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Words by Kate Lockyer {Kate Lockyer Music}

Three breathtaking women rocked The Tivoli last night as part of Thelma Plum’s Meanjin Tour. The night opened with Jem Cassar-Daley serenading us with her keyboard, then moved to GRAACE with her smooth pop hooks, before Thelma took to the stage to the adoration of the audience.

Jem kicked off the show with an entrancing song called Letting Go. Accompanied by softly-keyed piano, the melody and lyrics are a gentle acceptance of the changes in life.
The most beautiful lyrics are in the bridge, when Jem sings, “I know that you will always be / Somewhere close to me / Where the skyline meets the sea.” Her voice is deep, but soft. Her next song was Like It More, an absolute mantra of self-love and prioritising your own happiness. Jem said writing this song got her over a breakup, saying, “I have hobbies, I can do my own thing”. The tune has a catchy, rhythmic, rhyming chorus, “Things ain’t quite as bad / I like it more / When I’m by myself / I’m never bored”, that highlights Jem’s feisty side.

About the next song, she said, “I haven’t released this one. I wrote it recently, but it felt like the next part of the narrative, so it made sense to put it in… I got disappointed once, and I was like ‘I’m gonna write a song’”. It was a clever track lyrically, riffing on a metaphor of royalty, but slow and earnest, seeming to come from a place of retrospective understanding about her relationship. Jem sang, “From the king of disappointment / But no-one’s calling you ‘your majesty’ / I’m not your jester of enjoyment”. As a fellow Maggie Rogers fan, I greatly enjoyed her cover of Love You For A Long Time. It just made sense – Jem’s music, like Maggie’s, sits in a similar tradition of fantastic female songwriters. On the keyboard, the song was slightly pared back from the vitality of the original, with a calmer, more serene energy that the song nevertheless leant itself to, bringing a beautiful new sense to the song.

Standing Still has to be one of my favourites of Jem’s songs, a raw, vulnerable song that is easy to relate to, combined with soaring melodies that highlight the deep yet sparkling qualities of her voice. She said she wrote it for her dear friend, a song about change. She said it captured how it felt when someone moves away, “and you try and meet up again and everything’s different”. It is a captivating story that you can picture so easily through her vivid songwriting. In “Oh I miss you, you seem so happy now”, there is a rasp that reveals the rawness in her voice. Her next song, Changes, is one of the first songs that she released. It has a casual, easy-going quality to it, though she is singing about changes that are out of her control. Her effortless switch from soft whisper to soaring vocals in the chorus display her fantastic musicianship.

Oh No capped off the set and is a more energetic, poppy tune in comparison to her laid-back ballads. A chorus that will linger in your head all day, featuring rapid-fire lyrics and bouncing vocals in the melody, makes this song particularly memorable.

GRAACE‘s set started with a burst of music from her band and a drumbeat that reverberated through the room before she skipped onstage. The drumbeat continued through the song, SOS, backing the smooth vocals of GRAACE singing “I’m callin’ SOS”. After paying her respects to the traditional owners of the land, she picked up her guitar and strummed along as she and her bandmate played a cruisy riff. Partway through the song, her guitar strap fell off, and she quickly abandoned the guitar to keep singing. I’m sure she was glad of her bandmate in that moment!

Sentimental delivers Holly Humberstone vibes, with the delicate vocals, personal lyrics, and stripped back instrumentation as GRAACE reclaimed her guitar. That said, the song starts slow but ramps up with a layered vocal track and crescendoing drums and guitar at the end.

Her next few songs continue in the same fashion as she croons into the mic, her band going from toned down and sultry to higher energy, and synth and keys from a backing track washing over us. Her music is effortless easy listening. Complicated, GRAACE’s Like a Version cover of Avril Lavigne‘s song, has the crowd singing along. It is a lot more lo-fi than the original, but by the second chorus, the instrumentation gets lusher and the voices in the crowd lend the song more gravity.

The other song that stands out is one that she released in 2018 from her first EP, called Last Night. The chorus is epically sing-along-able: “I blinded you cause I love your eyes / And I took your voice cause I love to lie / And I weighed you down so I learned to fly”. While most of the track features the full band, the second last chorus includes only her vocals and a vocals track, while the audience claps along. Then, the instrumentals hit us again to finish the song off with a depth of sound. Her last song is delivered with the same silken tones as the rest of her set. The start of each line in the chorus begins with her nailing a high note, before dropping into the rest of the line. Her bandmate comes out for an impressive guitar solo that has the crowd cheering its loudest yet. GRAACE thanks the crowd and runs offstage while the band grooves out to the end of the song – the gal likes to make an entrance, and a departure.

With everyone on the edge of their seats waiting for the main event to begin, Thelma’s band floated onstage. Eventually, Thelma runs out to a buzzing crowd, and she begins her set with the top track off her new ‘Meanjin’ EP, The Brown Snake. A love letter to the oft- maligned Brissie river, the song brings a whole new perspective to the Brisbane landmark. When Thelma finishes the song, she confesses, “I’m excited, I’m nervous… it feels good to be here at the Tivoli, for a hometown show”. This elicits a roar from the audience. She spruiks her Clothing the Gap water bottle as she takes a sip. “Good for drinking water”, she says cheekily.

Then she launches into one of her classic anthems about rising above anger and hate. Not Angry Anymore features red lights flashing across the stage. When she gets to the pre-chorus, “I just want to let you know”, the crowd needs no convincing from Thelma to join in. The energy in the room is electric; we all know the song and can feel the power behind the lyrics.
Thelma says, “There are so many people here that I know, but if I look at you and I know you, I will have to look away because I am feeling pretty emotional”. Then, she introduces her next song Dollar, which she wrote when she was 17. She grooves along to the song with endearing dance moves, and synth from a backing track add to the layers of the song. At the end of the bridge, she flips into the upper octave for “say he’s got a dollar” with that magical voice of hers.
Backseat of my Mind is the first single off Thelma’s new EP, and the song is such a hopeful, glorious burst of light. As she sings “Driving forward to a beautiful place unknown / I’ve been crying as I look in the rear of the mirror / I leave it behind un the backseat of my mind”, I am transported to a place of possibility.

Thelma says, “I’ve always wanted to play my own show at The Tivoli and I never have. I’ve seen so many shows here, and it turns out it’s just as nice from up here”. Her earnestness, openness and warm sense of humour make her a joy to see every time, such as when she jokes, “Okay I’m gonna sing another song. That’s what I’m here for”. Purple lights and a waggling bass line begin Don’t Bring A Good Girl Down. Thelma performs with self-assuredness (or so it seems, despite her confession of nervousness), and the song asserts “It’s kind of icky, the depths that you’ll go to bring a good girl / To bring a good girl down” with spirit.

Thelma has on a beautiful ensemble, and she says that she got her top from the West End markets, and the dress was hand-dyed with leaves from West End. Then she prefaces the next song by mentioning that she grew up in a housing commission house in Fairfield. She says, “I wrote this song for my mum, who is here tonight”. Baby Blue Bicycle has Thelma standing by herself on the stage, eerie piano notes playing as smoke drifts across the stage in pale blue light. As she sings “I wish that I had a baby blue bicycle / and I’d ride it back to you”, and shares her grief over the death of her neighbour Dot and her dog Rosie, the tremor in her voice and beautiful tone in her high register betray her emotions.

Her band is comprised of Mon on bass, Pete on guitar, and Dan on drums. She says of the next song, These Days by Powderfinger, “I didn’t write it, but I wish I did”. Acoustic guitar cradles her earnest rendition of the classic song. The cover hits different when it’s one Brisbane artist covering another iconic Brissie band, in their hometown no less. Introducing When it Rains it Pours, another song off the ‘Meanjin’ EP that captures a Brisbane moment, she says, “I wrote this on my balcony, watching my neighbours have this extravagant dinner party, this was during covid. And yeah, I was a little jealous.” The song begins with the sounds of a thunderstorm and the patter of rain, then low, twangy notes on guitar come in, creating a melancholy mood. Her velvety low range adds to the mood of the song as she sings “When it rains, it pours / I walk through the city to yours / Dinner’s been served and you’re next to her / There’s no place for me”. For Brisbane locals, there is even a reference to a West End street as she sings “Down on Vulture Street, outside the end”.

Her next song is unreleased, called I Don’t Play that Song Anymore. Energetic acoustic strums and a reverberating drum beat characterise it, a song about learning from betrayal not to give yourself away entirely. “So I don’t have to play this song anymore / I save it for myself to play for someone else”. Introducing The Bat Song, she says, “Where I live on my balcony, I have hundreds and hundreds of bats that go over each day… and I think they’re really beautiful… In this band we love bats”. Plucked arpeggios of guitar duet with Thelma’s story, a sentimental, sweet love song where she sings “I would fly to you every single night if I could hang with you / Upside down with no-one else around”.

Woke Blokes is a sassy track that’s popular for a reason. We really are sick of those woke blokes, aren’t we? The part that hits the hardest for me is “He’s like kill the boy down the road / Who hurt the girl real bad / Unless he is my friend / Or plays in my favourite band”, because that’s still the reality, not just in the music industry but throughout Australia, despite all our efforts. The most pertinent example at the moment is footballers constantly being excused for their bad behaviour with minimal consequences. You tell ‘em, Thelma!!!

When she introduces Homecoming Queen, the audience goes crazy. Probably her most popular song, it combines a powerful political statement about Indigenous identity with memorable pop hooks and the story of an experience that many girls can relate to. When she sings, “I am a woman now, I feel beautiful and I love myself”, a cheer goes up. An even larger cheer echoes through the venue when she sings, “Cause in 1967 I wasn’t human / And in 1994 I was born / I’m still here / We are still here”. The moment gave me goosebumps.

Once again the band departs the stage, and Thelma says, “I wrote this a little while ago, it’s a sad song called ‘Golden Touch’”. Quickly moving keyboard arpeggios frame this beautiful song. When this song is released, I will definitely have it on repeat. The lyrics were exquisite in their raw pain: “I feel it all, I love too much / I put my love in the hands of someone I could trust / I wanted more, it’s not enough / So be careful of the ones who love too much / The ones with the golden touch”.

Better in Blak brings the crowd out of their trance, the stage lit up in red, yellow and black representing the Aboriginal flag. The energy ramps up, and I can feel the floor vibrating from a combo of the music and the movement of the crowd. The bridge has everyone clapping along, and the euphoric feeling of self-acceptance that this song exudes is most apparent in the chorus as she finishes, singing, “If I knew what I know now, maybe I would take it back / But fuck that (fuck that!) I look better in blak”.

The encore features Clumsy Love, a catchy song with Thelma’s honest lyrics and gorgeous voice. Her ability to be in tune to herself and the people around her feed into her insightful lyric writing that make her songs a pleasure to listen to. The mood is joyful, the whole room sharing in this moment of fantastic artistry and plain, old-fashioned good music.

 Tickets available here

Thursday 25 August – Blue Mountains Theatre, Springwood, NSW / Gundungarra + Dharug Country *
Friday 26 August – The Cambridge, Newcastle, NSW / Awabakal Country *
Saturday 27 August – UC Refectory, Canberra, ACT / Ngunnawal *
Thursday 1 September – Forum, Melbourne, VIC / Wurundjeri Country
Friday 2 September – The Gov, Adelaide, SA / Kaurna Country
Saturday 3 September – Spring Time Festival, Gold Coast, QLD / Yugambeh Country
Friday 9 September – The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD / Meanjin

Saturday 10 September – Nightquarter, Sunshine Coast, QLD / Kabi Kabi Country
Friday 16 September – Roundhouse, Sydney, NSW / Gadigal Country
Saturday 24 September – Good Day Sunshine Festival, Busselton, WA / Wadandi Boodja

* Jem Cassar-Daley not appearing

Thanks to Warner Music Australia

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