Thando: Future Soulstress
At 23, Thando Sikwila has already adorned festival stages, lit up television screens, and wowed theatre goers with her striking, soulful performances. And with a voice that soars and a songwriting sensibility beyond her years, Thando is just beginning.
Thando first came into our nation’s consciousness in 2014, when she sang Duffy’s Mercy on season three of the Voice Australia. Watching it again on YouTube two years on (the video is just shy of 1.1million views) one can see the determination and professionalism of someone who truly needn’t care should she disappear from the competition.
From her first note, lasting first impressions were made. In the "Blind Audition", the praise came thick and fast. The Madden brothers and Kylie Minogue vied for Thando to be on their teams (she went Team Kylie). “You have buckets of soul,” said will.i.am. “You are gonna bring such joy to the show,” said Ricky Martin.
Indeed ‘joy’ is a word that rings true when Thando comes to mind. Even with a simple email, her joy overflows. Despite eventually being eliminated from the competition – which she did in the “Sing Off” rounds for those well versed in Voice speak – the Voice is certainly not something that needs much attention when it comes to Thando. She is an authentic artist who doesn’t need reality TV to validate her talent. However, the show did provide her with stepping-stones of confidence and experience, launching her on to greater things.
Thando tells Music Love, “All I can really say about the Voice is it opened doors for me that I never saw myself going through. It was great playing ‘pop star’ for a few months in my life, but it also kept me grounded and hungry to tell my life’s story as honestly as I can. TV Land is strange but exciting nonetheless.”
And yet. Being a contestant on the Voice Australia in 2013 is perhaps the least interesting thing about Thando apart from her moving performances – girl can SING – this woman does not need a competition. She is in a league all of her own.
Raised in Canberra with her three sisters, Thando spent most of her time locked in her room after school writing songs about friends and love interests, would come out and have dinner, and then head straight back to her seclusion, close the door and hit the keys again. As much as growing up in Canberra has given Thando a sense of family with something always happening around the house, once she hit 19 she was itching to move on.
The revelation came during one visit to Melbourne, as she rode in the family car across the Bolte Bridge. “The view was so stunning, I couldn’t imagine my life anywhere else. The thrill of a huge city to navigate and be a ‘City Girl’ was very much my ‘Sex and the City moment,” she recalls.
Now residing in Melbourne, Thando feels completely at home. “Melburnians are fearless. They don’t judge or think anything is too weird, which is great for me ‘cause I’m a little socially ‘weird.’ I’ll wear clashing prints down the street and sip on my soy whatever and it’s ok. I love being able to be free. I just can’t see myself doing that in Sydney lol,” she writes.
Thando counts Jill Scott and Alicia Keys as her musical inspiration (if you’re a fan of Jasmine Sullivan, you will fall in love with Thando), and her love of soul, RnB along with uplifting, heartfelt, and at times dark lyrics are apparent in her original music.
Thando released her first single in 2014, a love song entitled W.Y.B.M (Won't You Be Mine?)
It’s a fantastic track - soulful, emotive with impeccable vocals. And in June this year, Thando released her stunning EP Digital Love Letters. The stand out cut and single is called Work and Thando performs in a striking music video.
Studio performances aside – of which none are short of stellar – her live performances are where this powerhouse comes alive. Thando tells Music Love she can’t quite choose which performance has been her favourite, but then answers, “My favourite unplugged acoustic show was in a friends backyard in Fitzroy in 2015. I just told my stories to an intimate crowd of thirty people, and it was so special having people be so engaged with my stories and hear the songs and where they came from. But, my favourite full band gig is when we played at Chapel off Chapel [in Melbourne] in January 2016. We had a horn section, so [there were] eleven musicians on stage, and that one was all about the audience and we had a huge dance with them. So many smiling faces that night.”
And, just when you think her work to date is pretty impressive, Thando has also committed her time to performing in two stage musicals, Dreamgirls in 2015 and The Colour Purple which is just about to stop playing, in the last two years. She reflects on her time on the StageArt theatre company, “I love it. I think it's such a valuable tool as a performer to be able to act and tell someone else's story as convincingly as if it's your own. It's not that different from singing covers for me to be honest. I've definitely been challenged and can't wait to do more stage shows in my life.”
In Dreamgirls, Thando played the lead role of Effie White (played by Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 film adaptation starring Beyonce). At the time, a review in The Herald Sun said, “It is the phenomenal voice and feisty presence of Thando Sikwila that grab the audience by the collar and make them whoop and cheer,” adding “it is worth the ticket price just to witness the soaring voice and audacious performance of Thando.”
Thando tells Music Love, “I got to play the role of my dreams - pun intended - as Effie White and really lived and breathed all things Dreamgirls and that was life changing. I learned to dance in heels, a skill I now utilise when I'm trying to impress at weddings, trained my vocal endurance and dropped about two dress sizes in the process. You really have to know how to do it all, sing dance and act and I am a much more well rounded artist because of it.” Apparently, her rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, set the audience into a frenzied applause that took them all the way to the interval break.
Then came The Color Purple (which doesn't finish playing until 6 November at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne - try and bag a ticket), the stage show from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestselling novel of which Oprah Winfrey said, “The Color Purple changed my life! I have always wanted as many people as possible to experience this story.” Just before the season launch, Thando told Music Love she was looking forward to performing in the powerful play that addresses sexism, racism and class in Georgia in the 1930s. “‘I get the chance to challenge people's perception of what sexy is and this role is more about my acting abilities instead of just my singing voice. It's been hard work but I can't wait to let it all go on the stage with the rest of the cast.”
Thando lighting up the stage: The Voice, Dreamgirls & The Colour Purple. Images: Fairfax, Herald Sun, Thando.com.au
Aside from TV, musical theatre and the studio, Thando and her band performed at Big Sounds in Brisbane this year and a stack of other shows - too many to mention. Ms Sikwila is one diligent and diverse artist, completely committed to her craft. She is planning a regional Victorian and NSW tour, and has her sights set on a full-length album by 2018.
Despite the hard work and impressive achievements to date, Thando’s joy and soul continue to shine.
“Music for me is the difference between just being alive and living. I have a reason to get out of bed every morning because music invigorates my soul and gives me a sense of purpose. I want to give other people that feeling.”
Thando loves Nandos chicken, extra hot, and her EP Digital Love Letters is available via www.thando.com.au