From South Australia to Far North Queensland and now Melbourne, Yirgjhilya Lawrie is a talented singer who finds her inspiration, confidence and strength within her community and family. Daughter of Coloured Stone’s Bunna Lawrie, Yirgjhilya grew up in a musical family allowing her to develop her creativity and musical expression from a very young age, empowering her to uses her musical talent to persevere in upholding the indigenous culture ever since.
Earning a solid reputation after paramount and poignant performances at Share the Spirit Festival, The 80th anniversary of the Cummeragunja Walk-Off, St Kilda Festival, Yirramboi Festival, Umi Arts: Big Talk One Fire and the ABC’s NAIDOC Special, Yirgjhilya has today revealed ‘Baganar’, her debut single written in Yergala-Mirning, an Aboriginal language from the Far West Coast of South Australia and translates to ‘call out’ and ‘rise up’.
Bringing you a powerful and soul tingling call for unity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the troubling times ahead, we sit down with Yirgjhilya to talk about the single, her career in music and her role in standing strong in support of the Indigenous community.
First up, can you give our readers a little intro to you. How did you get involved in music?
I started off at a young age to which I suppose would make sense coming from a musical family; it was bound to happen eventually. I started singing in an all-girl rock band when I was 9 years old and it was great fun. Then as I got older, singing in different choirs and eventually playing a lead role in my high school’s rendition of ‘Hairspray’. Once I moved, I studied Music at JMC Academy in South Melbourne which was a great experience. That created networks and opportunities for me, and I got to do the dirty pub circuit. As my brother likes to call it, my voice sounds ‘seasoned’ haha. From there on, it’s just been a journey going up and up, moving further and pushing more and more boundaries.
Congrats on your debut single ‘Baganar’. It’s a beautiful, affecting five-minute track. Can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing the track together?
I was actually studying music I think in 2015 and at the time, I sang in a reggae band by the name of King Spirit. Our lead singer spoke French and loved to mix French into his songs, so in our song writing I began to experiment with mixing Mirning language into my parts. Thankfully my Father could teach me and for the writing of Baganar, he helped me put together the melody. So originally, Baganar was written as a reggae tune and I’m pretty sure I still have a live recording of it somewhere too haha. It’s taken on a new life now; one that is closer to who I am and shares a bit of Dive Team 5’s flavour too.
Translating to ‘call out’ and ‘rise up’, what were the inspirations behind penning the track? Is there a particular backstory to the song?
There is a particular story behind it that sparked me writing it, but my goal was always for it to be a timeless anthem for everyone who resonates with it. In 2014, the Western Australian Government had just announced its plans for the closure of close to 200 Aboriginal communities, basically cutting them off and upgrading other larger communities, which can be seen as the most logical thing to do. But how can we talk about self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Islander people and healing towards a better future when we’re not even consulted for matters regarding our communities, and being re-traumatised by the Government leading to dispossession? The people of those communities – that’s their homes, their safe place to go to, so why force them out again? And who knows if that had gone ahead, what communities are next? The ones my ancestors and I belong to as well? All of them? That’s just the Government flexing its power on its most vulnerable people.
The sole drums at the three-minute mark are very powerful within this song. Did you work with a band for the instrumentals and back-up vocals?
Yes, so my lovely band guys are “Dive Team 5.” I’ve worked with them since 2016. The drums you hear at that part are meant to mimic a heartbeat, a beat you may or may not have heard before in some traditional Aboriginal music. Not all traditional Aboriginal music is the same, but for Mirning people we mimic the heartbeat, and that part in the song was my way of connecting what keeps me alive with my music.
You’ve lived in a few different places. How do you find the Melbourne music scene?
I moved here for it. I’ve always felt a calling with Melbourne and as soon as I finished Year 12, I was out the door. My Mum always says once I’ve made my mind up you can’t stop me, so I think she already knew I had big dreams and most were in Melbourne. It’s just the melting pot for literally everything. I just love how diverse Melbourne is; I suppose you could say it’s full of people from everywhere chasing their dreams, music or not.
Your dedication to being a mentor for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth resulted in being awarded and crowned Victorian Miss NAIDOC 2019. Can you tell us what that experience means to you, and what that has meant for you since?
When I first moved here, I felt like an outsider for a good few years. Growing up in Cairns, constantly surrounded by my family, culture and community, I never felt short of connection, love and culture. But when I moved here, it was completely different. Rightfully so, it took those few years to build trust with the community here and although it was hard, thinking of it now, we’re a tight-knit community and we take care of each other, but that takes trust. So, when I won Miss NAIDOC Victoria 2019, it was a weight off my shoulders like “Ok we see you, welcome.” Funny enough, in May that same year, literally days before my crowning, I was welcomed into Wurundjeri country with a smoking ceremony by Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson, which was the first time in 6 years, so kind’ve a weird coincidence? Or you know, something more ancient and higher than us. Reflecting on it now, it makes sense; everywhere I’ve ever travelled, I’ve always paid my respects to the lands, it’s spirits and its elders past, present and emerging. It’s funny now to think the same rules didn’t apply in Melbourne because it’s a city? No, you still need to respect and acknowledge the lands, it’s people and in turn, I’ve been privileged and blessed to call Melbourne home and a place that I get to work on and contribute to. It was a special turning point in my life culturally as an Aboriginal Woman living off country, and as a leader and mentor to our youth. In a few months’ time, in November I will hand over my crown and sash to a new Miss NAIDOC to be recognised and the one thing I can only stress to them will be that being a leader and mentor is a journey, not a destination, and that winning this role is a step towards greater achievements in your life.
We’re really seeing an appreciation of the work of Indigenous artists more and more in recent times which is amazing. For you, what’s being the biggest highlight for you since you began a career in music?
I love singing and making music by myself and with other great artists. All of my career has been a highlight with more to come. Although to be specific, being a part of contemporary Aboriginal music in Australia is a highlight because in my Father’s time, roughly 40 years ago, it wasn’t a thing and Aboriginal musicians could only enter into venues through the back door if they could enter in at all. So, a highlight of my career is living, breathing and thriving proof of our continuing progression and adaptation in a modern world.
Your song is written in Mirning, an Aboriginal language from the Far West Coast of South Australia where there are approximately less than six fluent speakers of Mirning left and as a new wave of Indigenous Artists emerge, they’re now returning to their mother tongue. In doing so, what do you hope people take away from your music?
I’d hope people connect with my music in a way that makes them happy and empowered. I hope they connect with me too and feel like I share their views. I hope that people feel encouraged to reconnect with their mother tongues if they can and know that speaking your language and participating in your culture is what makes you special, and never shy away from it. I’ve always felt like my culture and language is like returning home; it heals you to speak your language, be with family, and live your culture. It’s important to note that not all of us have the privilege of knowing who our mobs are, or knowing language, etc. and that’s the result of colonisation. Maybe I’m too optimistic, and you can drag me for this, but I believe our language and traditions always have a way of finding us – connection is inevitable. I hope that people can feel healing through my music.
Your song, and music as a whole, is a great way of standing strong in support of the Indigenous female community. How do you think your music can empower others?
A lot of my music has been a way for me to heal and in hopes healing others who resonate. My story of becoming who I am today has been a bit of a crazy one and I hope by making music about it, I could inspire someone or make someone feel less alone. I don’t necessarily think of supporting the female Indigenous community specifically by writing music or just being who I am because I consider myself to be quite masculine in the way I present myself. I still identify as female but I also know that not everyone does. So I suppose anyone, regardless of gender, if they connect with me and my music, then that’s cool and all I can hope for.
Are you currently working on any new music?
Due to Miss Rona, I haven’t been able to record any new tracks aside from Baganar and another. But all in due time, it’ll be good when we can start recording again and working on new tracks. For now, I’m just happy to let Baganar have it’s time in the sun and me too, because I think we’ve earned it. I’m still constantly writing notes in my phone for new ideas and if I get an idea, I try to write down a song in full, as much as I can. I used to write phrases here and there and then try to piece them together later, which can still happen. However, I like to try to write a whole song when I’ve got the initial idea.
Release: ‘Baganar’ is out now. Check it out below.