Trivia time: Name two “Idol” runners-up who went on to sell boatloads of albums and earn major awards for starring in a film about 1960s female soul singers.
One, of course, is Chicago-native Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”). The other is Australian singer Jessica Mauboy, who has gone platinum in her country (where she participated in the reality TV singing competition), recorded with American rappers including Snoop Dogg and Ludacris, and won the Australian Film Institute's best supporting actress award for “The Sapphires,” opening in Chicago March 29.
The film is inspired by a true story and earned a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. Mauboy plays Julie, whose knockout voice proves a major asset as she, her older sisters and cousin—aboriginal women who earned full human rights a year earlier in 1967—tour Vietnam and perform for American troops.
At the House of Blues, the 23-year-old—who uses phrases like “Shut the gate” and says she wants to go to Chicago spots where “The Dark Knight” was shot—talked about co-star Chris O’Dowd’s voice and crossing over to America. She also belted out such stirring snippets of “Who's Lovin' You” and “Land of a Thousand Dances” I felt like I should cry, shimmy or both.
On co-star Chris O’Dowd’s voice [The “Bridesmaids” star plays Sapphires manager/collaborator Dave Lovelace]: “My goodness, I didn’t even know Chris could sing. I remember that I received an MP3 the day that I was going to record [‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’]. And I was just like, ‘Who is this person singing on this track? It’s such a beautiful manly voice!’ I’m a big fan of ‘The IT Crowd.’ That’s where I discovered Chris O’Dowd. When we got the call [that] said that Chris is going to be playing Dave Lovelace, I was just thrilled … We actually were thinking I needed to get him in the studio; we wanted to lay something down.”
On appropriately covering classic material: “There were moments when I just had to take a moment and go, ‘How am I going to do these songs without going overboard and being vocally … doing too much?’ That was really, really important to me that I didn’t over-sing because these songs are such legendary songs that were perfect that don’t need to be covered.”
On bringing the soul in the studio to suit performances she’s seen before: “[Tina Turner] is just phenomenal, and she just kills [‘Land of a Thousand Dances’]—the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen. It was just like, [singing], ‘You got to know how to pony! Like Bony Maronie! The mashed potato! Do the alligator!’ Such raw, hard, soulful lyrics. She was singing the lyrics, and that’s what I needed to project in the studio. Sometimes that can really take that away when you’re in an enclosed, dark room. It was really visualizing those four aboriginal women singing to the soldiers. Giving them hope. Giving them belief. Giving them back their soul. Giving them voice and just letting go a little bit.”
On her own barriers to success: “There’s been moments where I’ve felt as an indigenous woman growing up in Australia, there’s been that kind of rivalry of being indigenous … I’ve had that experience of someone saying, ‘I don’t know if she’s going to go that far.’ There hasn’t been that many indigenous Australians who have made it in the pop industry.”
How many indigenous Australians have crossed over to America: “Not ever once. We’ve had real strong aboriginal male artists who’ve crossed over to the mainstream who have toured the UK, who have been a massive influence on myself and many, many communities around Australia. But after doing ‘Idol’ it was that moment of, ‘I want to prove them wrong.’ I know who I am; I know where my family’s from. Culturally I feel strong enough to be able to continue, and that makes me who I am. It’s been three years I’ve been working within the Australian [music] industry, and I feel that I’ve really succeeded and gone to another level where I can give back to my community and help them out and really give them a chance to know that they can do it too.”
On aboriginal people fighting for rights in the late ‘60s, like the American civil rights movement: “There [were] civil movements that even Australia was dealing with, and moments where indigenous Australians were looking to the black Americans. It was to that point where the same thing was happening, but no one really knew it was happening in Australia. … I was so happy being a 23-year-old and getting the opportunity of telling my uncle and auntie’s story, what they went through, what I was educated on. But being able to tell it to the next generation was something I wanted to do and be a part of telling.”
On, like Julie, performing in local pubs when she was younger: “I was 11 at the time, singing up against 30-year-olds. But that was our thing: That was our community hangout. My parents would take us to the pubs and bars and we would hang out with the family. That was our environment.”
If she ever experienced the racially motivated interactions that Julie does: “My mom told me stories. She had had racial experience as a young woman, but she wanted the best for us, so she never really went into detail. It was just so much her personal experience. She always told us about finding your way through humor, fighting the pain through humor. We’d laugh it off; if anything would make us feel sad or anything, we would just smile it out and deal with it and move on. Within our indigenous community that’s how we fought, through humor.”
On how she’d feel touring in a war zone: “Oh, my goodness. I would totally think that it was the end of my life, really. But for these women it was to the point where they even felt more free in a war zone than they did in their own country. Their own country was at war … but for them they had a voice. They could sing.”
On the voice of another Australian who recently sang on the big screen, Russell Crowe: “I thought it was excellent. I didn’t know he could sing. I thought it was a really solid performance from him. I met him just a month ago while in Australia. He presented me the best female supporting actress award for ‘The Sapphires,’ and so [did] Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. I felt so honored with them presenting the award to me. It was above and beyond [laughs] what I ever dreamed of. It was amazing to be able to know that he had watched the film and he loved it and he just thought my performance in it was great.”
On working with Snoop Dogg: “Snoop was definitely so genuine and so supportive. He had heard the song [‘Get ‘Em Girls’] that I worked on with [producer] Bangladesh in Atlanta, and he wanted to be on board and loves Australia and loved that I was an indigenous Australian … When he walked up to the [video] shoot he had his uncle that came along in a trailer and cooked us chicken. [Laughs]”
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