Jessica Mauboy is sitting in a field of hydrangeas in the middle of a flower farm in the Southern Highlands of NSW.
“I’ve never been to a flower farm before, it’s a magical experience,” she grins, looking out over the sea of pink, blue, purple and green. It’s one of many new experiences for Australia’s multi-hyphenate star: Pop singer, actress, talent-show judge, Indigenous role model. The 34-year old is about to release her new album, embark on an Australian-NZ tour, star in the film Windcatcher, and is settling into the newest chapter in her personal life: That of a married woman.
In 2022 Jess married Themeli ‘Them’ Magripilis, who she met in a nightclub in Darwin when they were both 18 years old. The pair share the same upbringing and love of family, so it was only natural that her Top End wedding became a celebration of love and a coming together of cultures: Them’s Greek background and Jess’s mix of Aboriginal (on her mother’s side) and Indonesian (on her father’s side).
“It was a very cultural celebration … a cultural infusion. There were moments when Greek music started and Them was there leading everyone in the dance, because he grew up dancing and still dances traditionally. And then … my dad got everyone up with his traditional [Indonesian] dancing and a lot of our uncles and aunties got up on the guitar and started singing hymns. I was thinking: This is [what it’s all about].
“It was really, really special to be able to do that and to have everybody that we loved there, particularly in the Top End. The majority of our friends from friendships that we’ve formed on the other side of the world were able to make it. And this was a time where the borders had just lifted [after COVID restrictions] and our families from community were able to come out and be a part of it.”
Jess laughs when I ask if she’s now under a lot of pressure from the extended family for babies: “Absolutely!” She begins to mimic her Greek father-in-law: “‘Ella [a Greek term of affection], when are you going to have a baby?’
“His love and his passion for Them and I is just unconditional. [Families] accepting your partner is so important, it’s a major thing. We come from a background with very strong religious values, so it was truly about acceptance for us and knowing that we were very respectful to each other. Respect for the people that we love was a major thing. And I know it’s taken us such a long time [to get married], but we eventually did it. And I think that was that extra ‘oomph love’ that we gave to our family and our loved ones.
“But now they’re like: ‘Where are the babies’? I want to, I always tell them. Yes, I’d love to, but now isn’t the time … I do long for that one day … I just haven’t come to making that happen yet.”
Family, culture and music are the three pillars that have shaped Jess into the woman she is today.
“I’m so fulfilled in what Them and I’ve already adjusted to in terms of coming together in that [wedding] ceremony. And I feel I’m in a space where I’m working and making exactly the right music that I’ve always wanted to make. I absolutely love the challenge. I love being creative and if that [babies] comes along and that’s the right time and the right place, then that’s just a magical bonus of life.
“I’m very humble and proud of where I am – the Auntie that I am, the sister that I am, and the wife and partner.
“I’m content and really relaxed and I can’t wait to tour this album, I think that’s the greatest part about it.”
She is talking to The Weekly on the eve of the launch of Yours Forever, her fifth studio album. The release coincides with the 20th anniversary of Jess’s public singing debut when the then 14-year-old won the 2004 Road to Tamworth competition at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, covering Shania Twain’s From This Moment.
Two years later she was catapulted from Darwin onto the national stage and into the cultural Zeitgeist when she appeared on the fourth season of Australian Idol. She may not have won the show (she was runner-up to Damien Leith) but the shy Aboriginal teenager from the Top End with the effervescent smile and powerful voice had captured our hearts.
From that moment she has gone on to become a multiple award-winning, chart-topping pop star and AACTA award-winning actor, who represented Australia on the world stage at the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. Jess has serenaded Barack Obama, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and most recently headlined the ABC’s New Year’s Eve concert at the Sydney Opera House to herald in 2024.
Since 2021 Jess has also been a judge and mentor to young talent on The Voice Australia. She’s passionate about being a cultural role model, and has acted as a long-time ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and more recently the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.
Known for her nice, ‘girl next door’ persona, Jess is ebullient yet humble. In the middle of The Weekly’s photoshoot, when we sit for the interview, she carries her own chair and parks it in the dirt under the shade of a tree and begins to chat. Music is front of mind as always – she sometimes sing-songs a sentence, and often bursts into a tune.
She explains that Yours Forever is one of her most personal and revealing albums yet, full of outpourings of love and reflections on her own life. She acknowledges there’s been a lot of change “and a lot of breaking away from the comfortable” in recent years.
“Finding myself a bit more has probably been the biggest change,” she says. “And then, obviously, not being afraid to work with other people. So yeah, breaking away from my normal way of writing or my normal way of singing or saying certain things.”
As part of the creative process, Jess forces herself to move out of her comfort zone: “I truly feel less scared of writing and saying exactly what I want to say. And I think that definitely comes with growth, the experiences of being in love more, or asking what love is.
“Throughout the songs there are many different faces of love – pain love, confusion, love discovering love, I think. Yeah, pain. Scared – love that place! And I feel like that’s where I write in flashbacks.”
The single Flashback is a love letter to her husband: “It’s a lump in your throat, butterflies in your stomach, a giddy feeling. The lyrics: ‘Flashback I’m frozen, standing right in front of the one I’m gunna love’ are reminiscent of when I first met my husband. I remember feeling frozen, my mind clearing, and the distinct feeling that our connection was a premonition of our love to come.”
Another song, Whitney, pays tribute to her siblings (she is the second youngest of five sisters) and growing up in a busy family in Darwin. “I think I’ve been really real and my most raw,” she tells The Weekly of the album, in which Jess creates aural paintings of her life through her lyrics. “And Whitney really paints a picture of how I am and how I was with my sisters growing up, stealing diaries and reading secrets. It really takes you through [the family home].
“You walk in the ‘cowboy house’ and then you see my mum in the kitchen and you see my dad in the backyard cutting up coconuts. Then you walk up the stairs and there’s our rooms and you are invited into this space where we all slept in bunks in the same room. We’d wake up together and still be stealing each other’s clothes to go to school. There’s a lot of painting … of what it actually felt like.
“Even [the song] The Loneliest I Ever Was is about my work environment … ” And Jess sings a few bars, sitting here under the tree. “‘The loneliest I ever was when I was with you’: It was like I wasn’t in a happy place in my professional working career.”
In 2020 Jess parted ways with Sony Music Australia after 14 years and signed with Warner Music Australia. Her change in record company came during the post-#MeToo era, as female pop superstars including Taylor Swift and Beyoncé continued to pave their own paths on their own terms – making billions in the process – in an industry typically dominated by men.
This moment of female empowerment is not lost on Jess. “When you get a woman like Beyoncé – or Taylor Swift – moving big boulders that have been there for ages, and finding a new way to work, and a better, healthier way of working, it gives all of us as artists and creators space to experience something different. Or to go, ‘Oh, actually that doesn’t feel right’.
“I think there’s a major shift, and that’s because of icons like Taylor and Beyoncé doing that. They’ve really shaken it up, which is really nice … We can breathe a little bit more and not feel afraid and not feel like we’re stuck in a space. It’s really important. Change is a major thing, and it can feel scary. But at the same time there’s definitely a sense of it giving strength to the environment you’re in and the people you’re working with. It does feel like everyone is safe.”
Jess has toured with Beyoncé and recently opened for Christina Aguilera on her Australian tour. Watching Christina perform her hit Beautiful “took me back to 2006 when I sang it on Idol. It was a full circle moment for me and just one of the the greatest gigs to be a part of. That’s why I love music. It just takes you to some places that you didn’t think were possible. And it’s really unexpected.”
Her new tour will be the first since she married Them. While the couple live happily in Sydney with their spoodle dog Leo, Jess recently asked Them if he’d ever consider moving back to their hometown, Darwin. It’s something Jess would do “in a heartbeat. It’s something that I live and breathe. But he was like: ‘No. You and us, that’s home now’.”
Home really is where the heart is.