‘I will never forget it as long as I live’: Thelma Plum on singing with Archie Roach

By Jane Rocca

Thelma is an ambassador for Melbourne Fashion Week: “There has been a lot of progress in fashion overall, but there is still a lot of under-representation and lack of diversity. Having a front-facing role like mine will help, I hope.”

After winning the inaugural Triple J Unearthed National Indigenous Award in 2012, Thelma Plum went on to release her debut album Better in Blak in 2019, quickly becoming one of the country’s most successful artists. At 27, Thelma finds herself at a stage in her career where she has learnt to prioritise her mental health and wellbeing.

How have you grown since your debut album Better in Blak came
out in 2019? I’m definitely much calmer than I used to be. We are all on our
own life journey but I think as I have grown up, I have come to accept myself a lot more. When I wrote Better in Blak there was a lot of angst I wanted to get out. My new EP, Meanjin, was written while sitting on my balcony looking at the river at home in Brisbane during the pandemic. It came from a reflective place that wasn’t so agitated.

How have fame and recognition changed your life? It feels overwhelming, to be honest. To be recognised still makes me feel weird. I try not to think about it too much! I have noticed a small difference recently in terms of people recognising me when I am out. Sometimes I get anxious and feel nervous about losing that anonymity. Most of the time people are nice and come up to say hi. But fame has made me use the internet differently to what I would have done before. Sometimes I feel awkward using social media such as Instagram – deciding what parts of me I want to share with my followers. I am now sharing with more people than I used to, and it’s all about trying to create those boundaries for myself.

How easy is it to maintain friendships or make new friends? I am lucky to have the most amazing friends and family around me. I think I have become good at weeding out those sorts of people who aren’t genuine. I am very lucky to have friends who have my back and who are good at saying, “Thelma, don’t hang out with that person!”

You recently took part in a Maybelline New York foundation campaign on diverse skin tones and now you’re an ambassador for Melbourne Fashion Week. What does being part of Fashion Week mean to you? It’s quite an important moment for me, and I am excited to be involved. This has been a good year for conversations around diversity for First Nations people. To bring my voice to the fashion realm is another great step. There has been a lot of progress in fashion overall, but there is still a lot of under-representation and lack of diversity. Having a front-facing role like mine will help, I hope.

Do you have a favourite Australian fashion designer right now? I love First Nations label Maara Collective and always feel great in their power suits. I go to Gammin Threads for a parody power shirt – they make the funniest T-shirts – and Nungala Creative is another go-to. I also love the custom designs by Melbourne label Sabatucci – they create big beautiful bows which I love to wear. I also love HoMie in Fitzroy, especially what they do as a not-for-profit, giving back to community.

You work very closely with your stylist, Karinda Mutabazi. How did that friendship form? I have always had my own style and sense of style. I first worked with Karinda when I was 17. I was a poor struggling musician who couldn’t afford a stylist and we did a photo shoot in a Melbourne warehouse together. I felt beautiful in the clothes she chose for me and loved every minute of the process. Years down the track I had the chance to work with her again, and now she is across everything I do fashion-wise. She is like an aunty I look up to.

“I always have been pretty good at advocating for myself and it’s something that Mum taught me from a very young age. She knew that as a young black kid it was important that I knew how to stand up for myself.”

Who are among your other role models, and why? I am a big fan of First Nations model and Mob in Fashion advocate Nathan McGuire. I also look up to Jessica Mauboy. She is incredible – a beautiful black woman who inspired me as a teenager. Seeing a black woman succeed in the mainstream was very empowering. We got to work together and wrote a song, which was a pinch-me moment. Courtney Barnett is another artist I look up to. I was very nervous when we performed Homecoming Queen together at WOMADelaide in March this year during an A.B. Original set. We got together the day before in our hotel room going over the song. She is an incredible human and musician and made me feel most comfortable.

What is the best advice your mother Lieszel has given you? My mum is my biggest supporter. I always have been pretty good at advocating for myself and it’s something that Mum taught me from a very young age. She knew that as a young black kid it was important that I knew how to stand up for myself. I have always had a strong sense of what is just, and standing up for myself all comes from Mum. So, it’s not so much about advice, it’s about observing her actions and leading by example – always being true to yourself.

How do you stay on top of your mental health as life – and your
career – go full-steam ahead? For me, it’s about knowing that I can count on my friends and family, and surrounding myself with loved ones makes me feel safe. I have ADHD and recharging is very important to me. I can’t function unless I carve out time to rest and recover. Not feeling bad about wanting that time is something I am learning to do. It took me a long time to not beat myself up about it. There is this idea of toxic productivity – that we need to be constantly moving and doing things. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, and it has taken me up until now to figure it out.

How has ADHD affected you? School was very difficult for me. I really struggled. It was very tricky, but I was lucky that in grade 11 and 12 I went to an alternative learning school and it catered to kids like me. I had to find a way to get through it, putting systems in place that worked for me. I know that when I go on tour and have to play four nights in a row, I need time to recharge and to feel okay within myself afterwards. I often need to be alone in this time, which is funny because I don’t like being alone! For me to do what I do without burning out means I need these boundaries and strategies. My cat Buddy is also really good for my mental health. He was my neighbour’s cat and he wouldn’t stop coming around to mine, so she suggested I have him. I love him so much.

In 2012, you played with Shane Howard at Melbourne’s Forum theatre and were joined by Archie Roach. Ten years on, how do you reflect on his recent passing? I remember standing up there on stage with Shane and Uncle Archie and we were singing Solid Rock. I remember my mum always being a big fan of his music and telling me that when she was pregnant with me, she’d take me to Uncle Archie and Ruby Hunter shows and told me how much they loved one another. After the performance I got to tell him the story about me hearing his music inside Mum’s belly. He was so sweet and beautiful and took the time to listen to me. It was incredible this moment even happened, and I will never forget it as long as I live.

Melbourne Fashion week runs from October 10-16. Thelma will perform at the Collins Dome Closing Runway on October 16.

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