Miiesha Young has been spending the COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne, far from her hometown of Woorabinda, a remote Aboriginal community deep in Queensland. She is prepping for the release of ‘Nyaaringu’, an album of R&B-inflected song-stories that chronicles not just her life as a proud Pitjantjatjara and Torres Strait Islander woman, but of the First Nations experience. It’s an ambitious project for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old singer-songwriter.
‘Nyaaringu’, which drops on May 29 via EMI Music Australia, is billed as a ‘collection’ that compiles all of Young’s singles to date – from her first, ‘Black Privilege’, to her latest, the glitchy-cool ‘Hold Strong’. As those titles suggest, Miiesha’s (pronounced “My-ee-sha”) music explores themes of selfhood, cultural identity, family, community, inequality, empowerment and truth-telling.
‘Black Privilege’ was released in 2019, a haunting alt-R&B gem about the ongoing realities of colonialism and intergenerational trauma that saw her become a triple j Unearthed Feature Artist. Young followed up with ‘Drowning’, unpacking former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s insensitive dismissal of Indigenous Australian communities’ needs as “lifestyle choices” when addressing Federal Government funding. The song would go on to win the Remote Award at the Queensland Music Awards.
The record title is symbolic and loaded with meaning. “‘Nyaaringu’ means ‘what happened’ in Pitjantjatjara language,” Young explains. “I was really lucky that I was able to go to Amata, the community where my grandfather was from [in South Australia], with my grandmother before she passed. Connecting with that country, those people and the language, it helped me to understand more of where I’m from and my nan’s story.
“‘Nyaaringu’ needed to be the title of this collection as these songs for me were about highlighting where I am and what it’s like to be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island woman today. And, as my Elders say, ‘You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from’.” Lucky for Young, she knows exactly where that is.
Woorabinda is small – fewer than 1,000 people call it home. It was in the pews of the local church that Young first fell in love with music: “Woorie is a really beautiful place to grow up. It’s a small community, so everyone knows everyone and looks out for each other. It’s a very creative place where you’ve got musicians, painters, poets and actors, but there is definitely a big love of music. My love of music started in church, when I was at about eight. I would hear Silja, a lady at my church, sing and just be taken away somewhere by her voice. She sang with her whole heart in every line, and that really made a big impact on me.”
So she started singing. In her earlier days, music was an outlet for expression. Her mum enjoyed the ’90s generation of gospel, R&B and soul stars – Yolanda Adams, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson were always playing at home, so “when it came time for me to start singing, my voice went that way, too”, says Young. Her family encouraged her to create her own music, and she started bringing hip-hop, spoken word and electronica into what would eventually coalesce into her lush, avant-R&B style that’s equal parts fka twigs, Solange and Nao.
But in embracing new genres and artists, Young recognised that music could evoke much more than personal catharsis – it could heal and educate, too. “There had been a music program come into community when I was about 13, and my nan signed me up,” Young recalls. “She took me down with my younger brother and I sang a few of my favourite songs. I was then asked if I wanted to try writing a song, which I wrote about family fighting. That song then got me invited to perform at a NAIDOC event in Sydney. I realised that this could be a good thing to keep working at.”
Young’s career as a singer-songwriter continued to gain momentum, bringing more opportunities. When Dan Sultan visited Woorabinda as part of the Queensland Music Festival, she shared the stage with the roots rocker. And in 2018, she was invited to NSW to record music for release: “After hesitating for a bit, I decided to make the move,” she says. “My nan, auntie and cousin drove me the 23 hours down and I got started.”
She was awarded a Queensland Arts grant to complete the project and linked up with Australian hip-hop veteran IAMMXO to produce the tracks. It was his collaboration with neo-soul phenom Kaiit that drew him to Young. “I loved Kaiit’s vibe and so reached out to him to see if he’d be keen to work with my stuff. He really liked the demos and got to work. It was deadly to hear my songs go from acoustic-sounding songs into produced tracks.”
Having produced tracks that will appear on ‘Nyaaringu’, IAMMXO played an outsized role in “shaping the whole sound” of the album, Young says. The choice of instrumentation on the album is eclectic – only if you didn’t know her background. Melbourne’s Bradley J Green, who’s performed with Daniel Merriweather, contributes soaring rock guitar to the fluid ‘Twisting Words’. Young nods to her heritage, too: her cousin Jordan Young plays the didgeridoo on ‘Self Care’, a tune that also combines noodly jazz keyboards and tropical house beats.
Above all, the process of fulfilling ‘Nyaaringu’ was self-affirming, Young admits. “For me to do this, I had to move a long way outside my community and my comfort zone. People always asked me what I was doing with my music and had a belief in me. But, while it was interesting to me, I didn’t think I could [have actually taken] those steps. It has left me feeling that if I really want something, I can do it.”
And she’s on the brink of doing just that, with her music and message receiving the blessings of the wider community: “I have had a lot of schools and teachers reach out asking for lyrics that they wanted to study with their students. Meeting people after shows has been really positive. [But] for me, the most meaningful reaction is always my community being proud of where I’m at and what I’m doing.”
These days, Young is in demand on the tour circuit, having signed to EMI shortly after her showcase at BIGSOUND in Brisbane in September 2019. She’s previously hit the road with Baker Boy and Thelma Plum, joining the latter’s extensive Better In Blak run. “Touring with Thelma Plum was a lot of fun, but one show in Belgrave, in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, at Sooki Lounge was such a vibe; a smaller venue where the energy was just really positive,” Young recalls.
She closed 2019 at Falls Festival in Lorne, then opened 2020 with a set at the Brisbane leg of Laneway. It was all happening for Miiesha – until the pandemic hit. Her appearance at Splendour In The Grass has now been postponed, optimistically, to October. And with no other gigs on the horizon and her hometown closed off, Young is keeping herself busy with music.
“Like everyone else, it’s meant a lot of downtime and a few cancelled shows,” she says of the iso period. “Woorabinda is closed at the moment, so I can’t get home, but I’m lucky to have a safe place to stay. [I’m] very keen for Splendour when that happens. I’ve just been working on new music, so that will keep me busy. Really keen to get overseas for a trip, too, when things settle down.”
Miiesha’s new project ‘Nyaaringu’ is out May 29 via EMI Music Australia.