Proving myself as an artist: From Indigenous to contemporary stages

by Suzy Wrong

Like most people of colour in the Western world, Ngaiire’s identity is attached to various places around the globe. Having lived in Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia in her formative years, and then travelling extensively further afield with her music career, Ngaiire is no longer just the little girl with a big voice on Australian Idol from 12 years ago.

The international diva has just released her second album Blastoma, a sensual concoction of soul, funk and experimental electronica, named after the cancer that doctors found in the artist’s body when she was as a very young child. The album is about trauma that people experience, and the recovery afterwards, and “the journey we go on as adults and how sometimes we lose our way. It’s about remembering who or what you came from.”

I spoke with Ngaiire in cyberspace.

Congratulations on a wonderful new album. I’ve just listened it for the first time and am already in love with it.

Thank you!

What are some of the themes on the lyrics of Blastoma? Do they reflect your state of mind when you were working on it?

Because it was a collaborative project there was a lot more concept writing with either Jack (Grace) or Paul (Mac) bringing in ideas as to what we should be writing about that day. The good thing, though, is that it all represented how I felt at the time anyways! There were exceptions like ‘Fall Into My Arms’, which were very much heart songs based on a friend of Jack’s coming up HIV positive and him not being able to express how he felt about the situation. Then there’s ‘I Can’t Hear God Anymore’, which is more about a relationship that I had with my first keyboardist, [with] who I had a deep spiritual musical connection. We ended up parting ways which upset me greatly. Those kind of relationships are hard to come by.

Who would you say are the influences on this album? And who are the influences on your singing more generally? People like Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige were prominent artists in your formative years; do you think that their blackness was an important factor in allowing you to connect with them?

Music has never had a colour for me – I just liked them because I connected with what they were doing or the message they were conveying. I was also listening to artists from Jeff Buckley to James Taylor to my brother’s metal collection just as much so it really had nothing to do with colour. The thing is I grew up in PNG where my blackness was never an issue, being in a black/brown country, however you wanna look at it. I know now that it was quite a privilege that I never had to look far to find strong black females to be inspired by, so when I moved to Australia all I was interested in as a teenager was listening to all this music I had never been exposed to.

Was Blastoma recorded in Sydney? Is it easy finding the right collaborators for your style of soul here?

It was mostly recorded in Newtown but some of it was done between New York, NZ and London. Soul has always been a niche genre here and even though it’s really started to grow some legs the last 3 years, it still kind of is. Australia is small which means I know most of the people who are making soul based music here. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to work with any of them, but there aren’t a lot of choices. That’s just my 2 cents.

I often speak with actors of colour in Australia who experience difficulty finding work because they don’t look white enough. Do you think the same applies to musicians such as yourself within the media landscape of Australia and abroad?

Sure. For a time I was always booked on Indigenous stages at festivals (well known festivals that I won’t name) just because of no other reason but the colour of my skin. I felt that my music could just as well have stood on its own on the other stages where all the ‘non-coloured’ people were playing. I have mixed feelings about Indigenous stages. I can see the importance of it but I also feel that it has potential to create more harm in segregating artists to feel like JUST Indigenous or world music artists as opposed to JUST artists who make good music. I had to work really hard to prove myself as a legit artist in their eyes who could play on contemporary stages like everyone else. No one should have to do that.

Having lived in PNG, NZ and Australia, how have the different places inspired your music? What is it that makes you one of the most soulful singers to have come out of Australia?

Singing was a survival mechanism when I was growing up. Child psychology was not really a thing in PNG when I was a kid. Maybe it’s that place that I sing from that wants to bring healing to myself that people connect with. I should ask someone that next time. Singing is such a natural part of PNG culture and growing up in NZ I went to a public school where kids were encouraged to learn songs in te reo Maori. Both of these cultures have very deep spiritual connections to the land and to their people, so it probably was always going to be a natural progression for me. Australia then gave me the platform to be able to put all of this into song when I finally started learning to write in music class.

In America, your music would probably be termed “urban” in genre. On iTunes here, I noticed that Blastoma is classed as “neo-soul”. Do you think that these accurately describe your sound?

Not really. They both seem kind of 90s/early 2000s. Music these days is becoming more hybrid than ever, which I think Blastoma is, so I have no idea what you would call it, if you needed to call it anything.

Do you find that your music crosses cultural boundaries? Are people who see you at your shows a diverse bunch? You have been travelling a lot; have you seen this diversity at certain places more than at others?

I think the fact that I’m Papua New Guinean means that I have a big bulk of people from that corner of the world listening to my stuff. The weird thing, though, is that I found there are more black people at my US shows than in Australia and the audiences in Europe are far more diverse. I’m still trying to figure that out.

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suzy wrong profileA Hit of Culture with Suzy Wrong is our regular column keeping you up to date and well informed about Australia’s arts, media and culture scene.

Suzy Wrong is an Australian transwoman of colour. She is Sydney’s most prolific theatre reviewer, publishing independently at suzygoessee.com
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