My Australia

My Australia: Singer Odette on how her mixed heritage sparked an identity crisis

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Born to a British father, an Indigenous South African mother, and having migrated to Sydney from the UK at age three, singer-songwriter Odette, shares her struggle to define herself.

My Australia is a special series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2019.

"It was like I had a literal identity crisis."

Seated at a piano at Forbes Street Studios in Sydney's CBD, 21-year-old singer-songwriter Odette is explaining how she hit an identity crossroads as a teenager. 

"I always knew I was African, but it was the realisation that I wasn't white," she tells SBS News. 

I always knew I was African, but it was the realisation that I wasn't white.

"Like many mixed kids, I was very confused, I was very conflicted. It was really hard, really hard." 

Her music though, embraces that collision of cultures. 

Odette
Odette says she had an identity crisis as a teenager.
SBS

Her songs, she says, bear the legacy of her grandfather, a British jazz pianist during World War Two. 

The influence of that genre is laid bare as she begins to delicately play the piano.   

And while the vocals that follow do carry the sultry warmth of a jazz singer, there's also some soul in her voice. That, she says, comes from her African heritage. 

Odette, whose real name is Georgia Odette Sallybanks, was born in the UK to a British father, while her mother is Zulu - the largest ethnic group in South Africa. 

Today she embraces her mixed ancestry, both in her art and personal life, but she says straddling the two cultures hasn't always been easy. 

Odette's grandfather, a jazz pianist in WW2, introduced her to the piano.
Odette's grandfather, a jazz pianist in WW2, introduced her to the piano.
Supplied.

An only child, she moved with her parents to Australia when she was three years old.

She spent the early years of her childhood in Bangalow, a small town in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, near Byron Bay. 

"It was really nice growing up in a country town because I got to be wild and run around," she said. 

"[It] was quite a white town and there weren’t many other darker kids, and if they were, we banded together. My neighbour was Indonesian."

There weren’t many other darker kids, and if they were, we banded together.

The family eventually moved to Sydney's inner west, and it was here, during her schooling years, questions about her identity bubbled to the surface. 

Odette's mother is a Zulu woman from South Africa.
Odette's mother is a Zulu woman from South Africa.

"It took me years and years to navigate that confusion, because, visibly I have lighter skin, so it was that navigation not just from people who weren't black saying I wasn't black, but also people with darker skin that are black, saying I wasn't black."

It was during those years of confusion Odette forged her career.

She caught the attention of now manager Andy Bryan when she was just 14. He says he was hesitant to sign her because of her age.

"I was reluctant, until I heard the song," he says, referring to an early demo of Odette's. 

"And it is always about the song. All of those red flags all of a sudden disappear and it turns to intrigue, I guess. How someone of that age could create something that was so instant and complex."

"That was the driving force for me. I need to find out more about who this person is, where they've come from and how on Earth they were able to create what they've created at such a young age."

She was eventually signed to EMI Records which represents Australian female stars Tina Arena and Missy Higgins, as well as US pop giant Katy Perry. 

Odette's manager, Andy Bryan describes Odette's song-writing ability as 'phenomenal' for someone of her age.
Odette's manager, Andy Bryan describes Odette's song-writing ability as 'phenomenal' for someone of her age.
SBS

As the tug of her African heritage grew stronger, her sense of identity developed in sync with her career.

"'Take it to the Heart' [a song from her debut record] was inspired by African beats, and that uplifting tempo," she said. 

The emotional rollercoaster experienced during her coming-of-age is also evident in her lyrics.

Manager Andy Bryan praises what he calls Odette's "incredible understanding of harmonies and melodies in her voice," but says her star power is in her song-writing.

Odette with her British-born father.
Odette with her British-born father.

"The lyrical richness [is] phenomenal, it was kind of mind-blowing and it was something she's managed to develop and get better at," he told SBS News.  

Odette released her debut album 'To A Stranger' last year under the guidance of producer Damian Taylor (Björk, The Killers, The Temper Trap). 

The release of the record, led to a sold-out national tour.

This year, she'll be going global with a jam-packed international tour, beginning next month.

And, having just celebrated her 21st birthday with a Zulu coming of age tradition known as Umemulo, she says she has never been more ready to showcase exactly who she is.

"It's like a Zulu female bar mitzvah," Odette explains.

"It was really monumental for me, it was just kind of like a big moment, like you don't have to be conflicted anymore. This is your knowledge and your culture and your heritage and you don't have to be confused."

Do you have a story you’d like to share with SBS News? Email yourstory@sbs.com.au

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