A lot has changed between drinks for Ngaiire Joseph.
Since releasing her debut album 'Lamentations' back in 2013, Australia's emerging neo soul savant has loved, lost and found herself questioning why she was even doing music in the first place. Ngaiire's sophomore album 'Blastoma' may have been a strikingly personable emotional outlet for the woman with a voice box made of liquid gold, but the title also acts as a reminder of the struggles she's already overcome in the past: she defeated an extremely rare case of Ganglioneuroblastoma at just three years old.
Alongside her producer dream team – Sydney-based multi-disciplinary genius Jack Grace and the legendary Paul Mac – Ngaiire has orchestrated a raw, powerful nine-song LP that throws open the window to her soul and proves that she certainly isn't keen to stay in one place for too long. I caught up with the proud Papua New Guinea-born crooner in Sydney to discuss the power behind 'Blastoma', losing special connections and forming new ones, working with the magical Megan Washington and finding a soul-loving audience in Australia.
Best Before: Hey Ngaiire! What's going on today?
Ngaiire: There's lots! Rehearsals. And a whole bunch of media!
How are rehearsals for the 'Blastoma' tour going so far?
Good, I think! The band is in there rehearsing without me right now, actually.
Who have you got on board for the tour band?
I've got my friend and producer Jack Grace playing anything and everything, and then my mate Christopher Port on drums.
That's one talented little crew. Are you based in Sydney full-time these days?
Pretty much. Actually, I'm halfway here and halfway back in Berry. Everything for the album happened here, though.
Let's dive into your album. How are you feeling about it all now that it's wrapped up and out there for consumption?
I was definitely a bit nervous, but I think it's always like that with anything creative. I gave it my full blessing nine months ago – it had been done for a while, actually. I just really wanted it to be out. *Laughs*
I wanted to ask you a little bit about the title 'Blastoma'. I guess it's not necessarily a directly confronting name, but for people who know about it or have experienced what it is, it can be quite a personal, painful topic. Where are you drawing from with a title like that?
When I was a child, I had what was called Ganglioneuroblastoma, which was a rare cancer in my adrenal gland. For the album, I was looking for a word that sounded strong, but also represented something challenging from my past. 'Blastoma' seemed to be the perfect fit.
At what point did that become apparent?
I think it was after we'd finished recording everything. I had to think of a title for the album, and it just seemed like all these songs we'd written came together under a lot of stress and... *Pauses* I guess being on the verge of not wanting to do music anymore, to be honest. At the same time, there are also songs about finding that silver lining and remembering the reason why you do it all in the first place.
So the name 'Blastoma' is essentially a word that captures all the struggle that went into the record?
I guess so. It's definitely metaphoric. It's also a bit of a reminder to myself of what I have already overcome.
Are a lot of the songs directly about struggling with your path or journey within the music world?
Not really, actually. I think it was more about the conditions that we recorded the songs, rather than what I was actually writing and singing about. Two or three songs are definitely pointed in that direction, but around the time of our sessions, both Jack and I had come out of long-term relationships on the exact same day.
"If you're not ready to write about the heavier stuff, it just feels like regurgitating and swallowing at the same time."
The exact same day!? I'm so sorry. Surely it must have been fate, though...
*Laughs* Right? Then we had to write a good album. It was really quite difficult, if I was honest.
Is that the understatement of the year?
*Laughs* Yeah. I mean, if you're not ready to write about the heavier stuff, it just feels like regurgitating and swallowing at the same time.
I wouldn't call them funeral songs, but there's definitely a few songs on 'Blastoma' that come across as quite mournful. That makes a lot of sense now.
"I Can't Hear God Anymore" definitely comes to mind. It's my favourite song on the record.
It's my favourite too! Nice taste.
What went into that song? Can you tell me what's behind it?
There was a guy I was writing with here in Sydney that I had a serious musical and spiritual connection with. We wrote a lot of great songs together that ended up on my first album. We fell out, and I haven't found anyone that I've had the same connection with since. "I Can't Hear God Anymore" is me lamenting that relationship.
So it's not a 'crisis of faith' song?
*Laughs* No, it's not, actually. Not particularly for me, but it might be for other people. I will leave it for listeners to interpret for themselves as well.
"We actually reached a point where we couldn't go any further with our writing, and we needed to bring in some new blood. Paul invited [Megan Washington] in, and that was the first time I'd officially met her. It was actually nerve-wracking for the both of us, because we have a bit of a mutual appreciation of each other's work."
What about the production process behind "I Can't Hear God Anymore"? How did you and Jack go about that? Sorry to make you have to think back to a year ago.
Two years ago, actually! *Laughs*
It's been a while, hasn't it? "I Can't Hear God Anymore" actually followed quite a similar structure or process to most of the songs on the album. It was either Jack and I writing, or Paul and I writing, and then we'd bring them into the studio and either of them would work their magic on it. It got to the point where no one could actually remember who wrote what in the first place. *Laughs*
That's probably a good thing, right?
Yeah, it definitely is. We're a good team. I know that "I Can't Hear God Anymore" was mostly Jack's influence, though. That was his programming, and the final track is a real reflection of what he likes – particularly with his own stuff. It's signature Jack.
I also noticed a cheeky little name pop up in the songwriting credits of 'Blastoma' – Megan Washington. How did that come about? Are you pals?
She's actually one of Paul's pals. We actually reached a point where we couldn't go any further with our writing, and we needed to bring in some new blood. Paul invited Meg in, and that was the first time I'd officially met her. It was actually nerve-wracking for the both of us, because we have a bit of a mutual appreciation of each other's work. She's incredible – she's an incredible songwriter, an incredible musician, and just an incredible person. It was a privilege.
How involved was Megan on a song like "I Wear Black"?
Paul and I started the song, but after hitting that brick wall, he sent Megan the song so she could come straight in with ideas about where the song could go. She came up with the whole colour scheme, which I think is a very classic Megan Washington thing. From there, Jack came in and laid down the chords for the chorus, and it all came together quite easily!
Have you had a chance to road test any of the songs from 'Blastoma' live yet?
We have, actually! We tried out some of the slower songs on the Sufjan Stevens tour – it just seemed like an appropriate time to pull them out. Dancier tracks like "House On A Rock" and "Once" have been a regular part of our set, though.
In my notes for "House On A Rock", the only thing I wrote next to it was, "a song that would bring a lot of energy to a live show."
It's an interesting one, actually...
It's a bit of a banger!
*Laughs* Yeah, but we're still trying to improve how it sounds live at the moment.
There's definitely a lot of intricate little details flying around on there.
Definitely. There's a lot happening on the studio recording, and it's probably one of the hardest songs to sing on the record for me.
I've seen you say in the past that you recently played at One Day Sundays, and you were a little bit worried leading up to it that the hip hop fans of Sydney wouldn't vibe on your style of music. Afterwards, you considered it one of the best shows you've ever played. How do you feel that your music has been received here in Australia? Do you feel Australia embraces neo soul or electronic soul music now?
Yeah. It's definitely taken a while, though. Aussies are a bit late to the party. *Laughs* I guess timing is everything. Right now, Australian soul music is in a really exciting place.
Artists like Jordan Rakei – who I know you have worked with quite recently – have said that they even had to move to London to find the soul.
*Laughs* Yeah. It's a little bit frustrating, but also quite endearing at the same time. We're definitely getting there.
Do you like being classed in the same realm as artists like The Internet or Jhené Aiko? Or do you feel there's a difference?
I think not so much with my older material, but I think you could place my new material with those artists. Especially my new, new material – songs that Jack and I have already been working on for my next album. They're coming from a completely different angle again. I think that will always be the case with what I do – I'm going to keep trying to change it up all the time.
In saying that, did you set a certain direction or genre classification for 'Blastoma' from the beginning? Was there a sound or theme?
Not really, actually. With anything I've ever released, I've never set out from day one and said "this is the sound I want" or "that's the album I need to make". I haven't ever really considered how an album will appeal to a certain audience – 'Blastoma' just panned out the way it did naturally. It'd be pretty nice to be able to play festivals with artists like The Internet or Jhené Aiko though. *Laughs* We wanna reach for the stars!
How do you find people respond to your live show versus somewhere like the UK? I know you played one particularly big festival over there...
*Laughs* When we did Glastonbury, that was such a huge eye-opener. That was our first taste of playing overseas. If we're discussing Australia taking a while to catch up to the power of their own soul music, I'm pointing to this example: we didn't do any advertising, and no one had any idea who we were, but the tent was absolutely packed by the time we got on stage. That was a really nice surprise – we travelled all the way across the world to people who just wanted to hear new music. That's the sort of audience that I get a lot more energy from.
How nervous were you for your Glastonbury set?
It's funny, actually – we were battling jet lag, and we'd had a long drive from London to the festival. Glastonbury is incredibly massive – there's dozens of stages, so it was a bit of a nightmare just finding what stage you're meant to be playing on. When we finally got there, we were just so relieved to see a crowd to play to. *Laughs* We were all just yelling "There's people here!"
That must be a great feeling to know that there's so many artists on so many different stages, but there's a whole tent full of people who chose to see you.
I know, right? We're hoping to go back next year, too! We've got Splendour coming up too. We're just really excited to take this new material to the people.
Ngaiire's album 'Blastoma' is out NOW – purchase it right here.
If you're keen to see Ngaiire on her 'Blastoma' national tour, head here for more information.