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The Best ‘Idol’ Contestant You've Never Heard Of: How Ngaiire Escaped the Reality TV Machine

Named after the childhood cancer she overcame, Ngaiire's new album 'Blastoma' signals a shift to a more electronic brand of neo-soul.

by Annabel Ross
Jun 15 2016, 4:00pm

For better or worse, an appearance on Australian Idol is something that sticks to you like a criminal conviction - a sentence of around five years to life, depending on how you play it.

Some artists will never shake the association, and if you’re Guy Sebastian, and making serious coin as a judge on a reality show in the years to come, you’re probably ok with that.

Others, like singer Ngaiire, who was 17 when she appeared on Australian Idol in 2004, couldn’t escape the clutches of the reality machine fast enough. The fact that she didn’t make the top 12 probably worked in her favour. A lot of the young people who are just turning onto the artist now, as she releases her second album Blastoma, wouldn’t have a clue that she got her start in front of Ian “Dicko” Dickson, Marcia Hines and Mark “Touchdown” Holden.

“It was the second Australian Idol so people were just wrapping their heads around those sort of reality TV competitions, it was a strange, exciting, overwhelming, really horrible time,” she says.

“I would never recommend anyone to do something like that...ever! TV is such a different world to music, you know, there’s an element of those sorts of shows that’s manufactured, and I don’t like that element, I don’t like how they play with people’s emotions for good TV.”

It was after seeing Ngaiire on Idol that Paul Mac, who co-produced Blastoma, first reached out to the singer twelve years ago. Her assessment of the show might be scathing but she admits it was a double-edged sword – Idol also got her noticed by Byron Bay roots ensemble Blue King Brown, with whom she toured for years (she also toured as backing vocalist for Chet Faker) and Idol is what saw the now-defunct Ruffhouse Records come calling.

Then home to acts such as Lauryn Hill and The Fugees, the deal Ruffhouse offered was “ridiculous”, says Ngaiire, a ten-year contract that required her to move to New York the following week.

“I didn’t really know who I was musically yet so I said no,” she says.

“I think I would have been a totally different person/artist if I’d gone.”

It was a surprisingly mature reaction from a musician who was not yet an adult, and a starkly different route to that taken by the likes of say, Guy Sebastian, Jessica Mauboy or Dami Im.

Sebastian has released seven albums since winning Idol in 2003; 2006 winner Mauboy has released three. Im rushed out an album two weeks after winning The X-Factor in 2013.

Ngaiire didn’t release her first EP until 2008. A second followed in 2010 before her 2013 debut LP Lamentations, which took her five years to write.

The critically acclaimed, futuristic blend of soul, jazz and funk took Ngaiire to Glastonbury in 2014, but it’s only now that Australia is really beginning to take notice of the singer, largely due to the success of 2015 single "Once". A sensual slice of polished nu-soul, it came in at number 73 on the Triple J Hottest 100. It deserved to rank higher.

“A lot of people have said that, but it’s taken ten years for me to even get rotation on Triple J, let alone get in the Hottest 100, so I’m quite satisfied with that progress,” she laughs.

She admits she wanted Mac to help her make something more accessible with Blastoma, a catchy, slick collection of synth-led nu-R&B.

“Eventually down the track I want to have kids, I want to settle down and buy a house and do all the things normal people do and I’m only good at doing music, so there had to be some kind of compromise along the way,” she says. “But it happened with Paul because he managed not only to bring me closer to that but also to create an even more unique sound to what we created in Lamentations.

There’s no denying that together, Ngaiire and producers Mac and Jack Grace (along with Megan Washington, who co-wrote a couple of tracks) have landed on some kind of sweet spot with Blastoma. Grace was Ngaiire’s stand-in keyboardist who became her musical director after accompanying her to Glastonbury in 2014 (her budget would only allow for one person, Grace was “very much across beats and sampling and using Ableton,” she says).

The day they returned to Australia, both Ngaiire and Grace got dumped by their respective partners (Ngaiire’s ex was Lamentations producer Tim Curnick).

“It was quite strange and we had to go straight into the studio to start writing and sat there staring at each other going, ‘This is really not fun,’” Ngaiire recalls. But she knew she didn’t want it to become a breakup album.

“I didn’t feel like I was prepared emotionally and at the place that I wanted to write about it, also I didn’t want it to be a soppy, ‘Oh, he left me,’ I wanted it to be more empowering and more inspiring and more like, ‘Oh, these things happen,’” she says.

The album’s title harks back to a challenge that was thrown at Ngaiire much earlier - she was three years old when she was diagnosed with blastoma, a rare form of cancer.

“I guess it’s about drawing on who you were in certain circumstances of adversity and finding that strength to get through whatever you are going through at that time.”

Blastoma was released on the label Ngaiire formed this year called Maximillion Brown. She says she’s already started working on album number three.

“Hopefully it will make even more waves than Blastoma and put us in a better position with this label I’ve just started, I want to start creating opportunities for artists back in Papua New Guinea who might not have the same opportunities as I do here,” she says.

“There are a lot of kids there who would benefit a lot from getting mentorship from people I call friends here.”

Twelve years after Idol, Ngaiire says she wouldn’t change a thing about her slow and steady rise.

“I’ve always been one to go with what my gut feels and it needed to happen this way and not happen fast, it couldn’t have been an overnight success,” she says.

“I don’t regret taking as long as I did because I’m ready and I know what goes on, I can see when people are trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve learned some valuable lessons, I guess.”

The Blastoma national tour beings June 17.

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