Emily wurramara


- Words Emma Do

For Emily Wurramara, nothing is more soothing than singing and strumming her guitar. She wrote her first ditty at six years old

– a tune about mermaids journeying across the seas – having just moved from Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentari­a to Brisbane with her family. Adjusting to life in the big smoke was a huge culture shock, but writing little poems and stories helped her feel comfortabl­e.

These days, it’s the Warnindily­akwa artist’s folky tunes that comfort others. She often writes while at the height of happiness or in the depths of sadness, hoping her words will be exactly what someone else needs to hear. “I think music is a deeper level of connection,” she says. “It’s sacred. I get really emotional when people tell me my music has healed them.”

Storytelli­ng and music has always felt natural to Emily. Growing up on Groote Eylandt, she was surrounded by an eclectic mix of sounds. Her earliest musical memory is of her uncle’s band playing after church, and the karaoke sessions with her dad’s Filipino-chinese side, where her lola (grandma) belted out Whitney Houston and Bon Jovi. Reggae was also a fixture on the island, and she loved the storytelli­ng skills of Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band. But it wasn’t until her early teens that she began thinking more seriously about pursuing music as a career. “Back home at my grandmothe­r’s funeral, we had all these young men come out singing and dancing,” she explains. “The way their voices carried over the fires was entrancing. I thought, ‘Why aren’t there any women doing this?’”

With few female musicians to look up to in her community, she set out on her own path. By age 14, she’d picked up piano, guitar and violin and was jumping at every opportunit­y she could find in Brisbane, “even if it was playing to one person.” “Music is what makes me happy,” Emily says. “I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” The hard work paid off: she signed to Mushroom Records shortly after her 2016 EP Black Smoke was released. In 2018, at age 22, Emily put out her debut album Milyakburr­a – a collection of serene tracks sung in Anindilyak­wa and English that celebrate family and culture. Continuing to sing in language is important to her. “It’s a way to connect to my ancestors and preserve language for future generation­s,” she says. “I want people to feel proud – to be like, ‘Ah, that’s deadly! That’s my word!’”

Emily’s stoked to be part of a community of young, female Indigenous songwriter­s. She remembers excitedly meeting Thelma Plum when she was 15 – “Just seeing another sister hold the stage and be so down-to-earth and humble backstage really inspired me,” she says – and will never forget the advice country-folk singer Sue Ray once gave her. “I used to feel embarrasse­d because I was bullied for my smile,” Emily explains. “Sue told me to push on; that my beauty shines through my presence and music. It’s really something I try to pass on to young women now: we have a right to have our voice and hold our space.”

Since her debut, Emily’s been taking it slow, spending time between Queensland and Tasmania with her daughter K’iigari. She’s excited to try new things on the next record, including co-producing and experiment­ing with making her own beats. The songwritin­g happens at its own pace – “I press record when my heart pulls me,” she says – and Emily sees the next phase as a time to share her personal journey: the successes, failures, loss and growth she’s experience­d. “My daughter is a constant reminder that it’s going to be OK,” she says. “Watching this little person grow has changed my perspectiv­e. She reminds me that you’re always changing, always becoming.”

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