Noui: Indonesian artist takes apart past trauma with understated, nocturnal pop

In First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. The Singapore-based Indonesian singer-songwriter Noui reckons with childhood horror and fantasy on debut EP ‘Innerchild’

There is beauty in every tragedy. This is the message of Noui’s six-track EP ‘Innerchild’, an examination of how grief and abuse can permanently shape one’s future – for worse or, if one is strong enough to survive it, for better – set to nocturnal pop.

“Trauma comes with its blessing,” the artist, who is 25 but sounds wiser than her years, tells NME. “It taught me how to be compassionate [with others]. For example, my family used to hurt me a lot when I was a kid. But as a grown-up, I can see them as human beings with their own share of pain. There is this generational trauma and I have learned that it’s nobody’s fault.”

She is Noui now, but she used to be a child named Naomi Christina growing up in a dysfunctional household in Indonesia. It was there that she says she experienced emotional, physical and verbal abuse, though she declines to give specifics.

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As a child, Noui never set her sights on becoming a professional musician. “I didn’t choose music. More like, it was the world that chose me to do music.” She realised the power of music through an unlikely source: anime series such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Inuyasha. These shows, and their accompanying soundtracks, often became her solace.

“[Anime songs] totally fascinate me in a way that I cannot really explain. There is sincerity in that kind of music,” she explains a little bashfully.

“I don’t want anyone to see me as a victim. And I don’t want anyone to see my family as the ‘monster’”

Juggling two different worlds, the adult Noui began her vocation as an animator in Singapore while uploading song covers to YouTube. That eventually led to a record deal with a Jakarta-based pop label Wonderland Records, home to Rendy Pandugo, Livingroom and Jubilee Marisa.

Noui could have kept her head down, focused on her nine-to-five and made a living. But she concluded that making music would be paramount for her “growth as a human being. I wanted to learn how to open up to different kinds of opportunities that life has to offer.”

She also craved the creative and emotional freedom of music-making that she doesn’t get in her day job. “Music is my universe,” she explains. “The universe in which I can express myself and be completely true to myself. This universe consists of my truth, my imaginations, my beliefs, everything! And no one can judge me there.”

Indonesia pop artist Noui
Noui. Courtesy of Wonderland Records

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This “truth” became the emotional force that fuelled the making of what would be Noui’s debut EP. Her belief that “there is a significance in everything that has happened in our past” guided the writing of ‘Innerchild’; Noui was intent on dissecting how the personal tragedies of her past have continued influencing her character and how she perceives life as a twentysomething adult.

The opener ‘Everytime We Fall’ is at its heart about how the singer-songwriter coped with her father’s untimely death and how the loss led to an existential crisis. “For today there’s no tomorrow / And we fall and we fall,” Noui sings over languid beats and Heiakim’s shadowy production. She goes even murkier on the second track ‘Hometonone’, as her digitally layered vocal begs the listener to “free me from this hellish bliss”, referring to the abusive household she grew up in.

That line exemplifies the “vague symbolism” Noui says she applies in her songs “because I don’t want anyone to see me as a victim. And I don’t want anyone to see my family as the ‘monster’, you know?” she explains, her tone careful.

One of the sunnier tracks on the EP is the dreamy ‘Girl of the Earth’, which was inspired by a metaphysical conversation that Noui once had with an imaginary friend during an unexpected episode of sleep paralysis.

“As a kid, I couldn’t really tell the difference between reality and illusion. I used to have this imaginary friend and they taught me a lot about life. But in the case of ‘Girl of the Earth’, the message I would like to emphasise is my belief about this world and my spirituality, you know? And I learned about all of those things from this ‘childhood pal’ of mine,” she says, chuckling.

On the rest of the EP, Noui grapples with an ugly truth she learned once she left her childhood home and struck out on her own: that pain from the past can overstay its welcome. ‘Reverie (The Sweeter It Is)’, which features the rapper A. Nayaka, finds the singer-songwriter admitting to her partner that she’s haunted by “childhood permission and old memories”, the song’s production deliberately incorporating a melody that evokes a tinkling music box.

“Your childhood is supposed to be your first definition of the world. Like, as the definition of safety, love, and care. And if you didn’t have that when you were a child, how are you supposed to learn when you are an adult?” she asks rhetorically.

Noui’s fondness for anime songs might have taught her how to be sincere in her songwriting, but it was alternative-leaning electropop artists such as Melanie Martinez that influenced her understated sonic direction. On top of the hushed production, Noui decided to employ Billie Eilish-esque whisper-singing for her vocal delivery. “I don’t like being too noisy,” she explains. “I prefer to keep things ‘haunting’.”

Noui expects to head even further in that dark direction for her future material, she says somewhat cheekily. Though she has come to terms with the horror of the past, it seems she still feels compelled to embrace the darkness that still lingers.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have always been intrigued by what terrifies me. So that will certainly show in whatever song I make.”

Noui’s ‘Innerchild’ is out now via Wonderland Records/Universal Music Indonesia

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