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Transcript: The symphony of soul with Ngaiire

Episode 6: The symphony of soul with Ngaiire

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of gathering and storytelling, and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present.

Ngaiire: My mum flew in from PNG a few days ago to come see it and I said, Mum, how you feeling about all this stuff? She was dropping me off at the Opera House. She just. Burst out crying and she's like, I've always wanted to see a symphony orchestra and to be able to see it with my daughter is and she just couldn't get the words out. She was just a mess.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next, your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. 

Join me backstage as we chat to a spectacular lineup of artists who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. 

Together we’ll uncover who’s up next, and how this moment in time is transforming the next 50 years of arts and culture.

Courtney Ammenhauser: In November of 2022, singer, songwriter and all round incredible local creator Ngaiire performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on the Opera House forecourt. 

The show blended Ngaiire’s smooth, soulful music with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s sound. And the overall effect was a powerful ode to her Papua New Guinean heritage. It was a show that I’m certain will be forever kept in the memories of everyone who attended. 

I spoke to Ngaiire just days before this performance. Catching a glimpse of the nerves and the excitement, Ngaiire shared the many lessons she learnt in her career so far, how her life experiences have shaped her art and how this performance had her mum crying tears of joy. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Ngaiire, thanks so much for being here today. 

Ngaiire: Thanks for having me. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I want to travel back in time to start to your very first ever full court performance. It's a bit of a throwback. Could you fill us in on how it all went down? 

Ngaiire: So the first time I ever played the Opera House, but also specifically the full court was on Australian Idol and that would have been in 2005, maybe it was the second season of Australian Idol and I managed to get into, I don't know if you'd call it the top 13 were definitely wildcard contestants. So yeah, at the end of the whole season, they invited all the Rejects back to do a performance with Marcia Hines on the forecourt. And we performed Chaka Khan's Ain't Nobody. And there was a full like, no, I wouldn't even call it a drumline, but there were a bunch of guys with Jimi opening the song. And at that point in my life, I thought it was the coolest thing, which in hindsight probably wasn't. But yeah, that was, that was how I pop in my forecourt. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I actually remember you from Australian Idol.

Ngaiire: Do you? Yes. So, so crazy. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I remember you being in, though. Yeah, I guess whatever that round was before the top 12. And I was like, Oh, she's got to get through.

Ngaiire: I still actually get people come up to me, even though it's been like 15 to 20 years, probably since the show saying, I voted no, you should have got me. And I'm like, Oh, look where I am now. It's alright.

Courtney Ammenhauser: We're going to come back to this point in your life a little bit, but I wanted to talk about how you first got into music because you grew up in Papua New Guinea. Was there a lot of music in your life? 

Ngaiire: There was. So Pangaea just naturally celebrates everything with music. So whether it's a death or a marriage or a birth even, or just a celebration, there's always music, there's always singing, dancing. So I was always around that quite early on. Yeah, music is as natural as breathing over there. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And your mum noticed you developing a passion for music. And I feel like a lot of parents, you know, they worry about their kids and all of that sort of stuff. But what happened when you told her that you wanted to pursue music?

Ngaiire: She actually didn't know I could sing at all. I was so shy at that point, so I think it was about when I was 11 or 12 and my mum, she was a single mum for a very long time. So she was very adamant that her kids know what they wanted to do when they finished school, especially in a country like P&G. And she said, okay, kids, I'm going to ask you this in a few weeks or something like think about what you want to do when you finish school. And this is, you know, with kids 11. So at that point, I'd had a lot of traumatic experiences in my life. I had, you know, a huge natural disaster to walk. And it blew up and destroyed our house. And we were refugees for for a very long time, lost contact with my mum. My parents split up. You know, I'd still been, I guess, dealing with the residual of having cancer as a kid. So there were all these things that were happening in my little brain that I needed to kind of get out in a very positive way. And so I would sit next to my mum's stereo and just listen to anything that she had within her CD collection and I mean series of very expensive in PNG. At that time it was either Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, the soundtrack from Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Courtney Ammenhauser: All the hits

Ngaiire: All of it. It's so I would listen to it quite avidly and just imitate the people that I like to listen to. And I don't know what came over me to make me think that I had a voice because I'd never sang for anybody. But I thought I felt it. I thought, I can do this. And so when she asked me, I said, Well, I want to be a singer. And she just point blank told me, I, I should probably look for something else to do because that would put food on the table. And she and rightly so, like, you know, it really crushed my, my little spirit at that point. But, you know, years after when I started pursuing music, it made sense that there was just no way that I could there was not a robust enough industry in PNG needed to do that. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Well, you went ahead and you stuck with your guns and now you're a professional artist, musician, songwriter, and you've had an amazing career with three albums under your belt and your most recent album, Three, took five years to make. Can you tell us about that five year process in making it?

Ngaiire: It really needed to take two years, but as these things go. Yeah. It took a lot longer. I, um. I got very sick when I was pregnant with my son, and, yeah, I would just had really bad abdominal pains and was in and out of hospital for probably the duration of the whole pregnancy. So. Yeah, I was just on a lot of opioids. Anything from morphine to end down to just drugs that you never heard of? I was being put on the well that that's because I was in so much pain. And so I my whole schedule got cleared. I just couldn't perform. I couldn't I couldn't do anything. So that put a a thorn in the side of the album process. But as soon as I got better and I had Davey, I just jumped straight back into the studio and but yeah it took a long process because of that period. MHM. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And you traveled back to PNG during that time. Can you tell me about that experience as well? 

Ngaiire: Yes. So in 2017 I took over a small creative team when we had the discussion about what kind of album I was going to make next. One of the things my producer things one of my producers said to me was, You're doing really well now, and all of this stuff is happening. A couple of singles now in full rotation and triple j, and we're playing these festivals, Splendour in the Grass, etc., etc. But people still a very fascinated about your background and no one seems to get it right. And we decided that from that standpoint, we'd embark on a project that would seek to, I guess, highlight the positive aspects. I mean, there's a lot of negative stuff that I do talk about, but just like the beautiful contrast that make up my culture so we I wouldn't do it this way again because it was very challenging, but we worked in reverse. We collected all the visuals before we started writing and going. I've been to party a couple of times before that, but with my mother. So she's basically the matriarch of our family. And so she kind of buffers us from a lot of family politics and cultural politics as well. So I learnt a lot from that trip through that process of where I sit as someone who's been removed from PG for a long time, living in, you know, modern Australia. And you know, when people think about what PNG is or what a Papua New Guinean is, it's not one thing because we have over 800 cultures and languages and so being able to communicate that to people was also a very impossible task because it's like I can only tell people who I am as a Papua New Guinean woman living in a Western society, I guess. And so the album was born out of that and we went back for about seven, seven weeks less than that, about four, three, three to 3 to 4 weeks. And just with the whole purpose of just collecting as many visuals as possible and just listening to the stories of family and members of the community. Yeah.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What kind of visuals did you collect?

Ngaiire: We just everything everywhere we went, there was just something to capture. You know, people to nature is a big, I guess, contrast with the coast and the Highlands area. It's in the Highlands. You have this beautiful, kind of magical, mystical mountain flora and fauna. And then on the coast you have the white sandy beaches and the palm trees and all that kind of stuff. And we interviewed a few people. A lot of those interviews we haven't really released yet because they didn't really align with the release as it was. But there's still so much there that no one's seen yet that who knows we might use for the next album. I'm not quite sure yet. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: So once you got your visual, as you mentioned before, you reverse engineered the record. Can you talk us through that process?

Ngaiire: You know, there's some lyrical content in the songs that relate to some of the experiences that we had over there. For example, Shiva was written about my grandmother's spirit following us through our trip, and she had since passed on, which is incredible because when we arrived there, we arrived on at the point of her Brooke Hymn House Cry, which is the end of her mourning. But yeah, there's a lot of lyrical content in there that I fed through there, but I just was very conscious of not of the album, not being a body of work that kind of sampled traditional instruments. And then because, you know, I've seen it done a lot at the time and it's cool and it sits in a certain genre of music. But I wanted to do something different in terms of capturing more of the aesthetic of what we had felt being there as a team, but also for me going back to PPG. You know, I wrote with Jack Britten, my producer, and then with Lancs Will coming, but we would just kind of sit in a room or just over the Internet and we'd go through tracks or, you know, chordal movements. And if anything kind of stuck out to me, that kind of brought up this feeling that related to something that we'd experience. You know, we'd chase that down the rabbit hole a little bit.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I've heard you describe your culture as your engine room, and I wondered if you could speak about that and what that means to you.

Ngaiire: I think even though I come from an indigenous culture, you know, we all have those engine rooms. It's where you come from, who your family is, what your bloodline is. And there's something to be said about knowing where you do come from because it informs so much of what you do and it gives you so much pride. For me, specifically, I look at the life that I have. You know, I'm about to play the opera house and that's something that my family would never, ever have imagined. It really is about the pride that comes with being from the culture that I come from. And I'm very proud that I have the privilege of coming from a country that is still sovereign owners of the land, and that land is still passed down through the generations. I'm proud that my mum, being the only woman in her family, the only daughter in her family, was able to graduate to a point where now she's a Ph.D. in environmental science and like no one in our family has done that. You know, she was a first graduating forester in Papua New Guinea. So all of those things, all of these stories really just serve to, I guess, power that engine room and make me feel I have something to offer. But I have people back at home who want to see me do well and see all of the hard work of my ancestors come to fruition to see, you know. Ngaiire Performing at the Opera House.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And your show with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, it brings that those two things together, right? It's your ancestral villages in Papua New Guinea to the Opera House forecourt. What does it feel like to bring them together?

Ngaiire: I don't think I've wrap my head around that yet. I think that because we've just been so busy putting the show together, I haven't quite stopped to think about the magnitude of what that means. But I do feel it in my heart that, you know, this is something that my family is going to look at. And I don't know, there's this expression in P and G where if you feel something strongly or you're overwhelmed by something they say… which means, you know, I, you know, I just I just cut my hand off because I just, you know, I want to express myself. But how do I do that? It's like seeing a cute dog and you just want to punch that dog. So cute.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.

Ngaiire: Yeah, exactly. So I just feel proud. My mum flew in from PNG a few days ago to come see it and I said, Mom, how you feeling about all this stuff? And she was just dropping me at the Opera House over the weekend for the rehearsal and. She just. Burst out crying and she's like, I've always wanted to see a symphony orchestra and to be able to see it with my daughter is and she just couldn't get the words out. She was just a mess. So that's that would only be a snippet of what the rest of the family would be feeling.

Courtney Ammenhauser: She's obviously coming to the show then.

Ngaiire: Oh, you know, she wouldn't miss it. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Could neo soul pop sounds. How did you go about incorporating the orchestra into your performance and your music?

Ngaiire: It's been a really informative experience working with the orchestra, you know, because you're getting two schools of thinking, musically speaking, coming together and trying to meld together to sound like, you know, it's effortless. We were very nervous about coming in and rehearsing with the with the Sydney Symphony because, you know, classical music has held, you know, a quite a high bar. But on the same token, for them to be able to play music that requires a bit of groove and that kind of and soul and feeling. That's also a very difficult thing to do for a classical musician. So I don't know, I'm getting so deep and philosophical in my head, but yeah.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Let it all out. It's the place for it. 

Ngaiire I don't know. It's just it's was just so beautiful to see. You know, we all have so many differences in life and as people, but to see us just trying to work together and not step on each other's toes, but to find an equilibrium where we can make this magic together. There was a lot of toing and froing and note giving and arranging and producing and reproducing and trying to pay respects to the album and how it sounds, but also the live show, which is obviously very different. But I think we've kind of come to a place where we're like, This is going to be good. So fingers crossed. Oh my gosh, it just made me so nervous.

Courtney Ammenhauser: How long has it been like in the works where you've been doing that toing and froing and making all of these decisions about the live show? 

Ngaiire: I'd say about four months. Yeah. So about four months of conversation. Missions and meetings, and it's definitely been the biggest production I've been involved in for the Ngaiire project.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And it sounds like it's such a great opportunity for both you and also the orchestra to find new audiences potentially.

Ngaiire: Yeah, 100%. 100%. I mean, I feel very grateful for this opportunity because, goodness, it's the opera house. But also we get to play to an audience that wouldn't normally come to our shows like the at the Lansdowne or at, you know, the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne. So this is a really great opportunity for all of us.

Courtney Ammenhauser: MM And I feel like similarly those Lansdowne fans are, you know, potentially into the orchestra for the first time, but many.

Ngaiire: Yeah, it's going to be crazy. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: You've said that you have a lemonade approach to the Australian music industry. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Ngaiire: I have always been aware of myself being a minority within the industry and I mean I came up in the early 2000s when things were very different in the industry. For instance, I, I really love folk music, I love storytelling and that's something that I'll always, always love, probably because of my, my culture. But I started out doing kind of folk soul music and people didn't really know how to take that, especially as a Papua New Guinean woman who wasn't necessarily, you know, African-American or indigenous Australian or, you know, a type of black person that people know. So that was really hard. Knowing where to put me on the shelf or on the stage, I would always be kind of pushed onto, say, an indigenous stage. I'm like, Oh, we don't know where to put her. She can play on the on the indigenous stage and there will always be really strange kind of key names that they would give these stages. Like there was a stage called the alternative stage, but they spelt it alternative stage, which is always a little bit cringeworthy. And I was at that point, I was like, Well, it's a gig. I guess I should play this gig. You know, there were little things like that, but I'd always been taught to not play the victim all the time and to always live deals to you wanted deals to you. You can either decide to complain and whinge about it or you take that and go, okay, I'm going to utilise this to make myself stronger, more resilient and more persistent within this industry to get where I want to go. And so I guess that's what I mean by having a lemonade approach to the industry.

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's a really positive outlook.

Ngaiire: Yeah, yeah, I hope so. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Since those days that you were just describing of, you know, where you felt as though people didn't know where to place you. Do you feel like it's gotten better? Yeah.

Ngaiire: I mean, we're talking about my journey, I think, yes, the industry has changed a lot, has a lot of attention being paid to giving more platforms to diverse, more diverse voices. But I always am sceptical because I think about whether people actually doing that because they want to see change or because everybody else is doing it and they want to kind of keep up and do this whole kind of diversity washing situation. There's always a little bit of apprehension there for me, but on the same token, it's really nice to be able to get more of a foot in the door. It's a huge conversation. I think there's no one answer to that. We're all so grateful. You know, I speak to so many people in my kind of boat who are like, yes, it's nice to get diversity, but if you go out there to a situation that is unsafe for you because someone's just diversity washing it, there's no point because then you enter into a workplace situation where it's culturally like people don't understand where you're coming from. So it needs to really come from the ground up and people really need to try to not place a sticker on things and go, Yet we're going to put this person, like we've said no to gigs before because someone has literally said to us, Oh yeah, you'll be good for our diversity slot. And yeah, yeah, those are the things that they say to you and my manager's like because he said that we're not playing that festival, so it's still quite trepidatious and you have to really just find out people's intentions.

Courtney Ammenhauser: How do you think this show that you have been describing to us will be different from your first show at the forecourt?

Ngaiire: Well, the elephant in the room, which is we're playing at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Yeah. Gosh, I've grown so much as an artist and as a person and you know, I've she's it's just going to be such a polar opposite to that time with Marcia. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Marcia? Oh.

Ngaiire: Yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And were you a teenager then?

Ngaiire: Yeah, I was. I was a little baby teenager. But Marcia has always been a legend. She was remembers me and. Yeah.

Courtney Ammenhauser: It sounds like your life has had some ups and downs and people talk about the arts and particularly music being a difficult path to take, which we've talked about today. What keeps you going?

Ngaiire: The chaos. Yeah, it's about the chaos, I reckon. You know, people do ask me why, how I've managed to maintain this career for over 17 years as an independent artist. Part of that time I was fully self-managed and I just look at the life that I've had and all the challenges that I've had and all the obstacles. And I think that the only reason why I've been able to stay the course for so long is because I've had all of these traumatic experiences, which through, you know, the upbringing that my mum gave me, I've been able to turn that into things that work for me rather than, you know, get sucked into the trenches of, you know, depression or even like full blown anxiety or that kind of stuff. I think that I've been very lucky in that I had I been able to grow up with a foundation that my mum set for us to be able to use that as a pivot to keep going, if that makes sense.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Your mum sounds like a legend.

Ngaiire: Oh, she's a firecracker. Yep, she's a firecracker. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Courtney Ammenhauser: For the last question of any artist that you've worked with or who you think should get way more love than they're getting, that perhaps our listeners should stop following.

Ngaiire: Yes, I think everyone should follow Leila Bonetti. They're a queer black artist, filmmaker, photographer. And the first time I worked with Leila was at a show of mine at the NGV in Melbourne and I remember thinking the live show photography was just unlike anything I'd seen anyone do for me. And ever since then they've just been going from strength to strength and making incredible short films about being black and queer. And, you know, I love that they also have the same perspective on diversity in general as I do, which we spoke about earlier. I was going to read what they said it was in The Age, actually, and as and they write, as much as we want to improve diversity statistics, it's not up to people like myself to do this. What is being done to improve the rate of cultural, education, safety, accessibility and overall cultural competency in the film industry and yet below? La la Binetti.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Thank you for that recommendation. Nari, thanks for coming in today.

Ngaiire: Thanks for having me.

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was singer, songwriter, creator Ngaiire. You can watch her live performance on the Sydney Opera House website, stream dot sydney opera house dot com.

I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House.