Ngaiire Joseph is a Papua New Guinea-born, Sydney based singer who made waves in 2015 with the exhilarating and addictive track Once. The song went on to secure a spot in Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown, propelling Ngaiire into the Australian music spotlight. For a seasoned Ngaiire listener the appeal of Once would come as no surprise – her 2013 album Lamentations is full of gems and 2011 track Filthy is a simple beauty.
I met Ngaiire in her hotel lobby in Hobart, mid Blastoma album tour (the title of her newest album is a reference to her childhood experience with cancer), and learned how intrinsic music is to the Ngaiire that audiences connect with on-stage and in the quiet moments off-stage.
THE PIN. Can you tell me a bit about your own childhood? Where did you grow up?
NGAIIRE. I was born in Papua New Guinea [PNG] in a little town called Lae; when I was nine months old we moved to New Zealand and stayed for about seven years, then moved back to PNG for ten years, then Australia in 2000.
When you moved to NZ and Australia, was PNG culture still a big part of your upbringing?
N. My mum was fostered into a white family so we had a very western upbringing in that sense. We also had moments where my parents would invite people from uni to our house to have a hāngi [traditional feast], that was very much a normal part of my life. So we still had that element, just not the stuff that the kids on PNG would’ve gone through, in terms of having that connection to family and learning your culture when you’re that young.
Do you recall when you first became aware of race? How did it come about?
N. PNG is quite diverse, there are 800 different cultures, and when I was growing up everyone wanted to marry into their one tribe and their own regions. My parents intermarried into different regions, which was very taboo. So we always got looked down upon because my mum was a highlander. Not that they don’t like highlanders, but they consider them very strong headed and tribal in a negative sense. That was my first introduction to racism.
The first time I noticed the colour of my skin was when I moved to Australia. It wasn’t until I started doing music as a profession and applying to play festivals and found that I was always placed on the indigenous stages. It always puzzled me because I wanted to play more contemporary stages, my music can easily translate onto that stage, it’s not just indigenous music. I had a few festivals do that to me and had to take a stand and say, 'look, I actually think that’s quite racist of you to put me three nights in a row on the indigenous stage when I could so easily play on the contemporary stages like all the other kids that are getting played on Triple J'. So that was my first introduction to realising that I wasn’t the same as everybody else.
Do your siblings identify with the PNG identity and culture, the same way you do?
N. No, not really, my siblings are younger than I am so they have a different experience of migrating to Australia. I find being able to still connect back to my culture and my family quite important and it’s becoming more important as I get older. Whereas my brother appears embarrassed about where he came from. This is just my perception, not what he has said to me. But from knowing my brother, yeah, it was kind of something he was never really proud of but I hope he is now. He definitely took living here in Australia harder than me and my sister did and tried to assimilate into the culture by denying who he was and the colour of his skin.
What does music mean to you, broadly speaking?
N. Music is such an unconventional but important responsibility for me to have. I definitely think that everything I produce has to have a message. The moment it starts becoming about myself is the moment I should probably walk away from it. There are so many things you can get from music. It’s political, it’s informative, it’s religious, it’s fun, it’s romantic, and I’m just so privileged to be able to be one of those conduits to be able to bring music to the masses.
The title of your new album directly relates to your own experiences as a child, would you say that music is a big part of your identity?
N. Yes, definitely. Everything that I do as a musician is very much tied to me as a person. The way my song writing grows and the way that I grow as a performer is very much connected to my experiences. Some might say that isn’t such a good way of approaching songwriting but it’s just the way that I am and it’s definitely tied to the new album.
Also, because of growing up with my family in the Pacific Islands, where it is apart of the culture to sing, to celebrate the union between two people or mourn somebody's death or celebrate a birthday. It’s always there.
Do you have musical inspirations?
N. When I left PNG there was a guy called George Telek who was the only Papua New-Guinean to have had won an Aria, it was for world music but he definitely stood out in my mind when I was a kid. He was doing really well internationally, and not just contemporary music, he was playing traditional PNG music.
You know there are so many people in my village that have such raw talent that I am inspired by. I remember my uncles who used to be in a band and write us songs, they never really made it to the point that we would recognise as “making it” but they always inspired me with how much raw talent they had. They were all self-taught, so I think in terms of that question my uncles would definitely be an inspiration.
Would you say that your on-stage identity is the same as your off-stage one?
N. I think it’s an extension of myself. I am quite a private person, quite introverted, I don’t like people in the house. On stage, it’s not me, but still me, if that makes sense. Yeah, it’s almost like you become this thing that you were put on earth to do and it only comes out at that point. At home [laughs] I just don’t want to see people.
It’s so much work getting dressed up, putting on makeup, I can’t do that [laughs].
Your title track Once made it into the hottest 100, how important do you think it is to have diversity in our music?
N. I think it’s very important. In the state that Australia is in, there is racism in this country but because it’s so underlying and not in your face, other people think it’s not a thing. I think the only way to combat that is, for me as an artist and as somebody who has the opportunity to speak, is to make sure that I also support other artists of colour or diversity. I get asked about my top five artists that I’m listening to right now and I always make sure there are a few females in there and artists of colour or other ethnicities. It’s so important. I think diversity only adds to creating the culture that we have in Australia. It becomes more informative. I mean there is a lot of fear, fear that government and people in power have painted. It’s horrible, it’s really horrible. The only way to combat that is to keep talking and having conversations, and pushing ourselves out there.
How do you feel about terms like mixed race, biracial, and bicultural? Do you think they’re necessary.
N. No not really. I’m not mixed race, I’ve never had to deal with that other than being mixed race in terms of regions in PNG. I guess what I relate that to is when people say, ‘oh, you’re Indigenous Australian’ or ‘Chinese Australian’ -why can’t I just be Australian? It just comes down to education. People will say mixed race or even half-caste because that’s a means of identifying and people like labels. I don’t feel like it’s that bad but then, on the flipside, it’s like hang on, we’re all Australian here. I have mixed feelings about it. I’m okay with it, but I’m not okay with it.
What have you learnt from sometimes been viewed as a person from a minority in Australia?
N. I think there is great power in that. I think I’ve been brought up in an environment where I’ve always had to fight for something. Women aren’t considered equal in PNG, we aren’t really here either [laughs] but it’s very much more extreme in PNG. So, in that sense, it kind of made me feel powerful. It made me feel like I like being different. I like having something to stand up for and something to fight for. I like, in a sense, being the underdog and quietly chipping away at what I do. Because why do I need to prove anything to anyone? I’m me and if I’m the minority, I’m the minority, that’s what it is. But, I’m still a human being, I’m still going to kick goals and show respect to people I need to show respect to. I feel quite powerful being the minority. Fuck yeah [laughs].
Sometimes when I travel and people don’t think I’m a minority I think, ‘huh, what do I have to wear here’.
THE PIN. Last question, Iif you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
NGAIIRE. I think I transitioned quite well from being in PNG to here, but there could’ve been more room for me to relax and not worry about what people thought. Especially when it came to sex, because sex was very taboo back in PNG. We didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t something you enjoyed. You did it when you got married. So when I went to school all the kids in my class had boyfriends and girlfriends, I was like ‘WHAT! What is going on? How are they allowed to do that?’ So I then felt that pressure to have a boyfriend and lose my virginity at that age. I guess a lot of kids do, but for me in particular it was always taught that you don't have sex till you find a suitor. So that process of trying to find my place in society, that was a big pressure for me when I came over...So I think I would have told myself ‘Just relax. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you!'
- This interview has been edited and condensed