SINGER Ngaiire is grateful for music’s therapeutic power. Without it, most likely she would not be where she is today — celebrated as one of Australia’s most promising female vocalists and enjoying rave reviews for her second album, Blastoma, released in June.
Certainly, Papua New Guinea-born Ngaiire Joseph’s prospects of performing in front of 20,000 people, as she did as a guest of producer du jour Flume at Splendour in the Grass in July, would have been remote at best had she not immersed herself in music at a young age.
It was her coping mechanism during a turbulent childhood that included her parents splitting up, and a potentially terminal illness.
“My parents split up and a lot of other things were going on around that time,” says the 32-year-old, who, when she is not on the road, now divides her time between Sydney and Berry in the southern highlands of NSW.
“I searched music out as my own therapist,” she says. “Child psychology wasn’t really a thing in PNG, so it seemed a natural thing for me to lock on to music.”
Her career to date has been varied. Ngaiire released her first album, Lamentations, in 2013, but before that she had stints as backing singer with world/roots outfit Blue King Brown, and has also sung with producers Paul Mac (who co-produced Blastoma) and Chet Faker, as well as Flume. Those collaborations, she says, helped build confidence.
“I’ve only just started working with artists of that kind of calibre, first with Chet Faker and then with Flume,” she says. “It’s entirely different to where I am artistically and career-wise.”
It was her lengthy stint with BKB, however — which involved touring locally and overseas, and appearing on records — combined with appearing on Mac material and at his shows that gave Ngaiire the tools to set out on her own.
“Working with Blue King Brown and with Paul Mac at the same time, they were very different,” she says. “Paul is a big label artist while BKB are self-managed, so having those two experiences really taught me a lot about being a professional and how to sustain your career as an independent artist and also about being yourself.”
Ngaiire was born in Lae, PNG, but moved with her family to New Zealand when she was a year old. They returned to PNG when she was seven. Her early grounding in pop music came from her mother’s CD collection, which featured artists such as Mariah Carey and Cliff Richard.
It was only after moving to Lismore in NSW with her mother and stepfather in 2000 that the notion of possibly becoming a singer and songwriter took hold, thanks to encouragement from her music teacher at Kadina High School. It took her a while, particularly as an outsider, to build enough confidence to sing in public.
“When I was in high school I got to perform in front of people for the first time,” she says. “When I moved to Lismore I was the little brown girl who everyone thought was a bit of a weirdo. I had my hair in plaits and wore baggy jeans all the time.
“Mrs Johnstone asked if I would like to get up and sing for assembly. After that other students would come up and tell me how good it was. So that’s when I started thinking about maybe making it a career.”
Virginia Johnstone, still a teacher at Kadina High, has been quite an influence. “She is still there and she encouraged me as a songwriter,” says Ngaiire, “in terms of giving me exposure to more music than I’d ever heard of.”
Indeed there was a lot of popular music that Ngaiire hadn’t been exposed to as a teenager, music that she has been catching up on ever since those early days in Lismore.
“When I first moved to Australia I had no idea who Stevie Wonder was or who Tool were or who Aretha Franklin was … Joni Mitchell, I had no idea who those people were,” she says. “I was 16, so going to music class and being able to take these CDs from my music teacher home … it just blew my mind.
“It’s still happening to me now because I’ve come so late to all of these artists. It’s exciting for me as an artist that I still haven’t peeled off the layers of all these other artists that other people have grown up with. I guess that’s how I have become quite eclectic with my own music.”
Ngaiire’ style is hard to pin down. Songs on Blastoma such as House on a Rock, I Wear Black and I Can’t Hear God Anymore flit between hearty electronica and a smoother R & B, the latter element spurring comparisons with American stars Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige, but there are many influences bubbling away underneath, some of them dating back to when she released her debut EP, Songs for No One, in 2008, when a folkier strain a la Jeff Buckley was a bigger part of the mix.
“I’m very much affected by what’s around me,” she says, “ … the music that my friends make and whatever I’m listening to. When I first started writing music it was very much folkie, rootsy kind of music. Then it veered towards electronic. It has all been very organic. I’m very happy how it has rolled out in that way.”
The title of her album is a reference to the cancer she suffered from between the ages of three and five, when she was living in New Zealand. She has a few scars, physically and emotionally, from that ordeal, but Ngaiire is grateful that she went through it as a young child and not as an adult.
“It couldn’t have happened at a better age,” she says. “I think if I were going through it now I would be a completely different person. It’s very different having cancer as a kid as opposed to having it as an adult.
“As a kid you have no mental capacity to deal with something like that. You’re just sick in bed and being told by the adults around you to be strong. That’s something that you don’t understand as a three-year-old.”
There are a number of disparate factors in how Ngaiire’s music career and her style have come together. After leaving high school she studied jazz at Central Queensland University in Mackay, where she honed her vocal skills with local jazz outfits.
She got her first show-business break in 2004, appearing in the early rounds of Australian Idol. Despite not making the top 12, she performed several times on the popular talent show.
She describes Idol as “a bizarre, crazy experience. I’d only been in the country two or three years by then, so to be suddenly put in front of cameras, in front of the whole nation, was wild. I’d never wish that on anyone because it’s quite a strange thing to put yourself through, but on the flip side I still get people coming up to me 10 years later, saying: ‘Oh, you were on that TV show.’ It’s a double edged sword I guess.”
Ngaiire has a busy few months ahead, starting with her appearance at the Maroochy Music and Visual Arts Festival on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast next weekend. She is also one of the main attractions at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide at the end of the month. Long-term, however, she has no goal other than to be good at what she does. There’s no five-year plan.
“I feel like that’s something my manager should know,” she says. “I’d like to be at the level that Flume is at one day. That would make things easier, having enough finances to throw around. Really I just want to make great albums. That’s all I really care about. If each album stands out, that’s success to me.”