and gleaming electro. It was critically acclaimed – and Plum received nominations for multiple ARIAs (including Album of the Year) and the Australian Music Prize. The title track, one of three platinum singles, landed in the Hottest 100 at #9, becoming the highest polling song by an Indigenous act at the time (Beddy Rays recently covered it for Like A Version). A year on, Plum presented an iconic anniversary edition – a vinyl pressing in the colours of the Aboriginal flag.
For Plum, Better In Blak was ultimately affirming. "I feel like I took a lot away from that," she reflects. "I feel like, that record, I was very vulnerable. I feel like I shared a lot of parts of me that maybe were just very personal. [But] I feel like it paid off. I was very nervous about sharing those parts of me, but I think that's something that I learnt from that record. There's strength in being vulnerable as well."
Plum's career would be halted by pandemic turmoil. Of course, that upheaval coincided with a cultural reckoning, as the Black Lives Matter protest movement gained momentum globally. Crucially, Better In Blak had precipitated those conversations about anti-Blackness.
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In early 2020 Plum was in the UK, cutting her second album. She'd reunited with Better In Blak producer Alexander Burnett – former Sparkadia frontman and latterly the "Antony" of the deep house combo Antony & Cleopatra. Plum was likewise anticipating UK shows, having sold out a London venue. She'd set up European summer dates. But, as the pandemic escalated, Plum headed home. That March, Plum disclosed that she herself had tested positive to COVID.
In addition to jewellery-making, Plum was surprisingly industrious in iso. She reimagined Powderfinger's 1999 alt-rock classic These Days for a Commonwealth Bank Australia campaign. Then Plum aired a collab with the post-EDM Alice Ivy – the emotive Ticket To Heaven. "I absolutely love Alice Ivy – I think Alice Ivy's incredible," she says. "I was grateful to be able to do that. I just loved writing that with her. It was great."
More unexpectedly, Plum joined the cast of Netflix's animated flick Back To The Outback with such illustrious names as Eric Bana, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Isla Fisher and Miranda Tapsell. She not only sang a Tim Minchin number, but also voiced a character created especially for her – Maeve, an undeniably cute funnel-web spider. "That to me is the most exciting thing," Plum enthuses. "I am so cool with my nieces and nephews and my godkids, 'cause they love that movie. It's also a great movie… I can't even believe it – it was so fun. I just wanna do children's movies forever!"
Ironically, Plum had no aspirations to be a thespian. "I'm actually very bad at acting – so terrible, so bad. I freeze up as soon as the camera is in front of me." Plus, she experiences performance anxiety.
Lastly, Plum established herself as a "fashionista". The star had penned Homecoming Queen about the painful bewilderment of rarely encountering Blak women represented in pop culture media growing up. Yet, this year, Plum graced the cover of the relaunched InStyle Australia. "I've always loved fashion, and I love getting dolled up and everything like that, but I've never really had the means or really known much about that world."
Still, Plum's tour schedule was continually disrupted – and she's since welcomed the resumption of the live circuit. In May, Plum even opened Paul Kelly's Vivid LIVE concerts (coincidentally, the veteran rocker was credited as co-writer on Better In Blak's epic finale, Made For You, alongside Plum fan Paul McCartney). "Honestly, I thought it would be strange," Plum ponders of her return to the stage. "I felt a bit nervous – like, 'Have I forgotten how to do this?' But I have not, it turns out. So it just felt really good."
Plum has already performed Meanjin's rhythmic lead single, Backseat Of My Mind – which she deems "quite nostalgic" (it channels '80s Stevie Nicks). "When I wrote that song, I remember being a bit emo. We'd had shows cancelled. I just remember being like, 'I just wanna be on tour. I wanna work. I miss being on the road.' All of these things that I thought I did not like about touring – which was being on the road and moving around, travelling so much – I missed it." Plum also previewed When It Rains It Pours. In fact, she was so enthralled by her music director Pete Covington's virtuoso live guitar as to rework the studio recording – cheekily re-enacting a conversation with her perplexed manager. "I remember his face at first being a bit like, 'A guitar solo?'"
Plum has described the six-track Meanjin EP as "a love letter to my hometown" – the land's traditional owners the Turrbal people. Lonely in lockdown, she reminisced about her youth in Brisbane's Southern inner-suburbs, notably West End. (Plum missed her mum, who now resides in Sydney.) "It really was not intentional," she explains. "I wasn't like, 'I'm gonna write a concept EP and it's gonna be about Brisbane' – that was not what happened.
"You know, lockdown, COVID, happened… I had songs that I was ready to kind of release – or work on the production ready for release. But that was at the start of January 2020 [when] I'd worked on them. I feel like the world had changed so much. It just didn't feel right… Too much had happened. I was like, 'I don't wanna sing about heartbreak – the world's falling apart. What the hell?'
"During that time, being back in Brisbane and living there again, I was just thinking about the things that make me very happy and that I value – which is family and friends, home… My dad calls me a very nostalgic person – he thinks I always have been like that. I call it dramatic!
"[But] I was sitting on my balcony, looking at the Brisbane River, and just thinking about my life in this city."
Plum's ability to evoke a sense of place is apparent as she lists her favourite Meanjin hang-outs. Plum escapes to Enoggera Reservoir – or "The Res". "We go swimming there, which is pretty fun."
Plum liaised with Burnett for Meanjin. She was vibing to music from the '90s and 2000s – particularly Shania Twain, the Queen of Country Pop. (Mind, Plum stans current indie darling Phoebe Bridgers, too.) The EP's poetic intro, The Brown Snake, recalls The Cranberries. "I think it does sound very different from anything I've done before," Plum posits. "But, I mean, maybe other people might not think that." Primarily, she didn't want Meanjin to be over-produced, but rather "a bit more organic-sounding." Plum stresses, "Again, it wasn't super-intentional."
Of Meanjin's as yet-unheard-songs, Plum is attached to Baby Blue Bicycle – a plaintive piano ballad that foregrounds her expressive voice. "Baby Blue Bicycle is very special to me," she says. "It's very literal. Everything in that song is my real life. You know, that song is for my mum and my dad – my mum and my stepdad, who I call my dad. He's a sweet, beautiful angel!" And Plum will be "pretty excited" to finally perform the whimsical The Bat Song on the Meanjin run.
Plum is non-committal about the fate of that pre-pandemic sophomore – although she regularly revisits tracks. "They're still there," Plum states. "I find myself thinking about that song, like 'I should do something with it.'" Nevertheless, Plum could simply have outgrown the album, as she did another lost project prior to Better In Blak. "When you release music, it's usually so long after you've written it – 'cause there's so many different parts of the process you go through: writing the music, recording and producing it, waiting for it to be released… I don't know, sometimes then those songs can feel a bit dated [or] feel a bit like, 'My life's changed so much.' So I will 100 per cent write a lot of new music. But I'll definitely revisit a couple, I reckon?"
While Plum has her wistful moments, today she's sanguinely peering into the future. The singer hopes to spend time in London, where she has friends like Gang Of Youths' David Le'aupepe, and gig. "I just wanna go overseas – like it's time," Plum declares. "I feel like just these years have been stolen away from us. I just really wanna go overseas and play – that is definitely my next goal."
Thursday 25th August – Blue Mountains Theatre, Springwood, NSW / Gundungarra and Dharug Country
Friday 26th August – The Cambridge, Newcastle, NSW / Awabakal Country
Saturday 27th August – UC Refectory, Canberra, ACT / Ngunnawal
Thursday 1st September – Forum, Melbourne, VIC / Wurundjeri Country
Friday 2nd September – The Gov, Adelaide, SA / Kaurna Country
Saturday 3rd September – SPRINGTIME Festival, Gold Coast, QLD / Yugambeh Country
Friday 9th September- The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD / Meanjin
Saturday 10th September- Nightquarter, Sunshine Coast, QLD / Gubbi Gubbi Country
Friday 16th September – Roundhouse, Sydney, NSW / Gadigal Country
Saturday 24th September – Good Day Sunshine Festival, Busselton, WA / Wadandi Boodja