Yesyou’ve been in the musical spotlight since you were a teenager. Have you always felt confident in embracing your Indigenous identity?
My culture and family came first and both allowed me to make music. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t have such a proud bond with my identity. Having those values kept me in check in the music industry. Looking back, knowing who I was with such depth and knowing my connection to Country made me okay with who I was. I always knew where I came from and felt proud.
You are a Community Ambassador for Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF). What does that role mean to you?
I’ve felt part of the Northern Territory community since I was a little girl. Papa always brought baked goods to the community and those who needed them most; I saw his connection to the community all the time. When this opportunity to work with DAAF arose, it felt like the right match for me.
I grew up in the NT and know the system and how communities work there. It has always been part of our conversation. I felt emotional being involved because this role allows me to introduce their stories to the rest of Australia. Being seen and respected by the artists in this community means a lot to me.
“It took not only my parents, but the expansion of who they are and who they are related to, to lead and smooth my way.”
Who were your role models growing up?
Definitely mom and dad, and culturally it was all the aunts. Even going to Nan’s house was like school time for us – hearing her chants sing in language was inspiring. It took not only my parents, but the expansion of who they are and who they are related to, to lead and smooth my way.
What was the best advice they gave you?
Mom says you never forget where you come from. It has always stayed with me – it is her life motto and it gave us a lot of gratitude and brought humility to our family. It taught me to believe that I could do anything, be anything, but only if I stayed true to who I am – can I go far.
How’s hosting going The voice made you look back on your own career and its beginnings Australian idol†
It makes me so emotional and takes me back to a 16-year-old who stood in front of judges that I had no idea about and who knew nothing about me and where I came from.
I went into that space purely for the music. Seeing the young people who are so eager to learn and want to place themselves in this space reminds me that I am not there as a judge, but as a coach. I don’t want to judge – it’s not up to me to do that. But my job is to help them understand what it takes to become a pop star. I remember how I felt when I auditioned. Some judged my physicality and my appearance, but I always intended to bring it back to music and worked hard to make it happen.
“I don’t want to judge – it’s not up to me to do that. But my job is to help them understand what it takes to become a pop star.”
You recently released a new single, automatically† What is it about?
It is an ode to all the obstacles I have encountered in recent years. I’m the kind of person who wants to bloom constantly. Not being able to tour was hard, but now I’m on track. The message I want to get out there is to reclaim your trust, to have inner faith and trust – that will lead you to your destiny. If we reclaim integrity and who we are as individuals, we are on our way. I’m behind the wheel and it feels good.
You left your label, Sony, after 16 years and are now with Warner Music. What was it like breaking those ties?
I was 14 when I first signed with a record label. Knowing what kind of artist I wanted to be was very important to me, and doing the music I was doing and fighting for it was what drove me. There was never a time when I didn’t fight for what I wanted to do with my music; as a creative person you always do that, no matter what label you are with. We all grow and change. I had my own back in the biz the whole time, and it was learning to use the tools and then feeling comfortable enough to pick it up and run my own business. That is something that takes a lot of time.
While the music industry is a love party that invites you to have fun, it is also a business. I always had that business hat on, and I always had to see what the fun was about. It’s like being in a constant battle to protect what you love – and that’s the music.
What impact has the unrest of recent years had on you?
It taught me to celebrate myself. We are still very much in our own bubble; trying to get out and move forward and identify what is happening around us with life events. You must be able to go out with your armor and take in emotionally what is happening. It can really affect your day! But if you find a bump in your day, the solid self can go out and conquer whatever comes your way.
You finally tie the knot with your fiancé, Themeli Magripilis. When? And how does that feel?
It’s going to happen this year. The plan is to get the message out so the family stays and doesn’t travel too far. My ideal ceremony is catching up with the crowd I’ve recently missed and reconnecting with loved ones.
How does your relationship work?
We have been together since 2009 and started our family grounds early on. It took two years for both families to get to know each other, and now they are good friends. That was important to us. That’s what makes our partnership so magical: that our parents are close. It strengthened our bond and who we are as a family. It is a fusion of different cultures – Indonesian, Greek and my Aboriginal side. I haven’t seen plate breaking at a Greek wedding, but I can’t wait to do it on mine. I’ve never smashed a plate in my life – that’s going to be cool!
“It’s sitting there and being there and figuring out who you are without the fancy dress, the deadly shoes or makeup.”
You have long had a close friendship with Australian fashion designer Toni Matičevski. Does he make your wedding dress?
Yes. I love Toni – he makes masterpiece dresses. There’s a real boss feeling, a strong structural gathering, and layered elements that I love. He’s a good friend. He’s iconic and if it’s for a one-off moment why not go all out with someone like him?
You talk to yourself when in doubt. How often do you do this?
I think it takes a lot of practice to talk to yourself. I practice in front of the mirror or in the corner of my studio. Sometimes I put in my ear monitors and record myself and think back to what I said. There are so many ways we can check in with ourselves, but that’s what I do. It’s sitting there and being there and figuring out who you are without the fancy dress, the deadly shoes or makeup.
Who is the real Jess? Back home in Darwin she is the one slicing papaya and making a traditional Indonesian dish, usually sitting on the floor in my ragged clothes, grinding all ingredients with a mortar and pestle, learning old recipes with family.
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair runs from August 5-7.
To read more from Sunday life magazine, click here†