Nukunu musician Tilly Tjala Thomas uses her sparse, indie-pop sound to travel between concrete and natural worlds, and bridge the thousands of years of her heritage to the future.
Hearing Country in the city
The wind travelling through Playhouse Lane in the city carries the voice of Tilly Tjala Thomas on its back.
Much like the birds chirping in the emerging musician’s single, ‘Ngana Nyunyi’, her gentle voice morphs to become part of the streetscape.
It’s mid-December, and Tilly is performing at The Queen’s Theatre, Australia’s oldest intact mainland theatre.
As she strums, we notice an emblem on her skin which contrasts against the colonial building behind her. There is fresh ink brandished on her arm: a small stencilled tattoo of the Aboriginal flag.
“I got it a few weeks ago,” Tilly tells CityMag after the show.
“I always wanted to get something kind of small, and I realised if I was going to get anything it would have to be cultural. I’m really proud to have this on my body. I’m not ashamed to show who I am or what my background is.”
Tilly is an awarded musician, having recently won Best Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Artist and the Emily Burrows Award at the 2021 South Australian Music Awards, and the 2021 NIMA Unearthed Award at the National Indigenous Music Awards.
This is despite Tilly only formally releasing one song.
Her sole single to date is the four-minute ode to family and landscape titled ‘Ngana Nyunyi’, which means ‘What’s that?’ in Nukunu.
The Nukunu language is spoken by Aboriginal Australians traditionally associated with the eastern side of the Spencer Gulf and Southern Flinders Ranges. Tilly’s dad is also a Nukunu speaker.
The mellow track flows like the Murray Darling, a subject of its lyrics, and is infused with traditional and contemporary production. The singer flits between English and Nukunu phrases, which float above traditional clapping sticks and piano chords, while padded samples and echoes fill out the in-between moments.
Writing in language has allowed the doe-eyed musician the chance to teach audiences about her culture. She has also become more knowledgeable in the process.
“I’m learning language by putting sentences together that I wouldn’t have known before,” Tilly says.
“It’s important to keep our culture alive through whatever way possible. I do it through song. Nukunu is quite a small language group so it’s even more important that we keep that alive.”
Tilly just completed her foundation year studying at the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music. She says she has much more to learn.
While many artists her age cut their teeth writing love songs, Tilly admits to not feeling the drive to write that type of music.
Instead, she finds herself inspired by political and cultural causes. This is significantly informed by her heritage.
“I started putting more kids’ songs that use language into my sets,” she says.
“I like using language in my songs and teaching kids that.”
At this Queen’s Theatre gig, Tilly performs to an almost empty crowd. Those present pass around tubes of sunblock under a bright Sunday sky, sipping on jumbo coffees.
It’s a far cry from the masses Tilly’s played for in the past, which includes opening for Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning and Melbourne three-piece Something for Kate at Summer Sounds Festival last year.
Summer Sounds was a special experience, Tilly says, both because of the bigger crowds and the opportunity to perform alongside bands she grew up listening to.
Fans will hear more from Tilly in early 2022. She has two new tracks slated for release, one of which is produced by electro-pop musician Memphis LK – a party-starter titled ‘Mansion’.
The other, called ‘Ngai Yulku Nhiina’, was produced with hip-hop stalwart Jimblah from BLKMPIRE, who shot the video clip for ‘Ngana Nyunyi’.
Tilly performed a stripped back version of the upcoming single for national youth broadcaster Triple J.
In the song, the artist laments the loss of her family’s language.
Phrases sung sweetly, like “how would you feel / if you lost your tongue”, create tension against the bite of the guitar.
Tilly plans to release a full body of work, but is keeping busy delving further into the many forms of information available to her.
This includes continuing studying musicology at the University of Adelaide and tapping into the culture she’s keeping alive through singing, speaking and sharing.
“At the moment it feels like there’s so much I want to learn,” Tilly says.
“Even from just doing one year, I realised I know a lot but there’s so much more that I haven’t even touched on.”