‘I didn’t know I had it in me’: soul singer Miiesha steps into the spotlight

The Indigenous musician was discovered as a teenager in the tiny community of Woorabinda. She talks about losing her beloved grandmother, finding poetry in pain and a transformative trip to the desert

In the year after Miiesha Young won the 2020 Aria award for best soul/R&B release for her debut album, Nyaaringu, Australia’s most promising neo-soul singer resolved to give it all up.

“It was a very, very dark time in my life,” she explains on the phone from Brisbane, where the 23-year-old Anangu and Torres Strait Islander woman is searching for a place to rent between promotional duties for her new dual EP, Smoke & Mirrors. “I just wanted to give everything up – I wanted to throw it all away. I didn’t know who I was without my grandmother.”

Miiesha had lost her “rock” – “the person who gave me that nurturing and love growing up” – at the end of 2019. That year also saw the first shoots of a music career that the “young Black woman from the mission” in Woorabinda, Queensland, had never dared dream possible. Her first two singles, Black Privilege and Drowning, were picked up by Triple J’s Unearthed, then her performance at Brisbane’s Bigsound festival clinched her a record deal with EMI. “For [my nan] to witness that was very important for me because I didn’t know I had it in me – but she always knew,” she says.

The subsequent album, Nyaaringu (meaning “what happened” in Pitjantjatjara), was a chance for Miiesha to celebrate the “strength and beauty” of her grandmother, who was a member of the stolen generations. Woven through the album are spoken-word interludes of her grandmother imparting wisdom, which Miiesha recorded when she was 19.

Musically, Nyaaringu is the kind of slinky, glitchy R&B that has seen Miiesha compared to the likes of Solange, FKA twigs and Ella Mai, her sultry, breathy vocals sitting incongruously alongside charged lyrics such as: “Survival ain’t that beautiful / I’ve just made it look this good for you,” and a 2015 soundbite of Tony Abbott dismissing remote communities as “lifestyle choices”. Nyaaringu was released in May 2020, just as George Floyd’s murder ignited the US; the album’s examination of racism and celebration of Indigenous identity chimed with the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

An Aria and National Indigenous Music award followed. But behind the scenes, the wheels were coming off for Miiesha. Covid lockdowns derailed her tour plans. She left Melbourne, where she had been based, to ride out the pandemic in Rockhampton, two hours north-east of her home town, a tiny Aboriginal community with a population less than 1,000 that had shut its doors to keep out the virus.

Into the stasis crept insecurities about her talent, as did the reality of life without her grandmother, who had acted as a buffer for her “rollercoaster” relationship with her mother. Any hopes Miiesha had of her mother filling the maternal void soon vanished. “I was like, ‘Mum, you need to be there for me,’” she recalls. “I couldn’t understand her pain because I was clouded, because I had lost somebody so important to me that all my emotions kind of balled up inside me. I was very self-destructive … It is that intergenerational trauma, and I had to understand that it’s like a chain.”

In times of turmoil, Miiesha had always turned to writing poetry – the starting point for her songs – but even that proved too painful. When she was finally able to process her emotions, they came rushing out in the swirl of songs on Smoke, the first part of her EP that was released in November. Its singles – the Nima-winning Damaged, the funky Queensland Music award-winning Made for Silence and the sublime Price I Paid – wrestle with love and forgiveness amid a “broken” mother-daughter relationship. “[Mum has] heard the songs, and she gets frustrated, she gets angry, she gets sad about it,” Miiesha says. “She rings me up crying about it but I believe that’s healing for her too.”

Mirrors, by contrast, is “the calm after the storm”. “Smoke & Mirrors represent two chapters of my life and the growth between those chapters,” Miiesha explains. “I don’t feel so much hate or resentment because I understand where my pain is coming from.”

Miiesha describes Mirrors’ opening track, Everything, as a “fight song” with a singular message: “Just don’t give up.”

“I had to see for myself that I am worth something, that I do have it in me to keep going. I don’t need somebody there with me the whole time. I had to find the light myself without somebody handing me the candle.”

In Everything, she sings: “My mind floods like / I’ve been drowning this whole time / Too late to learn to swim.” Water and emotional undercurrents appear in much of Miiesha’s music, having spent much of her childhood in Woorabinda, where the parched Mimosa Creek would only run when it flooded. The community’s history as a relocated, government-controlled Aboriginal reserve, made up of 52 different clans sent there from across Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory, meant Miiesha “felt lost growing up”, disconnected from her ancestral country and culture.

She was first exposed to music through her mum’s love of gospel and 90s R&B. She recalls feeling awestruck, aged five, after hearing a singer at her church in Rockhampton, and vowed to “sing like her one day”. When she was 13, Stephen Collins, a 22-year-old youth worker from Sydney, visited Woorabinda for a month with a laptop and microphone to set up a sustainable music program. Miiesha’s grandmother signed her up and a song she penned earned her an invite to perform at a Naidoc event in Sydney.

Collins ended up staying in Woorabinda for six years, becoming like a brother to Miiesha. When she turned 18, he encouraged her to join him in NSW for a two-week recording stint. A songwriting partnership flourished, leading to three years bouncing between Sydney, Melbourne and Collins’ family farm near Goulburn.

In 2018 Miiesha had an experience that would prove transformative: accompanying her grandmother on a two-week trip to Amata, a red-dirt desert community on her grandfather’s country in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands.

“All the brothers went hunting and the women prepared food,” she says. “It was a beautiful experience. I just felt at home.” At night she slept in a tent beside her grandmother and siblings: “It was dead quiet and it felt like I could hear the stars.”

The trip was “really important” for her, she says. “Growing up in a mission, I didn’t really feel a connection to who I am. I don’t think anyone [in Woorabinda] does, because we were all just put in one spot and we had our culture taken away from us. I didn’t know I had this empty space in my heart and I didn’t know what was missing.

“Seeing my grandmother go back to this familiar place, seeing these old girls that she hadn’t seen for 20-plus years, watching them huddle together and cry, and watching my grandmother speak Pitjantjatjara … I didn’t realise how beautiful and how old and how deep my blood runs.”

Miiesha hopes to use her platform to “open doors” for other young artists in Woorabinda, a community she says is brimming with creativity.

“I never wanted the spotlight because I didn’t want to have to be brave; I didn’t want to have to be strong,” she says. “I thought I was the worst person to be a role model. And now I’ve come to accept that this is who I am, this is what I’ve been given, and I have to bring these people up because I think it’s so important. I saw the bigger picture, you know?”

  • Smoke & Mirrors is out on 3 June. Miiesha plays the Sydney Opera House that day, Brisbane on 10 June and Melbourne on 11 June


Janine Israel

The GuardianTramp

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