Last year Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Thelma Plum was in a London studio, recording her debut album with producers Alex Burnett (ex-Sparkadia) and Oli Horton (aka Dreamtrak) when her phone lit up.
Sticky Fingers bassist Paddy Cornwall had posted an expletive-riddled tirade against Plum, which prompted so-called fans of the Sydney reggae-rock band to flood her social media with vile messages loaded with racist and sexist abuse.
While Plum, whose father is Aboriginal, has been the victim of online attacks from members and fans of Sticky Fingers before, it completely derailed her — ironically while she was recording a new song called Do You Ever Get Sad.
“It’s a really isolating and scary feeling,” says Plum, who subsequently banned phones in the studio. “After that happened, I was so sad and I didn’t even want to stay in London or finish this record. I was beside myself.”
The next day Burnett convinced her to channel that anger and sadness into a song, specifically Better in Blak — the defiantly ebullient title track to her long-awaited debut album.
“That was really therapeutic for me,” Plum says en route to Melbourne airport for a trip home to Brisbane.
Therapeutic and cathartic are apt descriptions for Better in Blak, which sees the 2012 winner of Triple J’s National Indigenous Music Awards competition tackle demons (internal and external) head-on and come out on top.
The darkly funny Woke Blokes sticks it to those who talk the talk but never get around to walking the walk, while Not Angry Anymore explores her own inner search for safe harbour in the (social media) storm.
Following two EPs and arriving seven years after first single Father Said, Better in Blak finishes with Made For You, a song Plum wrote with her hero, Aussie pop poet Paul Kelly.
“Paul Kelly is a huge reason of why I decided to get into music,” she says. “I grew up listening to him and being inspired by him, so to have a chance to write with him ... I get quite giddy when I think about it.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Made for You features a guitar part written by Sir Paul McCartney.
The Beatles legend visited the New York studio one day when producer David Kahne, whose expansive resume features albums for McCartney, Tony Bennett, New Order, Stevie Nicks, the Bangles and the Strokes, was fiddling with the song.
“I wasn’t in the studio,” says Plum, who later met McCartney on his Australian tour, “but apparently he heard the song and said ‘Do you mind if I lay something down’.
“David was like ‘I don’t think Thelma will mind’, then I get this message saying ‘I think you’re going to be pretty happy with the guitar part that we’ve come up with’.
“I couldn’t believe it. I raced down to the studio and listened to it, and it was just so beautiful. It was this simple guitar line and it finished (the song) and made it something I never imagined it could be.”
“Paul Kelly is a huge reason of why I decided to get into music ... I grew up listening to him and being inspired by him.”
While Made for You is definitely one of the happy tales of Better in Blak, Plum says including the deeply personal Thulumaay Gii on the album was the toughest decision of her career.
The song borrows her middle name, meaning “thunder and heart” in the Gamilaraay language, and reflects on her relationship with her father, who was absent for most of her childhood.
“He’s a beautiful man,” says Plum, who adds that they have recently reconnected. “We’re both trying to make up for those lost years.
“Part of building relationships is forgiveness, second chances and understanding that being a parent is not always easy, especially when you’re very young and very poor.”
Plum adds that her dad has 10 children and she has maintained contact with her “nine amazing siblings ... so I still had that connection to my family and my culture”.
Better in Blak also features Love and War — a duet with Gang of Youths’ frontman Dave Le’aupepe inspired by Four Corners’ revelations about abuse at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
The album is, at heart, about Plum’s fight for respect and self-respect as an Aboriginal woman.
“I reckon there was a good chunk of time, particularly when I was writing this record, where I didn’t feel worthy of my own love and I really hated myself,” she says.
“I was angry at myself. I had all this anger and I didn’t know where to place it.
“Writing these songs, and being able to listen to them afterwards, really helped me.
“It was really therapeutic. I don’t hate myself any more.”
Better in Blak is released on July 12. Thelma Plum plays Freo.Social on August 31. Tickets from Moshtix.