From her first time on stage at Darwin Airport Hotel to Australian Idol, from Tamworth to Eurovision, Jessica Mauboy always knew she wanted to sing – and that she owes it all to her family.
I grew up in Darwin, in a suburb called Wulagi. I remember as a kid, the first thing we’d do after doing our chores, I would literally scurry down the street – a few houses down there was a huge tamarind tree – and I’d climb up it and stretch my T-shirt out in front of me and that would be my little foraging bag.
As a young kid, our parents were very much stern about us being outside. There were always things to do, Mum and Dad would say. Dad would be up there with the machete cutting the coconut trees and we would be picking them up and we would put them in the back of the Toyota ute. We’d squeeze into it – all five siblings into a three-seater with no seatbelts at the time – a real trooper van, headed to the rubbish dump. It was very outdoorsy. I was a kid that wore no shoes. I was happy to run barefoot basically.
My parents taught me to be aware, respectful and considerate. Being one of five siblings, we had to share. Although there were a few fights here and there, Mum and Dad would always make us aware that we have to love each other and apologise if you had done wrong. I’m the second youngest, looking after my youngest sister – we were all very much taught to take care of each other. Little things like when we’re out, hold hands. In nurturing and loss, taking care of one another was our goal. And making up stories and dreaming big and playing in the backyard or going down to the park.
I realised I wanted to be a performer when I was about 11 years old. I remember my parents being up to something. They asked me to sit at the table and when they’d sit at the table, it meant business. My mum was frolicking around saying, “Everyone get ready, get dressed, we’re going to go have lunch at the Darwin Airport Hotel.”
And I remember she was like, “Put on that nice red going-out top that you like, Jess, and put your black slacks on.” We arrived and I noticed there was a guy in one of the corners of the pub. He had his music things set up and he was singing away; the music sounded really great. We sat down. I could hear the guy telling a story and he began to introduce someone. He was like, “We got a special guest today. There’s a little girl and her name is Jessica.” And then all of a sudden, I see my mum and dad ushering me towards the stage. And I was slightly cut – just annoyed because I knew then that my parents set me up to go and perform a song. It was quite a bit of people, a much older crowd. I ended up performing a Trisha Yearwood song called ‘How Do I Live’ from Con Air.
As soon as I started to sing, the noise dampened down. The conversation started to go really quiet and people started to turn their heads. And I just thought, Wow, that’s how powerful music is. I still didn’t quite understand it, but I knew from that moment that I wanted to do music and sing like that for the rest of my life. That’s when the moment opened up to me. It was scary!
At 14, I’d won the Tamworth Prize. It was wild. I was living in different worlds: by evening I was singing country music, and by day I was going to school or helping out my grandfather, going to the bakery to pick up bread that they were going to throw away and doing a bit of a trek around to people’s houses that needed bread or food. We would go out and do those kinds of things when I wasn’t performing or busking or studying. My parents really believed in and saw the potential in doing community work.
A performance moment that really stands out is when I was on Oprah. I think standing in front of a powerful woman, who obviously had her own pathway – being able to perform to someone who’s just so confident and so knowing – instilled a little fear in me, but also taught me to be in the moment. It was so nice because after I got off the stage, we had words with each other and her advice was keep doing what you’re doing, because you know yourself better than anybody else does. I took that to heart. That really meant a lot because it’s something that my mother tells me, and when people say certain things that are so wise and that you’ve heard before, for me, spiritually that means I’m definitely on the right path.
I had just turned 16 when I was on Australian Idol. I didn’t want to do it, but your heart always tells you something different to your mind. Entering and auditioning, there was a lot of pressure, but having my parents there, and all my siblings to back me, made me very calm and strengthened me. They were my backbone and support. My parents had always been there from day one: taking me to my music lessons, my piano lessons. All the loans that they had put up, everything that they hocked because they needed cash just to put me forward, they worked so hard for me to get to where I am. I knew I had to give something back to them, and if that meant that I had to go on this journey, then I would do that. To be truly honest, if it wasn’t for my parents and if it wasn’t for my siblings going, “You’ve got this, Jess. You got this, Bubba,” I would probably be doing a different job. I would’ve become a teacher. I would have gone into community work.
Coming from a very big Aboriginal community, growing up with Yolngu language and a lot of the Aboriginal clans there, getting into community work was very natural. Seeing it firsthand – the hardship, the duality of it all, the English curriculum to the traditional cultural customs for the Aboriginal people – I think that’s definitely what made me very aware and worldly. My mission as a young girl, having known all of these things, I was going to be a teacher. I was going to study a lot of the Indigenous cultures and languages. But it turned out very differently. I ended up picking up music and that was my pathway. And I think that’s why when I’m not doing music, I’m doing community work: going to remote communities and spending time with the language groups and different clans around Australia. It’s rewarding, working with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, seeing kids attend school a lot more, seeing them read more, not just in English but in their own language. Allowing the parents to be involved in the curriculum too, for their children. Putting books into kids’ hands and into their laps so they can read day and night – that’s the mission really.
A lot of our family members were moved. My mum’s family descends from the Stolen Generations. This has always been a conversation – it’s political, it’s definitely something that I’ve grown up with, and it’s very natural as a community – people reaching out and trying to find their families.
Nanna Margaret is my mum’s cousin, basically. She happened to be watching The Sapphires on ABC one evening. And she said, “I just caught a glimpse of this face on TV” and she just thought immediately, This face looks like my family. And so she found out what my name was and where my line stems from, and found out we were related. Nanna Margaret ended up calling Mum and explained who she was. And at first my mum said, “No, my cousin has been missing for quite some time and there haven’t been any leads.” My mum hung up because she thought it was a prank call. Nanna Margaret rang her back and basically said, “No, this is not a joke.” And my mum was just in tears. At one point they eventually got on FaceTime; they saw each other for the first time. Everyone was bawling their eyes out. It was a whole new connection and all new stories. It’s heavy, but we felt like there was positiveness because we ended up finding a whole lot more family. We had a family reunion not long after that. That was the first time meeting so many cousins of hers that she didn’t even know existed. It was incredible.
Themeli and I, we’ve been together since we were 18. We first met in Darwin, our birthplace. I was dared to pinch him on the bum. It’s absolutely true. I had just finished touring with The Young Divas and I remember my girlfriends picked me up and we headed into town to a place called Discovery. One of my good girlfriends decided we were going to play Truth or Dare. She goes, “Okay, the dare is, Jess, I want you to go down on the dancefloor and crab claw someone’s bum.” And I said, “Hell no, I’m not doing this!” She closed her eyes, waving her finger around, and was just like, “Okay, it’s that person – he’s the only one wearing the white T-shirt and he’s just there.” And I’m like, Oh my gosh, this is so embarrassing.
I just took off… I turn to my right and all of a sudden, the person that I crab clawed is literally standing beside me. And then I hear in my ear, “I know it was you!” I said I was so sorry.
I started to see him every day. It’s like the universe was going, “Hey, you knocked on this door – now you gotta to figure it out!” I saw him at the supermarket, at the Coffee Club, in random places. Eventually I made the move and said, “Hey, do you want to make a relationship out of this?” It just happened slowly and organically and naturally. It gave both of our parents confidence that we were going to be together for a long time.
On his family’s island, Kalymnos [in Greece], he ended up proposing. It seemed like the world came together completely. And I thought, I feel like we’ve already done the ceremony, but it still feels like the first day I met you. So yes. I totally said yes. And I don’t know when we’re going to actually do a ceremony or if we will ever, but it would be nice to bring our families together down the line somewhere.
It’s wild to think I’ll be on The Voice this year. I’ve been doing a little studying for it, because it’s such a new place for me, although I’ve come from a television show and had an experience of knowing what that felt like. But getting to go back and to build new artists and discover new talent? It’s really exciting to be able to put in work and to dedicate time and stories to these artists that are going to be pushed to their limits. I love to be able to teach and build, to sit there and be able to watch them grow and also break through. It’s going to be light and heavy at the same time.
If I could go back in time, it would be to 2014 when I wrote ‘Sea of Flags’ and I was invited as a guest to Eurovision. It allowed me to understand the idea of Eurovision; that was definitely a huge highlight. I’d never done anything like it. It was fun because I got to be a part of every moment, as well as bring the concept together.
I think my happiest moment was when I turned 30. I remember inviting my whole family. They didn’t have to do anything by the way – I catered for the whole thing, put every detail together – and the venue that I set it at was right on the beach at the Nightcliff foreshore. The sun was setting; I put the food out. I ended up popping a champagne bottle. All my family and friends were gathered. We were all wearing our version of cream and white, and it was just a beautiful scene. I remember the sun-kissed colours in the sky, and the tide was coming in, and it gave me this flashback of all the moments that have happened in my life down to being with my family turning 30. It was quite magical. I had all the people that I love in one spot watching the sunset with me.
By Melissa Fulton, Deputy Editor.
This article appeared in edition #630.
Photo: Nicole Bentley.