Growing up, my mum was never embarrassed or scared to show her sensitive side or vulnerability, but she was still tough. I think losing her own mum at 10 years old meant she had to be. It means that she is boisterous about what she believes in and stands for. One day when I was about 11, I came home from school and I could hear my mum and aunties talking about a singing competition. I overheard her say that she wasn’t going to tell my dad. My dad wasn’t really into taking me to things to perform but my mum saw the potential in me and realised that I really loved it.
When we got there, I looked around the room and there were people 20 or 30 years older than me tuning their guitars. I turned to my mum and said, “I don’t want to do this! I’m not prepared!” Mum pulled out the CD that I’d been rehearsing with my choir teacher. It was the backing track to “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. I was crumbling on the inside and Mum told me, “No, bub, you know this song. You can do this."
I ended up winning $500 that day and it meant everything. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and it always makes me think, “Thank God for Mum” because without her I wouldn’t have understood that I could make a career in music and turn it into something more than just a hobby. I think that really encapsulates her fierceness and the way she will make something happen. She will always find a way.
Mariah was one of my first teachers. Sometimes I’d sit in my room with my tape recorder and my cassette player and listen back to her music and mimic the way she curved her tones and her vibrato. Mariah’s song “Anytime You Need a Friend” always makes me feel motivated and inspired. The lyrics are so empowering. There’s no-one like her. I remember watching a 1999 documentary and in it Mariah was explaining that Black people saw her as white and white people saw her as Black.
From a cultural and identity perspective that really resonated with me, being half Indigenous and half Indonesian and always having to answer questions about where I come from. Listening to her music and hearing her stories really inspired me to be my own artist and my own person and ask myself, “What is my message? What is the point of me being up on stage?” I think I’ve realised that it’s all about how you make people feel with your music and how you can lift them up.
Judy was a music teacher at my primary school in Darwin. My grade two classroom was across the hall from where the older kids did choir practice, so I could sometimes hear faint singing in the background. I was always being sent out of class because I had the habit of absentmindedly humming and it would sometimes become a disturbance to the whole class. One Friday afternoon my teacher Mrs Burke introduced me to Judy, and the next year I joined the choir.
When Judy gave me a solo in the upcoming eisteddfod we started doing private lessons on Friday afternoons. Initially, I wasn’t sure. I told her, “I normally hang out at the park with my friends then,” but eventually it just became our normal routine. Every week after school on a Friday she would drive to my house for rehearsals.
We worked hard but she also wanted me to enjoy it. She wouldn’t just bring the choir songs but songs she knew I would like from people such as Celine Dion and Mariah. She’s had the biggest impact on my life and taught me so much about work ethic. I don’t think I would have done the practice and had the discipline to be where I am today without her. That’s why I call her “mamma Judy”.
Jessica Mauboy’s new single “Glow” is out now. This article originally appeared in the March issue of marie claire.