Snugly wrapped up in a fluffy pink coat, ensconced on her couch in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with a steaming mug of tea and a slumbering dog by her side, Jessica Mauboy is the picture of bliss.
Waving off her fiancé, Themeli ‘Them’ Magripilis, as he heads downstairs to catch up on overdue paperwork, she leans in eagerly, ready to share her happiness with The Weekly – albeit over Zoom.
We’ve been trying to arrange a catch-up with the singer for weeks, with the COVID shutdown scuppering many well-laid plans, but finally here we are face-to-face in our new digital world.
And it’s fair to say that lockdown suits Jess.
“For me it’s been a really mindful process,” she says of the enforced break which has seen gigs and travel plans cancelled, as well as Them’s construction business halted.
“It’s taught me to be patient. It’s taught me that everyone is in the same boat, the same situation, some more so.
“And if all my family are okay, then I have nothing to worry about. Plus Them and I are here and we have each other – we keep each other safe.”
Having started out dating as teens, the pair have navigated the wild ride that propelled Jess from unknown aspiring singer to multi-award winning artist.
Through it all Them has been by her side, her constant in the storms that have broken along the way.
“I have the best partner,” she says with a beaming smile, glancing down at the engagement ring he placed on her finger during a romantic holiday in 2019.
“Them has been everything. We met each other in Darwin when we were 18 and we come from the same upbringing.
“The way we talk to each other is very much what we’ve grown up with at home, so there’s a familiarity. But also there’s a sense of home for us in each other.
“And it’s nice to have that when your job is crazy and there are some crazy people in that place. You have to be able to balance that – and the way I’ve been able to structure that balance is from him.
“He’s been the one who has steadied everything, balanced and kept things above water.”
Late last year, Jess made headlines when she suddenly split from Sony Music – the label that had signed her in the wake of her success on Australian Idol in 2006.
“I have had an incredible journey at Sony, for which I will be forever grateful,” she said at the time.
“It is now time for the next chapter of my career and I’m very excited to be joining the team at Warner Music.”
This June, headlines were also made when, after 51 years at Sony (37 of those as CEO), music heavyweight Denis Handlin was removed from his position.
At the same time, dozens of former employees surfaced with allegations of a toxic workplace where the boys’ club ruled, perpetuating a culture of bullying and harassment.
There is no suggestion that Denis Handlin is the subject of those claims.
“I can’t speak on behalf of others,” Jess says, choosing her words carefully, when asked if she is surprised by the claims,”but all the things that are coming out, it’s such a scary time and it happens in all sorts of industries.
“I think you have to completely support each other at the end of the day and definitely call it out, as a lot of us have been doing.
“It’s not a great place to be when you feel you are being put down or suppressed. It’s not a great feeling.”
Five years ago, Jess recalls, she began penning her own deeply personal songs. Songs that spoke to her unique experience. Songs that spoke to her childhood. Her experience as an Indigenous Australian.
But meanwhile she felt she was being steered in a different direction, encouraged to continue to produce the colourful pop and love-themed tracks that had proved such a successful recipe for her in the past.
“My mission was to come to light with my own fear, but also the fear that had been placed upon me that maybe that stuff wasn’t worth enough,” she says of the shift she experienced.
“There were so many people I came across, either in my previous team or the label, who thought they knew me better than I did. And that can cloud your sense of who you are.
“It put a lot of pressure and emotion on [me] for years, knowing that I couldn’t really be the person I wanted to be or say the things I wanted to say or advocate for the things I thought were important.
“There were just so many voices that it clouded my brain.”
Five years ago, Jess also went public about her struggle with anxiety – opening up to The Weekly in a raw and personal interview.
It’s fair to say now that it was inextricably linked with the situation she was in.
Today, she says, anxiety has become a thing of her past – she’s instead found herself in a place of gratitude and reflection.
“Just to speak openly [with] where I was in my workplace gave me a lot of anxiety,” Jess says when conversation turns to the state of her mental health.
“People in positions assigned to take care of me had placed a lot of that on me, and I realised I was consuming it and taking it on board – which didn’t help me be 100 per cent at my job.
“I realised then that I had to start taking the stance of, ‘You guys need to back up. I’m not going to tolerate this. I can’t work with you. I have been too nice about this.’
“And that’s where I began to grow, where I began to change my language and started to stick up for myself.”
Sticking up for herself led to the achievement Jess is most proud of to date.
Her 2019 album Hilda was inspired by and dedicated to her late grandmother (who died tragically at the age of just 32) and saw Jess take control from conception to eventual release – whereupon it rocketed to number one on the ARIA charts.
“Every single song on there I was so proud of because I had written it,” says the singer with her trademark grin.
“In previous years I kind of became a back-seat rider, and that pushed my emotions back and I held onto that.
“But you have to start talking for yourself, standing up for yourself and you do have to start saying no.
“I just felt like I had to go for it, because when else am I going to do that? I have to stop leaving myself behind.”
The resulting confidence has inspired Jess to go on to tackle things she previously thought were beyond her.
From headlining NAIDOC events for social giant TikTok to advocating for Indigenous languages to be added to the school curriculum, she’s determined to stretch herself.
And that has proved especially true for her new role as a coach on The Voice, which has itself migrated to a new home on the Seven Network.
Going from receiving critiques on a stage in front of music industry professionals to being the one who is doing the judging was unfathomable at first.
When Jess received a call from the show’s producers she was, she admits, “just terrified”.
While she has spent years engaged in community mentoring, the idea of proffering advice in public didn’t sit comfortably with her.
But then she realised the power that sharing an insight, a story or a connection might have on a performer who was starting out on – or restarting – their own music journey.
“I didn’t want to be the bad guy, but I also didn’t want to fluff it – I didn’t want to just come on and be like, ‘Oh, you’re amazing’,” she says of her approach on the show.
“I honestly had flashbacks to what some of the judges [on Idol] would say where I would think, ‘I don’t quite understand you, but I think I do’.
“Having experienced being called out for wearing a dress that looked like an ironing board cover or [told] I was overweight, I just thought, ‘We are in a different time and most of all I want to be a support person for this artist’.
“I want to be seen as a friend, someone they can trust. It really is all about motivating and inspiring, and what better place to do it than on a platform like The Voice?”
As we speak, the show is on a production break, with the auditions filmed but the live performances yet to begin.
That and the lockdown have given Jess plenty of time to create more music through which to share her journey, unfiltered.
With a home studio, she admits she’s managed to lose entire days to the process, and a new album is hopefully imminent.
“I started the process a while ago,” she reveals. “I want to write even more about where I’ve come from.
“So growing up in Darwin, painting a picture of my childhood and what that was like, and the relationship I had with my parents.
“I’m not saying we never had it good, but there were also problems, whether it was not having enough money or going to school with wet clothes.
“I want to structure this record in a way that’s not just portraying the light stuff, but the heaviness that brings life.
“It’s important to be able to acknowledge a past experience, to have an understanding or to see it in a way that allows you to move forward.”
Getting so personal with her music, Jess admits, could come with some fallout from friends and relatives.
But she’s careful to check in with those she loves to make sure they’re comfortable with these new revelations and that she hasn’t breached any “no go” zones.
“My mum was a really tough woman and she kind of had to be,” Jess says.
“Going through what she experienced growing up, losing her parents when she was really young and then having to find her identity through different voices and other family members.
“I have mentioned to her, ‘Forgive me, there are some things that I’ve written but they have only been my experience.
“‘I don’t go into detail telling your story because respectfully that is your story to tell when you want to tell it. I will only ever tell if I have been granted permission’.”
As the second youngest of five girls to Therese and Indonesian-born Ferdy, Jess says family has always – and will continue to – come first.
Every Christmas she carves out two weeks in her schedule to head back to Darwin and surround herself with her sisters and their offspring, her parents and her extended family.
“It’s a loud few weeks, there are kids running everywhere, but I sit back and think, ‘Wow, everyone is crazy but I love every single one of you’,” she says.
“They bring me back down to ground. I have gone to so many incredible events and there are moments where you think, ‘This is fabulous, but I’d rather spend time with my family.’
“As you get older, you start understanding more what it means, what another human who is the same blood as you and looks like you means to you.
“It paints perspective. Every time my sisters and I see each other, we sob.”
Her childhood may have been filled with hand-me-downs, but today Jess delights in passing on the bounty she has accrued to her sisters, a welcome benefit of her success.
“Everything I have is theirs basically, it’s not just mine,” she says simply.
“I have always had that mentality, ever since I stepped onto the scene. My family never ask me for anything. We’ve never been like that.
“If we were in need we would call on each other, for sure, but I feel really lucky to have a big family who value our family the most.”
And the number included in that clan will, if all goes to plan, soon expand by one more.
A few days ago, Jess and Them were sitting together at the kitchen table enjoying a cup of tea, and as she looked at him, she felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
“I said, ‘Them, I really appreciate you and I love you and I’m just really grateful.’ I was taken by that moment.
“But after that I was like, ‘Um, when are we going to get married?’ Obviously we can’t bring our families together and we can’t get back to Darwin, but we can at least start getting things in place.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we start writing things down?’ But how do you even begin, you know? We literally started looking up on Google ‘How do you begin wedding planning?’.
“It was funny, we had a laugh and a giggle. But also there was this sense of, ‘Yeah, it would be great to have a ceremony and get to bring everyone we love together.’
“But obviously that will be when we can kind of get back to normal.”
Read more in the September Issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly on sale now