Say you would like to try to create (or identify) a star. Say that you consult what little sources you have; finding eventually that the official science is as routine as it can be variable. Those interested might begin with an unhinged recipe in the style of either a powerpuff girls opening sequence or a cringe hanging truism in your mothers bathroom. It might require a collection of viscera and found parts, and include the following: zest, audacity, butane, verve, helium, a kind of peculiarity that could become familiarity, if spun like fine sugar; a bit of narrative, and a million invisible hands working behind the scenes to make the deadline.
You might need to have some name just like Budjerah’s, which sounds almost destined. It is translatable to first light, the underlying proviso being that one cannot just see him as merely a star, but a different planet’s life giving sun. It hosts an “intersection” of slipping vowels. A Wikipedia entry makes the helpful suggestion that a red dot - or a red dwarf - is “the smallest and coolest kind of star”, frequently lost in the mix of Andromeda’s abundant lights. From what I can gather of Budjerah even before talking, this is fitting. The most common type of star in the Milky Way, it is not always the most easily observed, and like the singer, known to reveal different intensities of colour depending on where you stand - like the angular diameter distance of light arriving from a thousand years away. That his naturalness is perceptible similarly fits the profile. For substellar objects, says the wiki preface in italics, as if generously detecting my ignorance of the cosmos, see brown dwarf.Well, whatever. You can speculate all day as to the combination of perfect elements, but we all know it comes down to the way you mix.
Despite somewhat of a return to an unbalanced normal, I am watching Budjerahs face adjust and reappear on a screen. We are still trapped by the necessity of a program called zoom, which is very annoying. “Our internet hasn’t been fully restored properly.” He explains, one of the only references to enormous floods that would have otherwise decimated surrounding areas. It’s almost eerie, his level of composure, his basically flawless face unmoved. At a point the water almost “entirely obstructed the roads in and out of town”, he tells me, literally making this man an island. “If you go down south, that’s when things start looking really bad.” Each day, he tests if communication with the wider universe outside his pocket of a community is possible. He leaves the house. He walks up to a hill, to his girlfriend’s place, like a character methodically drawn from within the world of a Kate Bush’s cloudbusting video, to use her internet instead. He might stop to talk to one or two people on the street, never in a rush. He will get on a plane once this water has retired and settled, and by the time it is 2023 he will have been on more than he has been in cars. From above (In my mind I’m imagining a plot of land off the coast of Iceland, insanely, though “off the coast of iceland”, is not what it is) - an image of his town on Google maps instead reveals a sliver of coastline seperated from its body, as if neatly sliced with a new box cutter. He lives in Fingal heads, and grew up there, though despite the various (which is to say, two) EP covers shot on beaches, his voice carries the kind of primacy of someone more comfortable with train stations than oceans. Sands, dunes, possibly. In major cities, he thrives, he says, but does not necessarily enjoy the feeling of ones attention being drawn in different directions by stimuli. There is a sense of adventure about being in Sydney, as overwhelming as it is - an easy thing to feel, too, in a place containing a population of over 5 million people, and many…self described stars. I don’t know if there are any among them who, at 18 years of age, unapologetically remain devoted to god.
“Right now I’m getting like 100 texts and 100 emails every day about oh, like, what’s this? How’s this gonna work? We got to fly to here and fly here. And then we’re gonna do a photo shoot.” He pauses for a beat, describing what it means to be suddenly needed. “I really tried to just like set everything out real clearly.”
As we talk, I’m conscious of how his head rolls to the side, or upward, when considering a question.“I think when you’re in a smaller place you can sort of hear yourself think easier.” He says. “There aren’t many kind of distractions, you’re not kind of being constantly stimulated or having your attention drawn in like a million different directions.”
This information is not necessarily useful, though it is “interesting”; which sounds unfair. I am conscious of how there is wisdom in the undesirable routine. He started performing when he was 11, he confers, convinced by the reality of his family all being musicians, all of whom “played in the church band.” That first performance, at 11, was “at the school presentation, down the road” (his grandparents also live “just next door.” It is a town of 500 people.) He did not remember all of the words. He sounds apologetic. “I learned to play on the ukulele…and I got up and sang…and I forgot the words. But,” he offers, “I made it halfway through the song!”
It’s excusable at that point, I think, to not be at the level of a Jeff Buckley or even Omar Apollo, and then I say that out loud. The connection to country music was perhaps unusual, but also memorable. His mom’s family is from western new south wales - an explanation for why a young person would be quite literally attuned to “country and western”. Having also had the lived experience of “family from western new south wales” I understood. It was “Carrie Underwood, Dixie Chicks, Randy Travis. All those great country singers.” That eventually turned into an appreciation for Jazz, particularly Ella Fitzgerald, a star for a different generation. The motivation being a need to impress his grandmother, and totally pure.
“I just thought it’d be…she passed away earlier this year actually. It was when I was just starting to get into jazz, and went to her and I was like, what songs did you have at your wedding? I thought I’d learn them and play for her.”
By sheer virtue of proportion, the ties to his family - who he says “forms his style” are almost inseparable from his own identity, a thing that when you hear from someone else’s mouth feels like the welcoming arms of a weighted blanket. From here he maintained an uneasy balance amongst a solar system of uncles, mothers, siblings, and cousins. “Theres a sound I hear at my home”, he explains, “there’s something about the way they play. What choices we tend to make when we play. I don’t really know what makes it different.”
A fraction of your personality, one that may have previously lied dormant, must be expressed - coming up in conversation as being suddenly necessary as a person passes the threshold of 18. He pauses before using an amazing example. “If you listen to my cousins we all make choices that are very similar. You could probably say the same thing about destiny’s child, like, these girls all grew up together.”
And this is where I repeat many of the same things you hear about Budjerah in other interviews:
The first artist he remembers admiring, really admiring - at least on his own terms, unprohibited by the say of others - was Beyonce.
His initial performances took place in churches, rather than bars. Being informed by gospel is a constant.
His song with Pnau, stranger love, was based on the story “a little prince.”
His entire family is musical.
Matt Corby is something of a mentor, a sonic interconnectivity that makes sense when you make a playlist, deliberately plotting their songs side by side.
“Growing up in the church, there was a lot of gospel music as well. So a lot of hymns that that I grew up singing. I mean, I still sing them in my show.” He explains. “Like amazing grace. And “there is a river” is one that’s like a a country gospel song. And II always like to sing his eyes on the sparrow in my shows.”
I feel a sudden awareness of the media trained elephant in the room. “It could be so easy to feel tempted to package yourself into like, being this one genre thing, especially when you’re just starting out.”
“How are you handling that transition into beginning to come up with an identity and…marketing?”
“Well…I think I growing up in community, like we grew up on my country, we’re Coodjinburrah people from Bundjalung nation, and we’re very lucky not to have been moved from our land. So I think I’ve always maintained a very strong identity.”
It’s this particular trend I’ve noticed, more often than not with new (or younger) artists, wherein their ability to naturally discover and intuit the contours of their own personality, the sensations left from the body and mind, become scrambled by the impositions of a brand. “Artist development” - a term that sounds contrary to any goals it might claim to serve - comes to mind. Budjerah sounds unaffected. “I was very lucky going into the industry…I just make the music.” He says. “I can’t do anymore than what I’ve got. It could really muck with your head I reckon.”
“In my head, you know, I’m all about, like, doing a good show. I love singing live.”
This only slightly overturns the current persona he holds, which is somewhere in the midway stop between Ed Sheehan and Moses sumney, an artist had covered previously. “When I learned guitar my teacher studied classical guitar and jazz, and when I started learning guitar that was something that really interested me.” he explains. “When you start learning jazz, learned about like, all the different jazz standards, like Misty and George Gershwin, the rider, and then, you know, in jazz, there’s a lot of really good singers too.”
“I really just enjoy picking out like, what do great vocalists do to set them apart. A lot of singers back in the day had very distinctive things they did when they sang. If you look at Dionne Warwick, all of her songs were written for her to sing….songs were tailored for a specific person.”
In his lyrics, there are both demands and omissions that comfort. There’s a hunger there for understanding that hints at only a lick of the pandemic, only a shadow of our recent hell, and the impoverishment of connection it served.
Budjerah becomes the mouthpiece for every person dying for something more requited than a fantasy, with the wisdom that pop musics usual metrics for unrequited are not the only, or the ultimate. At 21, I found the latter to be unexplainable, nestled in the stretch of a crush, always, by some kind of poorly protected castle moat and unsure what it might meant to witness.
At the age of 7, crying to my teacher about four or five things, she told me this pain was from my body growing to accommodate new bones.
Ella Fitzgerald was also the first real “jazz” singer I was familiar with, having asked a question very similar to the one he asked his grandmother, though it was to my grandfather in this instance. I learned a handful of things, that being she was dirt poor for the longest period, that she, as some gay men are enthusiastic about saying online, “outsold.” Later, I learned that her success was in part made possible by a one Norma Jean, a blonde who had cameras follow her everywhere.