Kee’ahn’s “Better Things” does not sound like your traditional debut single. Beautiful lyrics, sung with a rare soulful emotional intelligence that skate around melodies that tug at your heart. It’s nostalgic, but also forward-looking at the same time, not dissimilar to the likes of Leon Bridges, who Kee’ahn counts among her influences. It’s exciting to be the ground floor of the career of one of Australia’s most promising talents, but also kind of wild when you think about how wise-beyond-her–22-years she presents.
A young Gugu Yalanji, Jirrbal, Zenadth Kes song woman, Kee’ahn is constantly navigating something. Whether that’s her incredibly successful debut during a year marred by a pandemic, the Australian music industry as an Indigenous artist, or simply her own internal world. In “Better Things,” she croons about learning how to love herself, “I think it starts with my mental health.”
Syrup sat down with Kee’ahn to chat about the interplay between her identity and her art, using Instagram as a force for good—when you can—and took a scroll through her TikTok for some deadly Indigenous creators to follow. Plus, keep scrolling for the playlist she kindly curated for us of some of her favourite tunes of the moment.
So how has your year been, especially being based in Kulin Nation (Melbourne)?
I’ve been in Melbourne for a couple of years and this year’s been quite hectic with COVID and music. I had my debut release, there’s been a lot of joy from that. Yeah, it’s been a great year. I’ve been really lucky to kind of drop the single and then to have so much support behind it. There was Delivered Live, Big Sound was incredible too, and TikTok the other day for NAIDOC week, I did a live stream there.
Even with all this support, we can imagine it’s been challenging in Melbourne. How did the lockdown affect your writing and creating?
“Better Things” was my first single and I really didn’t know how the whole process works—just sort of popped it up and see what happens. I was really lucky to have people trying to help me. I think it was a good time to release it because everyone was really uncertain about what the future would hold and kind of scared. My song is about being hopeful, looking to the future and hoping for better things.
With COVID for me personally, I’ve been having ups and downs with mental health. But then I’ve also been seeing all the messages come in about the song. Seeing people use the phrase, “tending to their garden,” and really looking after themselves and wanting to grow and pick up those weeds. It’s been weird releasing it during this time, but also there are so many positives that have come out of it and I’m really grateful.
What does tending to your garden look like or mean to you?
I think really sitting with the parts of myself that I’m uncomfortable with. It sounds woo-woo, but I’ve been listening to podcasts about shadow work. What I’ve been trying to express through my music is understanding the parts of myself that I try to avoid but need to work on, where I need to tend and try to grow other things. And give love to, you know, so that they can be better.
How did you get started making music, and what advice would you have for other people?
I started because I dropped out of uni, physiotherapy—couldn’t do it, it wasn’t me. My passion that I’ve always had was performing and singing and then trying to learn how to write music. I started busking. I’ve done a lot of musicals with my dad in Townsville, which was really sweet. I think it’s about pursuing it because you love it. And because it’s your passion. Stay really motivated in yourself and know that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Finding people around you to connect with and collaborate with and learn from. I think that’s the advice that I would give. Back yourself 100%.
Since writing your first song “Smoke” for your grandmother, how has what you’ve written about changed? Do you notice yourself thinking about how an audience might perceive things?
Hmmm, yeah I love that question. I think my writing does grow with me, I think it mainly sticks to those core goals of wanting to heal myself. And through that, hoping that the music and the lyrics and the content heals others. Moving down here and being surrounded by other Indigenous artists, I’ve felt more motivated and empowered to share my thoughts as an Aboriginal person.
When you talk about healing, do you see it as a personal healing or cultural healing?
I think it’s definitely more personal. I’m only one person, and I can only draw on my own experiences. I think the healing that I’m kind of tapping into is intergenerational trauma that I may carry. I’m trying to understand that and empower myself to try and be a role model, but also encourage vulnerability for my kids and my community. Yeah, I think mainly just trying to be my full self and at the same time, uplift other people in my community.
Mental health is a big part of your work, how have you been taking care of yourself this year?
It changes a lot! I think the main thing is putting less pressure on myself to be this perfect person, that part of my brain is always pushing. It’s okay that I have some days, I just want to lay in bed a bit longer or eat “bad” food or whatever. I think I’m just releasing a lot of shame and guilt. I think that’s what self-care is, to me. But it’s also nice that I’ve been having bubble baths and those little things. Because I have social anxiety, I think, pushing myself a little bit to just call a friend or just have a yarn, and not be too scared about the call, is kind of looking after myself.
Are there any other small things you do to be easier on yourself when you’re in a low point?
I talked to my housemate about this actually! We both talked about how we have little songs that we just need to sing to ourselves to get us out of a moment. When I’m being too hard on myself, and it’s like that critical parent voice in my head, I sing Alex Lahey’s, “Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself.” And then I’m like, “Okay, I got this. It’s okay. You just push through. It’s not that bad.” I think that’s one little thing.
How do you navigate making art and seeking opportunities, while not wanting to be tokenised?
I think it’s really weird to navigate. I think I’m still trying to process that that might be my branding to some people. That I’m the “Indigenous artist” that does this. But yeah, I think the goal would be, to be Kee’ahn, and “this is Kee’ahn’s music”, rather than to have any label. But I think, because my music is so tied to my identity, an identity that I’m learning and strengthening, there’s some power in being labelled Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It’s hard, it’s not black and white. I think mainly I want to be Kee’ahn, who is also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
Right, like you wouldn’t necessarily call Rihanna a Barbadian singer all the time.
Exactly, or you wouldn’t have a playlist of like, Irish Australian artists, that doesn’t make sense. I guess that’s the starting point for some people. You can only hope they seek more information and education after that.
On that topic, what have you thought about Instagram’s use as a kind of self-education and activism tool?
I think it was kind of like, “where was everyone?!” In my bubble that I’m in, I was seeing Indigenous people on Instagram sharing the kind of content that you’ve always seen. Our people, activism and grassroots movements that we’re pushing. There were positives and negatives. Positives in people being educated and aware and sharing stuff but also like, “Where are you fellas?” Yeah, a bit late to the game.
I think for me, it felt a bit overwhelming to see. A lot of the videos and the format of the things going around, it kind of made you a bit desensitized. It’s pretty traumatic. Though Instagram has become kind of this platform for education, and I think that’s really empowering.
Mm, like you don’t need to see the police brutality, for example, to know that it’s happening.
Yeah, we should be taking our word on what’s happening.
What’s your own relationship with social media and Instagram like, how do you use your platform for good?
I really use it as a way to connect with people. Seeing how they look after themselves and what they’re listening to. I try to use it as an education platform. Mainly, I just want to share the voices that I think need to be amplified more. I don’t want to take up space that way. I think I’m very blessed to be a musician, but I just want to highlight those grassroots movements and voices, that should be getting more attention.
Also, I just try to have fun with it. I think this year, I’ve learnt in myself to just be goofy and that it doesn’t matter if people won’t enjoy it. I’m enjoying myself on social media, and I hope it like encourages other people to, you know, be goofy.
I sometimes feel a lot of anxiety about posting on social media, how did you work on that fear of how you’re gonna be perceived? Especially when as an artist you might not want to play that self-promotion game, and instead just… do great work?
Yeah, I feel that. I sometimes ask my friends, am I tooting my horn too much? But I think there’s always going to be someone who might see something as negative. I think my intentions are good. I’m just trying to be myself. I’ve had a lot of anxiety on social media, like, “how’s this person going to view it?” but I don’t know… I think I’m just trying to be genuine and be myself.
I feel this urge to really share myself because I know that there’ll be people that can resonate with and also empowered by it. I think I’m just warier of how I do it, I really want it to be on my terms. And through my music is on my terms, using my language, or having yarns like this.
That’s why I think maybe Instagram or Tiktok, might dilute it a bit—it’s more curated, I think. I’d love to have a podcast or a yarn, and just have that as my avenue. I would love to talk to people. I want to yarn to my family! I’m really close with my parents, and they have really special stories that I want people to hear. I think I’d want to make it quite light-hearted and humorous. Yeah, just yarn to my friends. I just want to say I more stories that are connected to culture, and mainly mental health.
And how about TikTok? There’s so many amazing Indigenous creators on the platform, but sometimes it feels like a little bit of a surface level engagement with Indigenous culture.
Yeah! I feel like social media is really just an access point to learning about our culture, but people really have to dig deeper than that. It’s really beautiful that there’s so many mob on TikTok repping our culture, and doing these cultural performances, and like getting Aunties involved. I think it’s really lovely and a celebration. Anyone that is only just coming to the party, if you want to learn more then there’s so much more to self-education than just what’s on social media.
Some of my favourite TikTok mob? Meissa Mason, (@meissa.com.au). She does makeup looks but she’s also really educational as well. She talks about our history, and she’s quite young, too, so it’s really deadly. I also like Emily (@howdoidelete1), her content is quite hard-hitting but she’s also really funny at the same time. I don’t know how she does it.
And then Sari, (@sari_ella_thaiday). She’s Torres Strait Island and she does a lot of makeup looks. There’s a really beautiful one where she’s explaining and talking about the history of her family. I think it’s really cool, those stories. A non-Indigenous person would view it and maybe understand our stories and our culture and our people a bit better, because those stories really aren’t amplified or heard about. That’s why I love her page.
Has making music helped you connect differently or more deeply with your culture?
I think it’s definitely an ongoing process. It’s weird, but since moving I’ve felt more connected. I’ve had to have a lot of yarns with my parents about the history of our family. And prior to COVID, the goal was to really go back home and go back on country and meet with my Auntie’s and the elders that I haven’t seen in a while. So that’s the goal for me, to connect further. I think I won’t ever be at the level where I’m like, “I’ve learned everything about my culture.” I think that’s okay.
So, what are you up to next?
I’m working on my debut album, In Full Bloom. I’ve got some songs from when I was 20 to now, about the whole moving process and figuring out what I want to do with my life. Yeah, just writing at the moment. I worked on my first collaboration for Triple J NAIDOC Week. I got to write a song with Kobie D and River Boy and Orion. That’s really exciting. What we’ve created is so dope and I’m really keen for people to hear it. And it was only made over a week! So it’s been stressful, but I’m very happy with it.