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‘It Feels Like The Sky’s The Limit’ – An Interview With Ngaiire

04 April, 2024

Award-winning singer-songwriter Ngaiire returns to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for one night only this May, 18 months on from her Sydney Opera House Forecourt performance in front of 5,000 fans. And as she makes very plain, she has no plans to slow down now…

By Hugh Robertson

A pedestrian walking along George Street in Sydney sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, ‘How do you get to Sydney Opera House?’ Without pause, the artist replies, ‘Practice.’

It’s an old joke, but it has taken so much more than practice for Ngaiire to get to the Sydney Opera House. In May the award-winning singer-songwriter will join the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for one very special show that will mark a new peak in her already decades-long career; one more step in a journey that has had many twists and turns, from growing up in Papua New Guinea to the hallowed stage of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

We are sitting in Ngaiire’s Sydney studio, surrounded by instruments and accoutrements that signify a musician at work. There are guitars lying on a couch, a To Do list for a current recording project tacked to a cork board, and the slightly surreal image of two Korg synthesisers stacked on top of each other, themselves stacked on top of a beautiful mini grand piano, a recent Mother’s Day gift from Ngaiire’s partner and son.

It has been nearly eighteen months since Ngaiire first performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt in front of 5,000 people as part of the celebrations for the Opera House’s 50th anniversary. It is an extraordinary performance, heaving with her trademark energy and rhythmic drive but now coupled with the power and textural richness of the Sydney Symphony. Even after all this time, Ngaiire is still pinching herself that it ever happened.

‘It was a slightly daunting experience,’ she says. ‘We were coming into this world, and we completely revere and respect classical musicians, so we were feeling completely self-conscious about whether we were just wasting everybody's time, or whether they were loving it – because there's no point doing this if we are dragging people through the mud, and they are not loving the music that they're playing.

‘I’ve enjoyed the process so much. I’ve really just learned so much. And now it feels like the sky’s the limit.’

© Prudence Upton/Sydney Opera House 2022.

That sense of possibility radiates out of Ngaiire in conversation, and listening to her speak about her life and career you get the sense she has never put any limits on herself and what she can achieve.

Born in Lae, the second-largest city in Papua New Guinea, Ngaiire knew from an early age that she wanted to be a singer. She had been surrounded by music as a child, in particular in the form of ceremonial aspects of the culture she grew up in.

‘That was my first introduction to music,’ she recalls, ‘and I always felt a sense of pride in being able to dance my traditional dances and sing traditional songs. From that point I realized the power of music, especially in a spiritual sense.’

Once she had been bitten by the music bug, Ngaiire consumed everything that she could access. She went to an American mission school that would bring college big bands to PNG, an indelible memory that greatly expanded her horizons; she remembers afternoons listening to broadcasts of American DJ Rick Dees and his weekly Top 40 show, armed with a cassette deck to record her favourite tracks.

‘It was never a question of whether I was going to be a singer,’ she says. ‘Something within me awoke and I just knew that this is what I wanted to do.’

Ngaiire had to convince her mother first, though, who had come of age during the early 1970s as Papua New Guinea agitated for independence from Australian rule, which finally occurred in September 1975.

‘She came from a generation of young people who had stars in their eyes, and they really wanted to pursue high-powered jobs within politics or corporate situations,’ says Ngaiire, her voice full of pride. ‘She wanted her kids to have the same kind of opportunities, so at a young age really instilled in us this urgency to have ambition, to have dreams and goals to work towards, because she saw education as a way for her children to have better lives.

‘We had two “chats” in our household – there was the “birds and the bees” chat, and there was the “ambition” chat,’ Ngaiire says with a laugh. ‘I told her I wanted to be a singer, and she said, point blank, “that's not going to put food on the table.”

‘And I felt the pangs of disappointment that she had said that. But also, I realise now as an adult why she did, because in PNG there was just no infrastructure for an industry. But I just knew within myself that it was going to happen somehow.’

A major step in the realisation of Ngaiire’s dream occurred when her mother got a scholarship to study in Australia and met and married the man who would become Ngaiire’s stepfather, necessitating Ngaiire’s move to Australia when she was in high school. There Ngaiire was fortunate to have an inspiring music teacher who immediately saw her potential.

‘She was incredible,’ recalls Ngaiire with a broad smile. ‘She just started giving me Tori Amos, Luther Vandross, weird Irish folk music, Debussy. She gave me everything. And for someone who hadn't been exposed to those particular styles of music, it was like a kid in a candy shop, you know? I took a bit of this, a bit of that, two of those.’

‘And I saw that in each of these styles of music there was a spirit, and a sense of honesty within all of them that really resonated with me. And that's something that I've taken on in my listening habits as well – if I don't believe what someone is singing or playing or whatever, I don't want it.’

After high school, her plans now well and truly in train, Ngaiire commenced her Bachelor of Jazz Studies at Central Queensland University. Fatefully, one of her lecturers had heard about a new TV singing competition, and suggested she try out.

Ngaiire starred in the second season of Australian Idol, making it all the way to the Top 30 before being brought back as a wildcard and making it to the final 13. Just 19 years old the experience was overwhelming both personally and professionally, but time has afforded her more perspective on the experience.

‘For the longest time I tried to fight the stigma of being on a reality TV competition like that,’ she says. ‘But I realise how many opportunities it's actually given me throughout my career.’

Conductor Nicholas Buc with Ngaiire on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, November 2022. © Prudence Upton/Sydney Opera House 2022.

The decade following Idol saw Ngaiire’s star rising slowly but surely. She spent a couple of years touring with roots band Blue King Brown and with famed producer and songwriter Paul Mac, and releasing two well-received EPs under her own name. Then came her debut album, Lamentations, in 2013, which was nominated as the Most Highly Regarded Album at that year’s prestigious Australian Music Prize, and featured on several ‘best of’ year-end lists. Her second album, 2016’s Blastoma, continued this inexorable rise, garnering excellent reviews and debuted at number 41 on the ARIA Albums chart, despite being an independent release and not signed to a major label.

Despite all this success, something wasn’t quite satisfying Ngaiire like she felt it should. So in 2017, she set off for Papua New Guinea with a small creative team to try and capture something of Ngaiire’s heritage, and to present the incredible complexity and richness of PNG to an Australian audience that doesn’t really know much about its nearest neighbour.

‘That started as more of a visual project as opposed to a sonic one,’ explains Ngaiire. ‘My producer at the time, Jack Britten, suggested it to see if that changed the way people perceived me, or how they placed me as Papua New Guinean/Australian artist.

‘We went over there with probably 12 analogue and digital cameras, just capturing stories and images, and just sitting with community, and just seeing what would come back to us. But then the challenging part was having to go through all that footage and all those photographs and trying to work out what stories we were telling. Because PNG is quite intricate and quite complex as a culture and as a country – you’ve got the post-independence generations, then you've got like 800 or so different cultures and languages, and then all these stories: ancestral stories, stories from the war, stories from volcanic eruptions and all that kind of stuff.

‘So that was really challenging because you just cannot take PNG and go, “Here it is on a platter.”’

The resulting album was 3, Ngaiire’s most ambitious project yet. In little more than half an hour the album touches the power of family connections, sexual suppression and colonisation, Ngaiire’s life-long struggle with the cancer that has coloured her life since the age of three, and how her relationship with her health changed when she gave birth to her son.

‘That initial idea [from 2017] flipped on its head,’ says Ngaiire, ‘from “this is what I want to prove to everyone, this is what I want to tell people that Papua New Guineans are” to me, going “I don't actually need to do this.” The whole record became more of that spirit and that aesthetic approach to who I am as a Papua New Guinean female artist within the Australian music industry.

‘And really what it's become is an opening to exploring that more, whether it's more records or more visual projects or more who knows what it will be. But it's been a door opening to more self-discovery, but also just discovering my culture in ways that I never have thought.’

And in a further evolution, the rich, groovy, synth-heavy tracks of 3 have now been expanded to be performed by a full symphony orchestra, and all the rich colours and tones that can produce. To stand first on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House – and now to be poised to perform on the stage of the Concert Hall – is another significant step in this incredible journey that has been Ngaiire’s career.

‘When I first started out I was very aware that I was Papua New Guinean, very aware that I had opportunities afforded to me because of the work that my parents had done, and to be able to be in Australia to access all of these opportunities,’ she says. ‘I was aware that this isn't just for me, this is for everyone else back home. I had that momentum that pushed to achieve all of these things.

‘You know, my grandmother, she couldn't read. She gave birth to my mum in a pigsty by herself. And my mother, her father decided that she shouldn't go to school because she was a female. So my grandmother had to kind of squirrel away money and beg other relatives for money so she could put her only daughter through school.

‘So based on that, I just felt so proud of the moment, that I'd come from these to two women who just hunkered down so much and had to put up with so much to get me to the Opera House Forecourt stage.

‘I was just so appreciative and humbled and honoured.

‘But it also meant a lot to be able to have other First Nations people and Pacific Islanders within the audience be able to see one of them up there doing this, and on completely sacred land as well.

‘I'm going to tell more stories: more stories from where I'm from, cultural stories. I'm excited to bring people more into my world, in that sense, and for that to kind of hold the songs even more.’

As Ngaiire says, the sky’s the limit.