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Thelma Plum. Photo/Supplied

Rising Aussie star Thelma Plum is putting politics into pop

Ahead of her Auckland appearance, Thelma Plum talks to James Belfield about her latest album, Better in Blak.

Early on July 26, 2016, Thelma Plum had studio time booked with fellow Aussie songwriter Dave Le‘aupepe. But that session was, she now recalls, “dark”.

The previous night, current affairs show Four Corners had broadcast “Australia’s Shame”, about the mistreatment of Aboriginals at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The opening scene had shown 17-year-old Dylan Voller stripped to the waist, shrouded in a “spit mask” hood and shackled to a chair.

“I’d been aware of this mistreatment for some time. I’ve got blood brothers who’ve been in detention centres, but this was the first time mainstream Australia was forced to see what was happening,” says 24-year-old Plum, who grew up proud of her Gamilaraay heritage between homes in Brisbane and her family’s farm in northern New South Wales.

“So, I couldn’t go into a studio and say, ‘Let’s write a banger or a light, upbeat pop song about nothing’, that would have been unfair. It was a very dark day in the studio, because everyone had watched that show.”

The song that came out of that session, Love and War, is soulful pop at its most powerful, with Plum’s plaintive chorus of “Hold up your chin” not just a call for courage, but a reminder of the ties that physically bound Voller.

Three years on, Plum has become something of a spokesperson for indigenous rights in Australia’s music industry. She’s forged a close friendship with Voller and turned her songwriting more towards activism and bold self-examination, and she calls out fakery with a smirking viciousness (for example, the excellent Woke Blokes on new debut album Better in Blak).

She’s also had some support from old white guys. Paul Kelly co-wrote the album’s end track, Made For You, which features guitar by one Paul McCartney. He was in an adjoining New York studio and wandered in to say: “I’ve got this part that I can hear.”

Plum had just left for the day. “When I found out, I was grateful and quite shocked, but I don’t think I really grasped what it meant until I’d sat with it for a couple of days and then when I actually heard the guitar part, I thought, ‘Right, well, this really happened.’”

Thelma Plum supports Troye Sivan, Spark Arena, Auckland, September 13. Better in Blak is out now.

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.