Singer-songwriter Ngaiire moved to Australia from Papua New Guinea when she was 16 years old. Her latest album, Blastoma draws on her personal experience of childhood cancer. Whilst she is grateful to be living in Australia, she dreams of going back to her birth country to inspire kids to be creative and pursue music.
As a child, what did you dream of doing?
“I wanted to write books and illustrate them myself. And then I discovered singing. But when I told my mum I wanted to be a singer she told me quite bluntly that singing wouldn’t put food on the table. So I set my sights on becoming an astronaut or a pilot.”
You grew up in Lae and Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. Can you describe those two places?
“Rabaul people are called Tolais. My dad is a Tolai. They’re really proud people. The provincial government in Rabaul was really proactive in creating a town that was at the forefront of change and development. It was quite a happy upbringing. I did most of my primary schooling there.
Lae was where I was born. We moved back there after the volcanic eruption in Rabaul in 1994. Lae is the second biggest city in Papua New Guinea.”
What do you remember about the volcanic eruption in Rabaul in 1994?
“I remember it being quite fun, which is a strange thing to say — considering most of the adults at the time were freaking out. We got massive tremors the night before the volcano erupted. Earthquakes and tremors happen quite often in Rabaul. We didn’t think much of it — my brother and I ran up and down the hallways as the paintings came off the walls.
The next morning, we woke up and there was ash coming out of the sky. We managed to find a car and drive out of town. It was pandemonium. It was like an exodus — there were long lines of people on each side of the road, walking with their belongings and their pigs,dogs and cats. The crazy thing is a second volcano erupted in the direction we were heading and so we were caught in between two volcanos. It was completely nuts and the type of thing that would happen in Hollywood films!
We spent a couple of months moving from one refugee camp to another. When water and food ran out, we’d move onto the next one.”
In what ways was music a part of your upbringing in PNG?
How did you feel about moving to Australia?
“I was excited. My brother, sister and I were sitting on the edge of a creek in a village. We were discussing things that kids think about — like what we would wear, how things would change, how people would look at us. My brother was apprehensive about the move; I was all for it.”
You moved to Lismore, New South Wales when you were 16 years old. What were your first impressions?
“School was a bit more cliquey in Australia. When I first had lunch at school, I didn’t know that people sat in groups. I didn’t know that there were the ‘nerds’ and the ‘cool kids’. I was so confused and scared that I would sit with the wrong group. It was such a new concept to me because in Papua New Guinea I went to a school that was like a family and not as segregated. I ended up sitting with everyone and moved around!
What did you miss about Papua New Guinea?
“I missed my friends. I missed the comfort of community and my grandparents.
I missed the raw energy and excitement of living in Papua New Guinea. In Papua New Guinea, people are so connected to the land. You believe that the spirit of the land is alive: if you’re attuned to it, you can feel that.
When we first drove to Lismore, I was like ‘where are all the people?’ Not seeing people sitting outside on their porches, or loitering on the streets or seeing other people walking down the street — not having that was such a bizarre thing for me.”
Can you describe the first time you performed to an audience?
“It was at school. I got asked to perform at assembly. I sang Fallin’ by Alicia Keys.
When I sang in front of my peers, I realised I could make a living doing music.”
You went through cancer as a three-year-old. Looking back, how do you feel about that experience?
“There’s a difference between going through cancer as a child and going through cancer as an adult. As a child, your concept of cancer is almost non-existent. At that age, you shouldn’t be frustrated or crying over the fact that you’ve been in bed for months or you’ve been through surgery. You should be crying over falling off your bicycle and your bruised knee.
It’s amazing how resilient you can be. Experiencing that at such a young age formed a foundation to have a high threshold for suffering and pain.”
How did you come up with the name for your latest album, Blastoma?
“I was looking for a word that sounded strong but also represented suffering as well. Blastoma represents the cancer that I had as a kid. But it’s also about the journey that we go on as adults — how we tend to develop layers and become hardened and fall down rabbit holes.
I came to a point in my career where I was so heartbroken by the personal things that were happening to me, and I didn’t want to do music anymore. That was the first time I felt that. That shocked me.
I had to revisit things that created the foundation of who I am as a person — to remind myself ‘you’ve gone through all these things, and they’re the reason why you’re here.’”
Watch Ngaiire perform 'Once' from Blastoma. Youtube: triple j
During the songwriting process for Blastoma, what were some of your thoughts about Papua New Guinea?
“I was thinking about my grandmother, who was quite old and passed away just before the album dropped. She lived in a little grass hut in the mountains with no electricity and no running water, no internet. You’d cook your food on the fire and eat whatever the garden produced.
My grandmother wasn’t educated. She had a humble life and gave birth to my mum by herself in a pigsty. One of the reasons I completed the album was because she gave my mum so much, which in turn gave me so much. Her energy definitely drove the album to completion.”
How do you currently feel about your roots in Papua New Guinea?
“I have great pride to say that I’m from Papua New Guinea. I know there a lot of young people rising up and really angry about what the country is going through. At times, I wish I was there to feel the energy and be a part of that. But I’m here doing music. I remind myself that music has the power to move people and change opinions and bring about change.
Is there pressure with being a musician from PNG in Australia?
"Definitely. There are people who say that I’m not from PNG because I speak with an Australian accent and dress differently. In that sense, it makes it hard — I can’t get away from the fact that I’m Papua New Guinean. I’m always going to be flying that flag. It’s challenging when sometimes your own people think you’re ‘not Papua New Guinean enough’ to fly that flag. That’s probably the most challenging thing about being in Australia and Papua New Guinean."
Imagine that you had the chance to host a barbeque — anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) — who would they be? What would be on the menu? Where would you like it to be held?
“Richard Kingsmill [triple j’s music director] — there’s so much mystery around why he adds certain tracks to triple j’s playlist.
Margaret Pomeranz [Australian film critic] because I miss At the Movies [film review TV show] on the ABC.
Archie Roach [Aboriginal musician and songwriter]. I’ve never met him but I think he’d be quite a powerful person to be around.
I’d invite them to my parents’ farm in Berry on the south coast of New South Wales. On the menu would be barramundi, sausages, a pig on the spit, some nice Italian prosecco and beautiful cheeses.”
What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?
“When I moved to Australia, so many kids had boyfriends and girlfriends and I thought ‘oh my gosh, why I don’t I have boyfriend right now? Should I be losing my virginity right now? Am I weird?’ I worried a little bit too much about that. It was the only thing I felt that I needed to do — because everyone else was doing it. So I would tell my 15-year-old self not to be so concerned about that.”