Thelma Plum on her new EP ‘Meanjin’: “I’ve put so much into these songs… I feel very exposed, very vulnerable”

The Gamilaraay singer-songwriter’s first release since the barnstorming ‘Better In Blak’ is a “love letter to Brissy”. She tells NME more about its emotional stories. Words: Madison Howarth

In May, Thelma Plum was standing, awestruck, onstage at the Sydney Opera House. She was performing in support of Paul Kelly, a mentor and longtime musical inspiration.

She looked out at the crowd gathered at the Northern Broadwalk of the iconic venue and asked herself: “What is my life? What is going on?”

“I’ve been coming out with Paul Kelly and singing ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ and that’s just been crazy. That’s just been like a dream,” she recounts to NME a few days later at the Warner Music office in Pyrmont. She calls it a “career highlight”, but it sounds more like a life goal ticked off the list. “The world can end now,” she jokes.

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We’re meeting Plum to talk about her new EP ‘Meanjin’, the first project she’s released since her barnstorming debut album ‘Better In Blak’, which peaked at Number 4 on the ARIA Albums Chart in 2019 and secured Plum one win and five other nominations at the 2019 ARIAs, including Album of the Year.

Commercial performance and critical acclaim aside, ‘Better In Blak’ also became a collection of anthems for Blackfullas – especially Blak women. “A lot of Blak mothers have messaged me on Instagram just explaining how it makes them feel that their daughters will have [the album] to look to, which makes me feel really happy,” the Gamilaraay singer-songwriter says.

Thelma Plum
Credit: Georgia Wallace

“I like how it has resonated with people. I absolutely adore seeing young Blak girls seeing ‘Homecoming Queen’ when I’m playing it live… It makes me so happy.”

For her new project, Plum takes listeners on a journey back home to Meanjin (Brisbane). Written on her balcony in lockdown last year, the EP is her “love letter to Brissy”.

Plum had been working on her second album in London when the pandemic halted her plans. The decision to fly to the UK to work on music with producer Alex Burnett was “very intentional”, she says. The ‘Meanjin’ EP, on the other hand, came together “very organically,” recalls Plum.

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“I was in Brisbane, moved into a new little place and I just felt very happy. During the lockdown, it was horrible and awful, there wasn’t much work. But it was when I realised I hadn’t been still in, like, 10 years and I just got to be still in Brissy for a little while. I just realised how much I love this place, how much it means to me. I love my life here.”

The opening track, ‘The Brown Snake’, is already one of Plum’s favourites to perform. Fans got a sneak preview of ‘Meanjin’ material at her shows in May and on the Making It Up To You Tour in June, and will no doubt be treated to more when she goes on the ‘Meanjin’ tour this August.

“A lot of Black mothers have messaged me on Instagram just explaining how it makes them feel that their daughters will have [‘Better In Blak’] to look to, which makes me feel really happy”

“It’s nice to write music and be able to play it live again because it’s been a really long time,” says Plum, but she admits that it’s still nerve-wracking.

“I’ve put so much into these songs… I feel very exposed, very vulnerable. I’m sharing a part of me I hold close to my heart.”

As locals know well, ‘The Brown Snake’ is a nickname for the Brisbane River, but Plum’s lyrics bring in a new dimension of self-love with lines like “Brown, like my eyes” and “Brown, like my skin”.

Her gift for storytelling lends ‘Meanjin’ vulnerability. On soft piano ballad ‘Baby Blue Bicycle’, the Paul Kelly influence is particularly strong. Plum references specific memories in avid detail: “I think about that Queenslander on the hill / My neighbour Dot she used to / tell me the goss / until one day her granddaughter said she was ill.

“That is very literal,” says Plum. “Everything in that song is real. I grew up in that house for many years. It was a housing commission house, and I loved that home… The department of housing refused to build us a fence so my uncle did and I sing about that in the song. My neighbour, Dot, I just absolutely loved her. She was a really sweet older lady and I would always go over and she loved to have a goss and so do I.” She laughs.

Thelma Plum
Credit: Georgia Wallace

“I feel quite emotional when I perform that one live,” Plum adds. “I’ve played it a handful of times and each time I’ve cried.”

Sonically, the EP is inspired by artists Plum was listening to throughout lockdown, like Phoebe Bridgers, as well as those she’s loved for years like Shania Twain and Fleetwood Mac. The latter band heavily influenced the track ‘When It Rains It Pours’. “I wanted the guitars to sound quite dreamy,” says Plum. “I even got some sneaky guitar solos in there that my guitarist, Pete Covington, was really excited about. He played this amazing solo at the end of it and I love it.”

Plum says her label took some convincing to add the solo, which Covington had been playing live and she fell in love with. It works, she thinks: “I also feel like guitar solos are making a comeback.”

‘Bars On My Windows’ is especially honest. Plum sings, “I lie in bed all day / I find it hard to get to sleep / with all the secrets that I keep for / you have a hold on me / but now that I’m in therapy / it’s not my job to set you free / when I see you I’m scared again / what will it take for it to end?

Plum says the track is about setting boundaries – something, she admits, she finds difficult.

“It was quite therapeutic to write because at the time I was going through a lot and I felt like my boundaries weren’t being listened to,” she says. “But also I felt like I wasn’t really great at setting them, so I would burn out. I just realised that it’s not really my job… It’s not my job to fix you, I’ve got to fix myself.”

Asked to reflect on her time in the music industry over the past 10 years, Plum quips that she’s more of a “live in the moment kind of girl”, but does note that much has changed in the representation and elevation of First Nations artists in the Australian music scene.

“I feel a lot safer playing at music festivals now,” she says. “Ten years ago, festivals looked incredibly different. I think people are understanding that you have to have First Nations people on the line-up, like you just have to, I don’t care. You can’t just book me and be like ‘oh that’s it we’ve done our job’.”

She reels off a list of First Nations artists who are also taking the country by storm: “Tasman Keith, Alice Skye, Baker Boy, Emily Wurramara, Dameeeela… It’s so nice being at festivals and having mob in the line-up.”

“Ten years ago festivals looked incredibly different. I think people are understanding that you have to have First Nations people on the line-up”

While it’s important to celebrate the small wins and note progress made, she adds, there’s still a long way to go.

“I’m careful about patting people on the back too much,” she says. “I’m not going to pat you on the back and make you feel better for doing what you should have been doing 10 years ago when I was first playing festivals.”

‘Meanjin’ is the culmination of Plum’s reflections on her childhood, which she describes as having “ups and downs” and being “a bit complicated at times”. But she is full of praise for her mother Lieszel, an “earth angel” who instilled in her a love of music.

“I am so lucky that she is my mum. I feel like no matter how little we had she always made sure I had the most,” says Plum.

“She’s an avid music lover. She used to take me to gigs and festivals when I was a teenager, I was very lucky with how she would do that. And that’s just because she loves music and we had very similar music tastes, we still do. She still comes to my shows all the time, I see her in the crowd and it just feels nice. I hope that I’ve made her proud.”

And there’s a lot to be proud of. Plum’s career seems to go from strength to strength – she’s won numerous awards, has had 6 ARIA nominations and is now playing shows at the Opera House.

Yet, she sometimes still finds herself in disbelief at the life and career she’s carved out for herself.

“I keep thinking what would 11 year-old me think if I was like: ‘Girl, you wait’. I would’ve been like: ‘Liar!’”

Thelma Plum’s EP ‘Meanjin’ is out now via Warner Music Australia. Tickets to the ‘Meanjin’ tour are on sale now. See a version of this story in print in the July 2022 issue of NME Australia magazine 

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