Finding her true voice

She's been courted by music mogul Simon Cowell. She had an audition for a Broadway debut, meeting with heavyweight songwriters such as Diane Warren. And her appearance at this year's Cannes Film Festival for the world premiere of The Sapphires caused industry heads to swoon. It finally seems as though life has a golden ticket for Jessica Mauboy, the star once marketed as a wholesome girl next door, only then to be trumped as a vamped-up R&B sexpot.

Now, the singer-turned-actor has resolutely dumped the steamy misstep that took the nation by surprise and caused some pundits - this one included - to suggest it might all be over before it had begun.

When we meet, Mauboy appears confident, charming and willing to discuss her recent past. The summit is at the Sydney headquarters of her Sony record label but, for once, she is neither supervised nor monitored.

She has a new single, Gotcha, to plug, as well as those classic 1960s cuts from The Sapphires film. It's her second film, after 2009's Bran Nue Dae, and it will soon screen in North America for this month's Toronto International Film Festival.

''We lost a bit of honesty,'' the 23-year-old says of her 2010 duets album Get 'Em Girls, which boasted an infamous clip with bad-boy rapper Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, as he's now to be known).

''Lyrically, it was fist-pumping stuff,'' she says. ''I knew that a lot of people were very disappointed and were like, 'Where is she going with this? Who is Jessica Mauboy?'''

Who indeed. She was originally raised on country staples such as Charlie Pride and Patsy Cline, and her family used to sing in the backyard in Darwin, before she graduated to singing at the local pub ''for pocket money''. The former Idol finalist says this background helped get her noticed at local talent shows (not unlike her character, Julie, in The Sapphires). However, Mauboy was more interested in the big ballads of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey while her older sisters played Tupac and Snoop in response. The sex-kitten episode, as it were, seemed like a logical move.

The shift back to the more solid ground of Gotcha is the kind of radio-friendly pop Mauboy does more convincingly. This move has also coincided with a personal mission. With her long-term boyfriend Themeli Magripilis by her side, Mauboy recently engineered a family reunion to uncover her Aboriginal heritage, of which she knew very little.

''My father is Indonesian Timorese, my mother Aboriginal Australian,'' she says. ''Being married at the age of 16 [her mother died when she was 10, her father ran away, she only had her sisters], I guess when she found my dad, she really grew up on the Indonesian side. That was our second language growing up. We never really got to know our clan. We're just finding our family tree now.''

That tree, she says, traces back further still, to Vanuatu, where she's been holidaying, to make up for lost time. ''It's been a crazy, crazy ride,'' she says. ''The Sapphires inspired me to do this reunion and find my mum's culture. Emotionally, I had to do it because I didn't really know, well, me, yet.''

Mauboy takes her responsibilities - both within the family and as an indigenous role model - seriously, too. ''We have an indigenous community called Old Pelli,'' she says. ''They don't have TV. I go and do music gigs out there and it's like, 'Hey, Miss'. They don't call me Jess. It's amazing to see them opening up and actually having a voice. I feel like there is a generation that's starting to feel, no matter what colour we are, we can do it. All those kids, they're driven. They just want to chase it.''

For Mauboy, who's still working out her next move (including how that third studio album might sound), recent experiences on and off stage and screen appear to have had a profound effect on her work.

''I just want to play music with a band, live,'' she says, when I ask where she is today. ''That's about as honest as you can get.'' She's also keen for her audience to ''not have that question mark with me''. ''I never went to music school. It just happened naturally. I really, really wanted it.

''I couldn't do those soul tracks [in The Sapphires] when I first went in. But by the end of it, I'd nailed them. Gotcha was inspired by the Sapphires - and I want to get a band in and just get a jam happening. That's how it all started, to begin with - with singing, with jamming.''

Change she can believe in

''It's a problem, matching the personality to a formula,'' Fairfax music writer Bernard Zuel says of a record label's strategy for a star such as Jessica Mauboy. ''The formula with young women singing modern R&B is that they have to be out there sexually, thrusting physically and vocally. But that's just not who she is. It's like Tina Arena a decade or so ago: it just didn't seem believable, for the same reason.''

Zuel cites the recent backlash against Delta Goodrem as a prime example of what can happen when an audience ''can no longer identify with'' their star. ''The hostility she attracted [on The Voice] wasn't just mean-spirited from industry and journalists, it was a hangover from her saintly persona,'' he says. ''She was believable as a singer-songwriter, less so as a glitzy, sexy pop star. And that played a part in the responses to her on the show.''

Although Mauboy seems to have avoided a similar fate, Zuel believes she might shift gears again, before settling into a long-term groove.

''She could be a stage performer, and that's where she's meant to be,'' he says. ''Her pop career may have been the thing she had to do to get her foot in the door. But she clearly wants to be a pop star. So we'll just have to wait and see.''

Gotcha is in stores now. The Sapphires screens from August 9.
Twitter @EdGibbs

The story Finding her true voice first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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