When NME catches up with Budjerah, the singer-songwriter has just turned 19. It’s the latest celebration in a flurry of them: the artist born Budjerah Slabb has kicked off his music career on a series of highs, even before releasing his first full project. Between signing to a major label, recording, collaborating and touring, the young performer of Bundjalung descent has stayed humble, with a goal to share his stories with anyone who will listen.
NME’s talking to Budjerah over Zoom a week out from the release of his debut self-titled EP, which drops tomorrow. Though it’s only four tracks long, it’s clear that he’s put in the promotional hours behind it: he’s supported Lime Cordiale and Thelma Plum on their tours, and performed live sets for Isol-Aid and under the trees at the leafy Byron At Byron resort for The Sound on ABC.
When asked to describe his sound, Budjerah is a little unsure. “When you look at it on Spotify or Apple Music, it says ‘pop’,” he says. “It’s very lo-fi, jazzy. I would call myself R&B, that’s my favourite genre, I listen to it the most.” When listening to the EP, it’s not hard to understand his uncertainty.
‘Budjerah’ pieces together elements of traditional R&B, pop and gospel, all underpinned by a dreamy, soul-infused chord progression. His debut single ‘Missing You’, a cruisy guitar-led tune, made it to the top of triple j’s airplay charts shortly after its release. His laid-back style evokes that of Kee’ahn, Lianne La Havas and Matt Corby – the last artist the producer of his EP.
Budjerah still lives where he grew up: the tiny north-east New South Wales town of Fingal Head (its population in 2016: 592). Raised in a musical household and participating in family church bands, he’s come to emulate contemporary artists such as Dominic Fike, Carrie Underwood and Beyoncé – he aspires to put on shows as extravagant as Queen Bey’s one day. But Budjerah sees himself as a soul or even gospel singer. He names Sam Cooke and The Clark Sisters as early influences, the latter act making particular sense considering his religious background.
“I grew up in church, my dad is an assistant pastor, both my parents are licensed pastors,” he explains. “When I was born… it was like ‘oh, we gotta do band rehearsal, we gotta do worship practice for Sunday’ and I’d come along to that. I think just being surrounded by that, I learned a lot and it just stuck. I’ve just lived music all my life.”
“My goal is to be recognised as a really great singer”
Schooling didn’t offer much in terms of musical education, with Budjerah instead taking vocal lessons from his father and performing at local restaurants or arts centres. When it was time to get serious about recording, Budjerah had the help of Corby, whom he praises as “one of the greatest singers in the world”.
Besides mentoring him on songwriting, Corby pushed Budjerah to explore his vocal range – which he flaunts on songs like ‘Higher’ and ‘Shoulda Coulda’ – improve his breathing technique and equip him with studio recording skills. The pair didn’t set out to make an EP, but over a few sessions together, that is exactly what happened.
“I did two sessions with Matt where we wrote [‘Shoulda Coulda’ and ‘Pyro’], then we had a week where we wrote ‘Higher’ and the next day we wrote ‘Missing You’,” Budjerah recounts. “The afternoon we went home from ‘Missing You’, we were like ‘Oh, is this the EP? I guess so!’”
Being relatively young, Budjerah’s stories have stemmed mainly from his experiences as a teenager. ‘Missing You’ was written after completing high school and no longer having a group of friends to hang out with each day. The lush ‘Higher’ came when he “was just having a good week”. Though they are personal, the songs still carry universal themes of longing and euphoria.
“When I’ve gone to writing sessions I’ve just let whatever come out. I just can’t hide it. I’m a very open person and I find it hard to lie and hold emotions in,” he says.
The down-to-earth singer-songwriter has already, so early in his career, warmed the stage for some of Australia’s biggest acts. But there was one star he wasn’t expecting to meet. When supporting Lime Cordiale during their recent Sydney shows, Budjerah had his dressing room moved to make way for some surprise guests.
“I was like ‘Aw it’s OK, I don’t need much space anyway. I don’t mind, as long as I have a mirror to look at my hair and some water’,” he says good-naturedly. “Then they were like ‘Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba and Russell Crowe are here’.”
“I come backstage near the end of Lime Cordiale’s set. I was talking to Louis [Leimbach] in the dressing room and Idris walks in and everyone shifted to him. He fully took the attention of everyone in the room, it was the craziest thing to watch,” Budjerah exclaims.
“I had one Polaroid left and I was like ‘do you want to be in my Polaroid?’ and he was like ‘Yeah I’ll be in your Polaroid’ – but in a British accent – and I was buzzing because it’s James Bond! Almost, kind of, not really.”
While he has become well-seasoned in performing live, a national headline tour is a whole step up. Budjerah will be hitting the road in May and June to mark the EP’s launch. What does he hope to get out of his first headline gigs? The same as any other show: to find a crowd that resonates with his relaxed brand of R&B and soul.
“My goal is to be recognised as a really great singer,” he says with a grin. “Hopefully that’s what people take away and they connect to my music and get to know who I am. That’s what I hope.”
‘Budjerah’ is out March 26. Tickets for Budjerah’s first national tour of Australia are on sale now