The power of Thelma.
Singer/songwriter Thelma Plum is enjoying an incredible year following the release of Better in Blak, her stunning debut album. This record is the result of a big, necessary change of course, reports Joanna Wright.
Thelma Plum spent a long time — four years — working on the tracks for her debut album, which she’d finally almost completed. And then? She changed her mind. “I sat with a lot of these songs that I had written over time. I got to the point where the album was finished and I was getting ready to show it to other people, but I realised it wasn’t what I wanted. It didn’t tell the story,” she recalls. “I had been through so much during that period of time, and it just no longer told the story that I wanted to tell.”
So, Thelma scrapped the work and started over, in turn creating the standout Better in Blak. The debut album reflects a tough few years for Thelma and, importantly, the process of her coming out the other side — empowered.
Making a big switch like this seems like a confident — albeit professionally-risky — move, but the decision was actually spurred on by an incident in Melbourne three years ago that turned Thelma’s life upside down. After calling out the bad behaviour of the front-man of another band, Thelma — whose father is Aboriginal — received a barrage of online abuse, racism and trolling. It was an incredible amount of pressure, finding herself the key player in such a flurry of controversy. “I’ve never really been through that pain before. It’s a side of me that I wasn’t really familiar with. I felt like I had to do something about that,” says Thelma.
I used to describe myself that the inside of me was made up of lots of colours, until recently when I felt like that was taken away from me. It was the first time in my life that I felt that colour was just stripped away from me.
~ Thelma Plum
After one particularly nasty trolling incident, Thelma — who as an artist is lucky to have an outlet to express her rage, her heartbreak and her joy — wrote the title song Better In Blak in a single day. In fact, the whole album was written in just ten.
“In the past, if I was getting ready for an album, it would be months’ worth of me demoing it and then showing it to other people and being like, ‘Do you like this, that?’” But for Thelma, it just didn’t feel authentic to release the music that she’d been working on over time. In London with producer Alex Burnett, her creative process was quick. “That’s how I did it for this record. It’s something I’d never done before, and I wouldn’t really recommend it!”
Thelma admits she doesn’t have the answers for how to handle — or rise above vicious online trolling — but as a result of her experience, she is now a lot more guarded on social media. “I used to quite enjoy [posting] and sharing parts of my life, and that’s something I no longer enjoy doing,” she says. Thelma has since created a private account for the people she trusts the most. “For a long time I felt guilty, like I had all these people following me for a reason and that I had to give them something or maybe they’d lose interest in me. I think it’s not healthy to really think about that.”
“I think having boundaries on social media can be a really good thing. And what’s the sort of thing that I would like in five years’ time? Would I feel okay about existing on the Internet?”
Aside from ways to handle social media, I have always admired the idea of self-care for musicians — managing the ebb and flow of busy and quiet times. In the space of a couple of months, I observed Thelma releasing her debut album, going on tour and performing at Splendour in the Grass. I wanted to know: how does Thelma balance it out? “I just make sure I take care of myself; practising self-care and self-worth, making sure that there’s time in my schedule to see a therapist, or enough time to work out, or visit my family.”
This is a skill and comes with practice: “It’s something that I have had to learn over time, because I wasn’t very good at it,” says Thelma. “I used to not worry about it. I’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s fine. I’ll just take everything as it comes.’ And then I would get quite overwhelmed and I’d feel a bit burned out.”
The result of all this experience is an artist who is authentic, and whose work is rich. When I watch Thelma on stage I see an honest performer — with a sharp sense of humour — hitting every note and not afraid to tell her story. I see an audience that is with her. When I listen to her song Homecoming Queen, I completely relate to how she describes the lack of representation in magazines when she was younger and never seeing anyone ‘quite like me’ (seems she read our mind).
Learning how Thelma draws power from within, I’m inspired to do the same:
I’ll be my own homecoming queen
As long as it feels good to me
I’ll be the voice of this town
You’ll be your own homecoming queen
Forget all the shit that you’ve seen
Put on the crown.
Quick ones with Thelma:
Something fun about the music industry?
I didn’t realize how many lifelong friends I would make!
Something you do to prepare for a performance?
I like to have about an hour where I won’t talk to anybody pre-show. And with my band, we just have a moment where we take it in and have a little cuddle before we go on.
Advice for teen-Thelma?
Not to stress out all the time and sometimes it’s okay to live in the moment. I’ve always been an anxious person trying to anticipate the next move, so I tell myself to stop worrying.