Ngaiire: “You don’t want to go to the grave clutching to a character you’ve been portraying to the world”

The Papua New Guinea-born artist will no longer tone herself down for the comfort of others – a decision that’s defined her multifaceted new album, ‘3’

Ngaiire is radiant – even when speaking over the phone while under lockdown on the Central Coast. In conversation with NME, the future soul singer-songwriter’s positive energy is palpable; even without seeing her face, you can hear her smile in her voice.

Ngaiire’s cheerfulness is hard-earned, a disposition that belies the struggles she’s been through. Born Ngaire Laun Joseph, she left Papua New Guinea 27 years ago in the wake of a volcanic explosion by Mount Tavurvur that destroyed her hometown.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with childhood cancer. It informed her second album, 2016’s ‘Blastoma’, and later caused complications with her pregnancy – which overlapped with the creation of ‘3’, her new album out August 27 – an experience so painful that she found herself taking eight Endone tablets a day, though they “didn’t even touch the sides”.

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“There was a moment where I was just like, man, this pain is going to fucking kill me,” she says.

Looking death in the face again, Ngaiire sat down with her partner and made a plan for if she or her unborn child didn’t make it. “I was just like, well, whatever happens, I hope the baby makes it through,” she says.

“I don’t care if I don’t make it through. I just want the baby to make it through.”

Out of this, the single ‘Him’ emerged. A letter to her now three-year-old son, Nadav, ‘Him’ captures “the reality of the darkness traversed to get this album here”, an artistic statement for ‘3’ says.

Upon first listen to ‘Him’, you’re immediately struck by Ngaiire’s soaring vocals, complex background harmonies and the pleading and desperation in its lyrics: “Please don’t let him think that he’s the reason that I went away. Please always be kind to him, be strong for him, oh Lord I pray. Please always be there for him until your dying day.”

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The song is both comforting and haunting. Does Ngaiire set out to provoke certain feelings in listeners or relate to them in a certain way? Not really – evocative storytelling, she says, is just what ends up happening.

“I’m just starting to realise that maybe that’s where my strengths lie,” she says. “I think that’s just the way I write… I guess that’s just my pocket.”

“I felt like growing up in Papua New Guinea, there was a lot of sexual tension. And I don’t think I realised that at that age, because I was quite young”

Ngaiire has been in the music industry for nearly 20 years, first introduced to a mainstream audience as an Australian Idol contestant in 2004. Her debut album ‘Lamentations’ was released in 2013 to critical acclaim and her second album, ‘Blastoma’, cracked the ARIA Album Charts.

The creation of ‘3’ began in 2017, when Ngaiire went back to Papua New Guinea for the first time in 20 years, first to seek visual inspiration for her new album. The writing process for ‘3’ was also different from her previous two albums, as she had more time and space to create.

“It was a lot more insular as well,” she says. “On the last two, I had more writing guests, still minimal. But this time around, I think we just focused on just me and [producer and co-writer] Jack Grace, writing together and getting it done.”

Ngaiire also highlights the vocal perfection she strived for on ‘3’. “I am obsessed with harmonies and just the production around vocals,” she says. “So I had more time to do that. There’s a lot more complexity to the backing vocal sections.”

“There was a time where I started to take out the fact that I was Papua New Guinean in my bio, because I felt like that worked against me”

That intricate vocal interplay shines especially on ‘Closer’, a pulsing single about sex, love and courtship. This “sweaty, ’80s summer love song”, as Ngaiire puts it, is about growing up in a post-colonial Papua New Guinea still heavily influenced by the work of Christian missionaries.

“I felt like growing up in PNG, there was a lot of sexual tension. And I don’t think I realised that at that age, because I was quite young,” she says.

“Everyone loves going out on the weekends, everyone loves getting hot and sweaty, but in PNG it was a lot more heightened because of Christianity and social expectations.”

‘Closer’, Ngaiire says, explores the push and pull between “trying to be good but also trying to fulfil these urges, and this sexual energy that they were being told was wrong to feel.”

That intimacy and sensuality comes through in the music video for ‘Closer’, which is just one of the eye-catching visuals that have accompanied the rollout of ‘3’. In June, she released a mini-documentary filmed while she was in Papua New Guinea about ‘Shiver’, a song about the grief of losing her grandmother, or Aine. Rain starts to fall where Ngaiire is as she begins to tell NME about the song.

She was fresh off the research trip to PNG and back in the studio with Will Cuming (aka LANKS), when Cuming started jamming and playing chords of what would become ‘Shiver’.

“He just started playing these chords, jamming them out and I was just like, that’s it,” she recalls. Her songwriting process always starts with a feeling, Ngaiire says, and she identified a powerful one immediately in those starting chords.

“That’s how I feel when I think about my grandmother and think about all the things that she’s done and passed down to my mum and then down to me and my sister.”

Moving to Australia from PNG as a young teenager, Ngaiire had promised herself that she wouldn’t change who she was. Laughing, she recalls conversations she had with her brother and sister, where she told them she would never change her hair or the way she dressed, and that she would stay true to herself. But Western beauty standards nevertheless started to weigh on her.

“Everyone else was shaving their legs and their underarm hair,” she recalls. “It was little things like that that made me feel pressure to conform to what everybody else was doing.”

She also felt that pressure to conform within the music industry where people found it hard to categorise Ngaiire, the first Papua New Guinean artist to be featured in the triple j Hottest 100 (her single ‘Once’ came in at number 73 in 2015). She found herself toning herself down, shrinking herself to make others comfortable.

“There was a time where I started to take out the fact that I was Papua New Guinean in my bio, because I felt like that worked against me,” Ngaiire says.

“Denying my own blood, and my own heritage and where I’m from, was one of the things that I felt like I needed to do earlier on to just protect myself from being in situations where people misinterpreted my music or misinterpreted who I was.”

Ngaiire interview album 3 2021 Closer Him Papua New Guinea
Credit: Daniel Segal

But now Ngaiire is done being a lesser version of herself. She’s undergone an intense journey to self-realisation – in an artistic statement for ‘3’, Ngaiire says that even as she crafted the album as a rejoinder to people with misconceptions about PNG, she hadn’t fully realised “how callous I’d gotten from trying to maintain a career as a Warabung, Morobe, Tolai, Niu Ailan post-colonial Papua New Guinean in a predominantly white space that operates on stolen Indigenous land.”

“I read somewhere recently about how you don’t want to go to the grave clutching to a character or a person that you’ve been portraying to the world,” she tells NME. The entire experience of creating ‘3’, she says, “has really taught me to just let go” – a lesson that defines her favourite song on the album, the opening title track ‘3’.

“It’s [about] figuring out how to really be their authentic selves within the context of having to survive within our spaces. That’s my M.O. to everybody else – to just let go.”

Ngaiire’s ‘3’ is out August 27 on Remote Control Records

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