Whole other level: Jessica Mauboy exercises her sweet tooth. Photo: Joe Armao
High tea at the five-star Langham Hotel seems a rather fancy lunch choice for pop star Jessica Mauboy, whose easygoing nature is referenced in everything you read about her. But when we meet at the hotel's Aria Bar, she explains why: it reminds her of her grandparents.
''Growing up, we always had it at my grandparents' place. They were very traditional when it came to coffee and tea so when guests came over my Oma from my dad's side – he's Indonesian Timorese – she'd have everything prepared. She'd have pretty cakes made, very traditional and all sweet, lots of things with coconut milk, and a very sweet green cake, made from pandan leaves.''
Our three-tiered tiffin tray arrives and it's a daunting display: ribbon sandwiches with smoked salmon, cream cheese and chicken, champagne truffles, chocolate eclairs, fruit cake and scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. And chocolate-dipped strawberries decorated to look like they're wearing mini-tuxedoes.
High tea: Classy confections. Photo: Joe Armao
Not quite the high tea of Mauboy's childhood, but, she says, almost as colourful.
''This is a whole other level! Growing up there was a lot of colours on the table. A lot of colourful cakes and desserts. There was a dessert called 'gara-susu' – 'susu' means milk or breast in Indonesian – and it was almost like a jelly cake, but made from milk, that was always served with coffee. That was a favourite of mine.''
Mauboy, 24, was born in Darwin, the fourth of five girls. Her father, Ferdy, is Indonesian and her mother, Therese, is indigenous, but learnt to cook Indonesian cuisine.
Ribbon sandwiches. Photo: Joe Armao
Food has played a big part in Mauboy's childhood, from family celebrations at home to their annual family trips to Kefamenanu in West Timor, where Ferdy is from. And while she says she doesn't often get the time, Mauboy reckons she's not a bad cook herself.
''I love to make fish curry, almost like a fish stew with carrot and potato to make it hearty, and ginger and lemongrass to give it spice. We should have had a cooking class! Let's set that up next time and I will cook for you.''
It's been seven years since Mauboy was runner-up in the 2006 season of Australian Idol, and in that time she's become an international star, as renowned for her acting roles in Bran Nue Dae and the massive hit The Sapphires as her extraordinary voice. In September she even performed at the Emmys Governor's Ball in Los Angeles.
She's doubtless had the requisite media training – she's careful, for example, when discussing some of the nastier comments she received during Idol, conceding only that she prefers the more ''nurturing'' format of The Voice on which she appeared as a judge – but there's no doubting her enthusiasm for her work. And when she discusses home and family, she's positively radiant.
Mauboy moved to Sydney five years ago, but tries to get home as often as she can, and has a long-distance relationship with long-time boyfriend Themeli Magripilis. ''Patient fella that he is! I never see him, the poor thing,'' she says. ''But we make it work; it's been five years now. He works for the Darwin City Council, loves his fishing … Darwin boy, Darwin girl! I'm close to his mum and dad, and he's close to my family too. He'll take my dad out fishing, and go visit Mum, and whenever I can, I'll visit his family.''
Themeli joins us for a time, and the pair show off photos from his phone of recent fishing trips and spectacular Darwin sunsets. ''Whenever I'm at home we take the boat out for a fish,'' says Mauboy. ''We catch whitefish mainly, sometimes mud crabs, which are really sweet. I'm pretty good!''
It's a lifestyle at odds with her hectic pop star one. ''I miss the quiet, really quiet! Having no schedule and not having to rush everywhere. Just being on Darwin time. We had a pretty normal upbringing, I guess … we were always outside, playing in the dirt, in the rain, big thunderstorms. Mum would be, 'Get out of the rain, there's lightning!' You could see us in the gutters - they just filled up. That was our playground, on the road in the neighbourhood.''
Mauboy was always a singer and had dreams of acting, but she always thought she'd be a community teacher. ''It shocked me too when I won that award,'' she says of her AACTA and AFCA wins earlier this year.
''Before Bran Nue Dae, I had only done stuff at school. I was into it, though. In primary school I wrote my own version of Snow White, called Snow Black, which was meant to be funny, and used the local slang. I did get quite a good score for that.
''I was always watching Disney musicals and I loved The Sound of Music. All the things where you could see the whole body just working and singing … and I dreamed of doing that one day. It didn't really come out of nowhere.''
She also knew she wanted to help inspire others. ''Once at primary school we had Cathy Freeman come in, and I remember going 'oh my God, I want to be just like that!' I wanted to visit schools and be looked up to, you know? I wanted, not just to have a passion for music, but be a mentor, or student teacher and teach kindergarten or year two or three.''
Kindy teacher aside, she's achieved all her goals: Mauboy is in demand as a spokeswoman, and is the official ambassador for the Yipirinya School in Alice Springs.
''They have more than 200 Aboriginal kids and it's probably the only school that allows their own language and culture to be incorporated,'' she says. ''I do a lot of charity things but I just feel like if I do too many am I really making a difference? I want to be a part of one where I can really make a difference, and I think Yipirinya is that for me.''
Her latest single, To The End of The Earth, is a love song to her hometown. ''I write easily when I sing about lovey-dovey stuff, but in my head I wanted to switch it up on a personal level. I was missing home that day.''
Her new album, Beautiful, is a slight change of pace, somewhere ''in the middle of the first and second albums'', she says, with a mix of more dance-oriented tunes and her usual R&B sound.
''I didn't want to go too dancey, too extreme, and confuse my fans,'' she says.
This month Mauboy starts a national tour, her first headlining on her own. ''I'm so excited … to be able to take the lead and control what I want the tour to be, how I want it set out, do I want to mash it up, what kind of lighting … it's cool - I'm boss lady!''
And when she's not calling the shots on the national tour, she's reading film scripts. ''I've had lots of meetings with directors, local and international and I'd love to do more acting. Maybe one day but I'm so comfortable with music right now.''
Mauboy is not ruling out an eventual move to the US to pursue this path, although she'd want to take Themeli with her, she says, finishing off a scone. ''Poor fella. No more fishing!''
■ Jessica Mauboy's album Beautiful is out now. She plays the Melbourne Plenary on November 9