Sydney-based singer Ngaiire might be tiny in stature, but she more than makes up for it in spirit and vocal power. As well as being supremely talented, she has a sensitivity and maturity beyond her years. “I'm quite lucky in that I've always been very intuitive with a solid idea of where I’m going, what I want to do, and what I want to experience,” Ngaiire says.

Born in Papua New Guinea, Ngaiire had already lived in three different countries by the time she was 16. She was diagnosed with cancer at age three while living in New Zealand, which had a significant impact on the woman she is today. Her 2013 single Dirty Hercules is a reflection on body image issues after remedial surgery left her with physical scars. But despite her early struggles, Ngaiire’s parents encouraged her into creative pursuits from a young age – their passion for opera, ballet and fashion rubbing off on her.
“Music has always been the way I express myself,” she says. “When I was younger I always viewed songs as a form of poetry that didn’t necessarily need to make sense to anyone else.”
In 2013 Ngaiire released her critically acclaimed debut album, Lamentations. The recordshowcases her natural songwriting talent and captured attention overseas, leading to an invitation to play Glastonbury and the opportunity to support soul and R&B heavyweights Alicia Keys and John Legend. However, to create her forthcoming sophomore LP (titled Blastoma, which is a form of cancer commonly found in children), she adopted a different approach.
"The whole process of putting together this new album forced me to think about what I’m actually trying to say and what I want people to get from the lyrics,” she says. “In the past I’ve been quite nervous – I was very self-conscious of what people would think of my lyrics, so a lot of the time I mumbled my way through songs because I was embarrassed about whether people would think they were stupid. Now looking back, I think that was very much to do with my own want or need to learn how to construct a song better."
Blastoma’s lead single Once is a delicious taste of things to come. Ngaiire’s smooth and sultry vocals dance over a hypnotic backbeat with a restraint that illustrates her vocal control. The lyrics spell out the necessity of taking risks in order to reap rewards. The song was co-written with Megan Washington and long time collaborator Paul Mac, and Ngaiire’s quick to give credit where credit’s due. “Megan is a master of songwriting,” she says. “She’s so quick and witty – and always on the money.”
Blastoma was produced by Mac and Jack Grace over a period of two years in multiple continents and time zones. “Blastoma happened somewhere between London and New York,” says Ngaiire. “At separate times Jack, Paul and I would be in different parts of the world, so we had to send tracks back and forth to each other – but the bulk of it was recorded in Paul’s studio in Newtown, Sydney.
“Both Paul and Jack think a lot about structure and they’re very good at constructing perfect pop songs. Their influence is very much represented on Once and all the songs on Blastoma.
While Ngaiire is very open about the musical partnerships she’s forged in recent years, her personal and professional growth is largely due to her determined spirit and an unwavering commitment to her own artistry. The unpleasant experience of life as an Australian Idol contestant more than ten years ago only led to a strengthening of her resolve – and the recent news that she’s been named as a finalist in APRA’s 2015 Professional Development Awards confirms she’s on the right track.
“It’s been quite a journey,” she says. “I’ve definitely evolved and developed a lot and I think people will notice that in the new songs. There are one or two tracks that are similar to songs on Lamentations, but I focused more on melodies this time rather than trying to just belt out the words all the time, which was very different for me – and I really enjoyed it.”
Those lucky enough to have seen Ngaiire play live recently have been treated to a few welcome surprises, as she’s added a few tracks from the forthcoming album to her setlist. “There's a song called Diggin which is quite dance-y. It was written mostly by Paul and me, and it’s definitely one of my favourite songs to perform at the moment."
In October, Ngaiire carried out her first run of dates in the US. Her soulful vocals and effortless charm won over the discerning crowds at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, leading Myspace to name her as one of the top-eight discoveries at the conference. Despite grieving the loss of a close relative and being under the weather, Ngaiire remained upbeat in the face of adversity.
"It was really tough,” she says. “It was a bit scary losing my voice sometimes while we were there – but I laid off the alcohol and drank lots of tea, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. We got a really good response, so I’m happy.”
Ngaiire knows, now more than ever, that staying fit is key to taking her career to the next level. "It’s all about hydration,” she says. “I'm literally just learning that, because I've never been so busy. I did a couple of tours for Lamentations but this time around everything has been going really fast. Hydration, a good sleep and exercise – sounds so boring but it’s stuff you need to do, especially as you get older."
While learning ballet as a child may have instilled the self-discipline she’ll need to succeed in the long term, it was creative outlets like fashion design and art that brought out Ngaiire’s wild and rebellious streak. When she was in high school she attended a Machine Gun Fellatio gig (her first ever concert), which inspired her to fill her mother’s living room with large fake phalluses as part of her final major visual arts assessment. Her mother, who works in fashion design, always supported Ngaiire’s artistic side and supported the bold fashion statements that she’s since become known for.
“In the future I'd love to have my own label and design my own clothes. I have in the past, but lately, because I've had so little time to do anything but singing, I've just been sourcing clothes from little designers around Australia. It’s really exciting, because there are a lot of cool people doing interesting stuff with fabrics and structural pieces, which is something that I think the Australian fashion world lacked. But still there's a real need for designers to push boundaries.
“Although in Melbourne especially, there's more of that happening. People are thinking outside of the box and are very individualistic about what they like. I’ve always felt comfortable playing shows in Melbourne.”
Ngaiire will return to Melbourne this month for an AWME showcase at Max Watt’s. “I've played AWME three times now, but this time will be very different because I’ll be showcasing a lot of tracks from the new album – so that will be exciting and a little bit nerve-racking at the same time. I'm really looking forward to it."
On the night, she’ll be joined by a diverse lineup of Cumbia Cosmonauts, Latinaotearoa and Ella Thompson. “Ella’s incredible. It's really nice to see people in my scene that are doing great things. It’s refreshing to see Ella get recognition for doing what she does – and she's an incredible musician as well.”
Blastoma is due early in the New Year, and in the lead upNgaiire will appear at a range of summer festivals, including the sold-out Lorne Falls Festival. She’s also been providing backing vocals for Chet Faker on his major theatre tour – and she couldn’t be happier. “I got a call from his people and they said, ‘We want your backing section and we want you’.”
Ngaiire is an ever-evolving artist whose authentic and unique body of work has already gained her a loyal following around the world. And the most exciting part is that her best work is yet to come. “When I was younger there was always an urgency to have an EP or to have an album out, but now I'm happy that things travelled at the speed that they did. I’ve learnt that it’s really important to enjoy your younger years and let the process happen naturally.”

See NGAIIRE on Saturday November 14 at Max Watt’s as part of AWME 2015. She’s also set to appear at the Falls Festival in Lorne, VIC which runs from Monday December 28 to Friday January 1.