A decade on from winning the inaugural triple j Unearthed National Indigenous Award, Gamilaraay powerhouse and singer-songwriter Thelma Plum recently returned to the Opera House stage with a brand-new single, Backseat Of My Mind, in tow. It was a particularly momentous return, as she played a string of shows alongside one of her idols, Paul Kelly.
Backseat Of My Mind follows on from the success of her last album, Better in Blak, which shares and explores themes of trauma, healing, and the colonial footprint in Australia. Backseat Of My Mind takes listeners on a literal and metaphorical journey of healing and moving forward. It'll transport you to a place of nostalgia during your favourite road trip.
We spoke to Thelma during the middle of her most recent Australian tour to celebrate the release of Backseat Of My Mind. We spoke about moving forward, her upcoming album and reflected on the journey in the music industry for First Nations artists. We also explored her musical influences, spoke about the importance of being present, and she mused that was humbly grateful to be back on the road performing for audiences.
Cool Accidents: Congratulations on your new release Backseat Of My Mind. How are you feeling about sharing it with the world?
Thelma Plum: I feel really good. It feels crazy and it just kind of started to feel real. [During my tour] I’ve been playing Backseat Of My Mind live and I saw that some people are singing the words already and I was like ‘How do you even know the words?’ [laughs]. It’s exciting to have more music out again.
Throughout the song, you say you are "driving to a beautiful place you know". Can you tell me more about this beautiful place and what it represents to you?
There’s no specific place. This song was written after being in London at the start of 2020, getting COVID and then having to come home. I wrote this song in Brisbane at my home which was really nice though. I was thinking a lot about how I really miss touring and during the pandemic it was pretty hard not being able to do that. That’s what I love doing, it’s my job as well. I was reflecting a lot about missing tour life and being in the tour van and driving to all of these beautiful venues. But also, it’s whatever that beautiful place is in your mind. Sometimes I go there to feel better.
This track is a bit of a new vibe and feels like new beginnings and a new direction. What have you learnt about yourself during this process?
I feel like a lot of people have learnt so much about themselves because we have had a lot of time to reflect [during the pandemic]. I’m still the same person but I feel like I have changed a lot and grown up, I’ve gotten older and wiser if you will [laughs]. It’s been a bloody time and a half.
What advice would you have for other people about moving forward and embodying a new space?
Who knows what is going to come next? I should be more positive than that, but I feel like we should be enjoying every single moment. I think the pandemic has shown me what is [really] important, and for me, that is writing music and being around my friends and family and the people I love. I have been trying to be present more, so that would be my advice. Live every day like there’s no tomorrow [laughs].
The visuals for Backseat Of My Mind offers a layering of both animation and real life. What does this mean?
It’s like when you go to that place in your mind that is maybe your comfort place, it’s kind of make-believe but also still real. I didn’t really imagine myself being in [the visuals] or anything, it was kind of just a reflection of my happy place, which does involve my dog Tex, my family dog!
I read that you really wanted to write a nostalgic driving song. What are some of your go-to driving songs?
When I was a kid, we used to always sing American Pie by Don McLean. That is a go-to driving song. Anything by Shania Twain and Fleetwood Mac.
You’ve been on a tour where you performed with Paul Kelly at the Opera House for VIVID Live which looked incredible. I read somewhere that you said Paul Kelly was one of the first white men to sing about Aboriginal people and he was one of your favourite singer-songwriters growing up. And right now, 10 years on it’s like this journey has come full circle. Can you talk about this and share your experience?
It is insane that I’m getting to do this. He was always like ‘Uncle Paul’. I never heard any other older white man singing about Indigenous issues. That’s something really nice to be able to do. He is such an incredible storyteller. It’s just been insane that I’m now playing these shows at the Opera House with him. We wrote a song together on my last record. It’s like ‘What the heck? What’s going on?’ [laughs]. I feel very blessed.
Who were some of your other musical influences growing up?
Honestly, Paul Kelly was [my main influence], I was so obsessed with him. In saying that I also loved country music. My Mum would listen to a lot of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen growing up. I also loved Britney Spears and Shakaya and these incredible pop artists. Delta Goodrem was a huge one for me when I was in school. She was everything to me. I loved country music, but I also loved watching pop stars do their thing.
Obviously, there is much more to your music career than accolades, but I’m really keen to learn more about some of the things you want to achieve. I imagine performing beside Paul Kelly was one of them. What are your future goals?
I always like to practice gratitude and there have been several times lately I pinch myself and I’m like ‘How is this real and how is this happening?’. Like having the opportunity to play outside of the Opera House and looking up at the Opera House and knowing Paul Kelly is going to come on after me, I definitely had a moment where I was trying to be very present. This is something that I imagine telling 11-year-old me and I would not believe you. I would say you’re a liar.
In terms of goals, I just want to be able to play again. I want to be able to tour and play new music. I’ve written so much new music. I want to be able to share that. But not just releasing songs. I’m a performer. I love performing and I love being on stage.
Without giving too much away, what can we expect from your new album and are there any collabs coming up that you can share?
I can’t give too much away. It’s top-secret [laughs]. Backseat Of My Mind is a taste of what’s to come. I kind of wrote that with some other songs at the same time, and they all blend into each other. I created them knowing they interrelate.
You’ve been in the industry for 10 years, and over the last few years, we have seen rapid changes and shifts in safe spaces and meaningful representation and the celebration of blackness. These changes weren’t by accident, and people like yourself have worked hard to make this happen. I know your last album had some strong powerful themes about your identity, and visibility and it gave a voice to so many people that had been othered and allowed them to feel seen. Can you share a bit about this journey, and what it is like as an Aboriginal woman creating in the industry and space today?
It's incredible. I can feel that change. There are so many incredible Blak artists and, like you said, it’s not something by accident. We have been here for a long time.
This is separate from music and I guess it's all in the same world but during Australian Fashion Week in Sydney a few weeks ago there was so much visibility centred around First Nations designs and creativity. It’s so exciting to see mob taking up that space that we deserve to take up. It’s really nice, and [the industry] feels different and nicer and safer.