A chat with Emily Wurramara
Warnindhilyagwa woman and ARIA nominated singer-songwriter, Emily Wurramara talks motherhood, music and NAIDOC week.
Interview : Nicole Lutze
I’m cracked, I’m bubbly, I’m a bit of sparkling wine mixed with red cordial, with a frangipani and hibiscus sitting in it. I love to sing, and it makes me happy.
Describe your music.
It’s a bit like soul, a bit blues and rootsy, with some folk and soft rock influences. My music tells stories, and I want my music to heal people. I hope it does that.
What kind of kid were you?
When I was very young, I loved dancing and being in the middle of parties. When the music was happening, I was there: front and centre dancing. As I grew older, especially when I moved to the city, I started to turn inwards more. That’s when I found solitude in books and poetry. I loved classical jazz. I was a bookworm and a big nerd. I liked solitude and doing things by myself. But, I had a lot of beautiful friends as well, so they helped me grow along the way.
I was very connected to my mum and my grandmother, and they taught me about self-love, self-care and being proud of my culture. They helped me learn the importance of doing what makes me happy.
I love the person I was, and I love the person I am now. I think it’s important to acknowledge and pay respects to the old you because that old you made you the person you are now.
Did you grow up around music and singing?
My grandparents listened to country music, and my mum’s uncles were in bands and played at church. Meanwhile, my mum and dad would be into R&B, soul and reggae, and my uncles played rock anthems, so there were lots of ACDC baselines pumping throughout our community. The mix of music I had around me was great.
What motivates you?
My motivation is always changing, but my daughter is a big one. Being able to demonstrate that with courage, you can push through and do what makes you happy is important.
Also, I’m a role model in my community and that’s really sacred and important to me. Knowing I’m leaving behind a story and a path for others is motivating. The next generation is looking up, and we are the voices that have to be brave, courageous and vulnerable. I’m arching my language and my stories for future generations and educating non-Indigenous people as well.
Do you have a performance highlight?
I went to Paris for my 18th birthday to be part of this project called Ethno, where people from around the world come together and sung a song in their own language. We taught it to an orchestra and did our own composition of these songs utilising voices and instruments. I sung Ngarrukwujenama there which is about mining that was happening back then in 2013.
Hearing all these people from around the world singing in their language, pretty much saying F-mining, it made me really proud to be an Indigenous woman. It made me really proud go to these places I didn’t think were for me. It was a huge highlight because I felt like I grew into a woman from it. I was like, damn if I can do this, I can do anything. And after that, I knew that I was ready to do music and ready for this journey.
Could you share your journey learning your traditional language, Anindilyakwa?
People think I’m fluent because I sing in Anindilyakwa, but I’m still learning it. I grew up knowing it when I was younger and then moved to the city and became ashamed to speak it because no one else spoke it, so I just spoke English.
Later, when I turned 14, I started to go home more often and started to connect with my grandmother and my great grandmother. We went out fishing and hunting, doing things as a family and it was really special. Having that time to connect with them and talk with them was really special. So I understand Anindilyakwa and continue to learn and speak it with my family and daughter, but I’m not fluent.
How has being a mother inspired your music?
It’s given me more patience, especially for myself. My daughter has also taught me a lot about my songwriting perspective: being able to write from space that is truthful, humbling and healing.
What has becoming a mother made you feel?
Strong and fierce, like I have to stand my ground a little bit harder. I feel like I have to speak for what’s right because of her and her future, so it’s made me vocal about things like climate justice and Indigenous issues in Australia. Though, I don’t really like that word, Indigenous. I prefer to be called a Warnindhilyagwa woman. But it’s made me speak out on a lot of things, and it also makes me feel love. Love for all the little things in my life. I never knew what love was until I had my daughter.
Has your music or creative process changed since becoming a mother?
My songwriting now has to happen at night, and I use my phone more. My daughter sings these beautiful melodies and sometimes we just sit and sing together, and I’ll record it. I feel like music comes from my soul now. It’s really vulnerable, a bit more raw, open, honest and true because we are creating it together from a place of innocence.
Does your daughter like to be involved in your music at home?
Sometimes she gets sick of me singing and take the guitar off me or will try to sing over me! But it’s really fun making music with a baby because they’re so interested. She knows how to hold her own tune too. She’s in key, which spins me out. She’s only two, and she’s been doing it since she was about nine months old. Even when she was so little, melodies would coo out of her. She’s definitely going to take me over one day.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future is that at some point in everyone’s lives, they feel constant peace and get to be truly themselves.
I hope that mining, fracking and the destruction of this land and country cease because we are hurting our mother and we will cop the brunt of things. We need to start making better choices for our future. I hope one day we can come to a time and place where we’re one with this land and spirit again.
What is the biggest lesson to learn from the time we’re in?
I think we’ve learned that it’s ok not to be ok. We have been very vulnerable with each other throughout 2020, and many of us have gotten into boss mode where we’re like: this has happened, but we’re going to make lemonade out of these lemons. This year has prioritised what’s important in our lives and who is important. It’s time to treasure the moments we have with the people we love, and with ourselves.
Do you want to say anything about this year’s NAIDOC theme, Always Was, Always Will Be?
It’s a theme that should be around not just for NAIDOC week but forever. I’ve heard non-indigenous people say it’s a war cry but it’s not. It’s the truth. A lot of non-indigenous mobs have been pushed to uncomfortable truths in the last six months. I think that’s great! As an Indigenous woman, I’m born feeling uncomfortable just because of the colour of my skin and the history and stereotypes I’m surrounded by. It’s time to face this nation’s truth and talk about it for however long it takes to get everyone on board. Being Aboriginal isn’t a viral trend. We live this every day.
I think this theme should also be celebrated. We are the caretakers of the land. We know the rivers, the plants, the stories, where to get food, where to dwell and where to dig up and get water. The stories are etched within our souls. When one part of the land hurts, our souls hurt too. Our spirit hurts, and we hear our ancestors cry whenever something happens at home. I hear wailing. It’s really weird. I’m very connected to my home in ways I can’t even describe. When animals approach, I know it’s a totem speaking to me, or your grandmother or grandfather or aunty talking to you. Someone from the universe that we won’t know until after we’re gone, has come back to say hello and make their presence known. This land speaks and it’s time that this land is heard.
For more Naidoc reading head here and read the interview with Kamsani Bin Salleh, artist painting a way forward, combing the past, present and future through art.