Calling the shots: Jess Mauboy’s triumphant return to music
Jessica Mauboy is back in top form and most importantly, she’s in control.
After a six-year hiatus from the recording studio, the Australian Idol favourite shot to the top of the charts in October with her fourth studio album Hilda.
Her most personal collection of original songs to date, the record is inspired by and dedicated to the fierce and strong women who shaped Jess into who she is today.
But the powerhouse singer, who turned 30 in August, admits it’s taken her until now to feel fully in control of her career.
“There are moments I’ve allowed people to overstep or overwrite me, but with this record I didn’t,” she says.
“Hands down Jealous is one of my favourite tracks, but I had a tug of war with the record label over it. There was a moment where I put my foot down and said ‘Hey I’m the one who understands this. I’m the one who’s going to go perform it’.
“Working on this record was really about being myself, being a team leader, being the director and really navigating people around the room.
“I’ve been building that confidence for 10 years. It’s a very hard thing to say ‘No’ or ‘Hang on, let’s back track’.”
This strong, self-assured Jess is evident from Hilda’s opening track Blessing, where she spells out her worth in no uncertain terms.
“Blessing is my mantra, that’s why I placed it first on the record,” she says. “It’s saying ‘You’re good enough and don’t let anybody tell you you’re not’. It’s really the first time of just coming out and feeling the success of saying it out loud.
“It’s about that first challenge of either being let down or told you’re not good enough, even if it’s not being said just a physical feeling and vibe you get from some people who don’t allow you to shine.
“There are so many golden moments for me in this record and it really empowered me to get back on the road and fall in love again and reconnect. This record is almost like a gifted mirror.”
First catching the ears of record executives at just 14 as the first ever winner of the Telstra Road to Tamworth competition, Jess rose to national fame at 16 as runner-up on the fourth season of Idol.
Chart success and a hit movie, The Sapphires, followed. Jess became a darling of the Australian music industry but even as her profile continued to grow, the beloved popstar admits she almost fell out of love with music.
In an interview with Andrew Denton earlier this year, Jess revealed she nearly quit singing during a period where her passion for music got lost in the “noise” of her other projects including a starring role in The Secret Daughter and representing Australia at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Australia, of course, didn’t fall out of love with her over that time. The Secret Daughter soundtrack became Mauboy’s first No. 1 album and also made her the first indigenous artist to reach the top of the ARIA Albums Chart.
“I’ve learned to celebrate things in the moment and not leave them to later, which is important,” she says.
“Being in the music industry for more than 13 years has allowed me to wake up to that. It’s OK to be on that rollercoaster and be quite open.”
Jess co-wrote all 14 songs on Hilda, reuniting with her long-time collaborators DNA Songs (David Musumeci and Anthony Egizii) and Louis Schoorl.
“I made sure I surrounded myself with people I’d worked with for a long time who understood how I worked and operated and would never shut me down,” she says.
“When you do enter your world to intimately share details it’s very important that it’s never covered up. Once someone disapproves then you start pretending or putting up a wall or writing things that aren’t really you.”
Jess’s triumphant return to music started in her hometown of Darwin, where she returned to recharge and learn more about Hilda Mills, the grandmother she’d never met.
“The foundation of it was knowing my nanna’s story,” she says.
“The beauty was I met her through uncles and aunties sharing what they remember. There were so many photos that mum and I would look at over a cup of tea in the Mauboy house.
“She lived a short life, but she was vibrant. She loved music and dressing up, but she was also a strong, powerful woman – a leader of the house there to make sure her children were ready for school, that they had meals on the table and did their homework.”
So why was Jess, one of five sisters, given Hilda as a middle name?
“Mum said ‘Look bub, you were in my arms and my mother’s face flashed in my head’,” she says. “I just balled my eyes out at that point.
“I’m carrying something even beyond myself. Knowing her spirit still exists, I feel so proud my family really came together and affected me in a way that I needed to share my own story of becoming a woman – the growth, the confidence.
“I’d written this record within the last six years, but only this year it makes sense. Turning 30, becoming engaged to my long-time partner (Themeli), then getting No. 1 and that recognition of what feels real and honest, I feel on top of the world.
“Not that I ever needed that validation but when you are putting your own experience out there you need people to understand for themselves.”
And her big year isn’t over yet.
Jess co-headlines HOTA Gold Coast’s Deadly Hearts: A Celebration of Australian Indigenous Music concert with music legend Archie Roach next weekend.
Award-winning comedian Steph Tisdell will host the event, which also features performances by Mojo Juju, Aodhan, Selve, Kinship Collective and HVWKS.
“I can’t wait. It would be a dream of mine to collaborate with Uncle Archie, who I’ve never sung with,” she says.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been back up there, so I’m looking forward to taking to the stage and ripping it up with my band.
“There might be just really random moments where an artist might come on and jam. With my set I want to celebrate everyone who will be there.”
Jessica Mauboy and Archie Roach headline the Deadly Hearts: A Celebration of Australian Indigenous Music at Home of the Arts (HOTA) Gold Coast on December 14. For more information go to hota.com.au.