3 by Ngaiire review – radiant and rich third album

Tying electronic pop with older traditions, Ngaiire’s new release is bright, alive and soulful, reaching back to her roots as it looks to the future

Throughout her career, Ngaiire Joseph has fought off being misunderstood. Born and mostly raised in Papua New Guinea, and based in Sydney, the singer and songwriter got her start in 2004 on Australian Idol, tearing through pitch-perfect renditions of modern R&B classics like India Arie’s Back to the Middle and Mary J Blige’s No More Drama as the judging panel mispronounced her name and chastised her shyness.

The industry proved unfriendly, as it often does for young women of colour, and Ngaiire attempted to make herself palatable. At one point, she decided not to identify professionally as Papua New Guinean, in case it was hampering her career. “Denying my own blood, and my own heritage and where I’m from, was one of the things that I felt like I needed to do earlier on,” she said recently. “To just protect myself from being in situations where people misinterpreted my music or misinterpreted who I was.”

In that light, consider 3 – Ngaiire’s third album and first since 2016’s Blastoma – the Godfather II of Ngaiire albums: a kind of prequel and sequel that excavates the musician’s memories of her upbringing in Papua New Guinea, while chronicling her experiences of new motherhood at the same time. A richly produced set of electronic-tinged soul songs, it’s an album that’s vividly drawn and stylistically fleet-footed. Although it bears the weight of generational trauma (Ngaiire has described the album as “a very expensive therapy session on the damages code-switching can create for women of colour”), 3 is bright and alive, a joy to explore and to inhabit as a listener.

No clearer is this new lightness than on Closer, 3’s warm, rose-tinted first single. With lyrics about dating in the heavily Christian, postcolonial Papua New Guinea, it’s a looser, freer song than Ngaiire has written before, happy to revel in quiet detail: “In the summer / Meet you on the corner street / Sweat on your shoulders / You lean in to say to me / I just wanna kiss you,” she sings gently, breaking into a belt as she hits the last line. Pulsating, unobtrusive synths underpin Ngaiire’s words; the song is unhurried and sighing, a visceral evocation of romantic tension.

Similarly radiant is Shoestring, which places the hard-won optimism of its refrain – “I’ll give you heaven / even on a shoestring” – atop a racing beat and intricate vocal harmonies. It’s a song that showcases the strength of Ngaiire’s songwriting, which feels more classically indebted than this intensely modern production would suggest: “I never knew anything better / I wrote a song and I wrote a love letter,” she sings, a jubilant refrain that would feel at home on Who’s Zoomin Who and any number of Motown classics as much as it would here. If anything, it’s easy to wish that there were a few less bells and whistles on a song like Shoestring. These are big, ingratiating melodies; they should drive the song rather than sit buried beneath layers of synths.

On the whole, though, the production here – courtesy of Ngaiire and her longtime collaborator Jack Grace – is deft, tying modern electronic pop with older traditions – a symbolic union of Ngaiire’s present with her Papua New Guinean roots. The interlude Akura, a highlight of the album, plays its gospel chords straight until its last few seconds, when a tinny clap is introduced; on the next song, the affecting Him, the same gospel tone is recreated with gleaming synth organ. It’s a combination that gives the record a pleasantly worn-in feel, a kind of stylistic timelessness that ties well to Ngaiire’s songwriting.

It’s on Him that the vision of 3 comes into full view. Written as a message to Ngaiire’s then-unborn son, whose pregnancy was complicated by the cancer she suffered as a child, Him bristles with the urgency of a mother desperate to create an uncomplicated world for her child: “Please don’t let him think that he’s the reason that I went away / Please always be kind to him be strong for him oh Lord I pray / Please always be there for him until your dying day.

It’s a song that recontextualises 3 as a record not just for Ngaiire to properly understand and document her roots in Papua New Guinea, but for her future generations, too. In that sense, 3 provides deft assurance that Ngaiire will be misunderstood no more.

• 3 by Ngaiire is out now through Remote Control Records


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

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