Ngaratya: Sister act aims for big things
Female acoustic duo Ngaratya have received advice from the best in the business in starting their musical journey.
Help from the likes of Aboriginal hip hop pioneer Wire MC and soul singer Emma Donovan has given the sisters' debut EP Together an accomplished, mature sound that belies their teenage years.
"Emma Donovan assisted us with the structure of 'Sisters'," says guitarist Emily Johnson, whose older sister Alicia accompanies her on vocals. "Emma is a great Indigenous female artist who we respect and 'Sisters' turned out to be a popular track amongst fans.
"Emma really got us inspired as well as helping Alicia with her vocals and technique. After working with her we immediately clicked and now share a special connection."
They also share a special connection with Will Jarrett, also known as Gumbaynggirr rapper Wire MC, who was the first person to record them.
"Wire MC has had a massive influence in the development of Ngaratya and has been there since the beginning," says Emily.
"He was there when we had first taken our music out of our room and shown it to anyone else other than mum and dad. He then asked us: 'Have you ever heard yourselves played back?'
“We had never recorded or even thought to do that. So we recorded our tracks for the first time in the studio with Will and he was there to witness the spark that started our relationship with music.
"Will is a poet and a gifted musician and will always be an inspiration and great mentor for us. Even today Alicia and I remember and quote his wise advice about the music industry and his heads-up about what was to come if we were to pursue music."
They went on to pursue producer David Skeet, who taught them critical lessons in making their first release.
"At the time of recording Alicia was 17 and I was 16," says Emily. "We recorded during our July school holidays.”
David Skeet was really enthusiastic to work with us and he taught Alicia and I about techniques that seemed so alien initially, but became a large part of our preparations before gigs still today.
"Warming up correctly before recording was a tough discipline for Alicia to adopt because she had never taken any vocal lessons at this stage and would have loved to have just been able to jump straight in, not knowing the consequences of not warming up.
"Alicia gained a large amount of confidence in the ability of her voice due to David's guidance. For me, on guitar, I was very nervous as the music had to be recorded before anything else and I was up first.
"However, David again mentored me and allowed me to experiment first with the new concept of having a click track that I had to strictly follow and not just 'wing it' as I was used to.
"It was really life-changing work with a producer like David, who was so patient and relaxed throughout the whole process of recording our first EP."
The sisters clearly soak up education like a sponge, and learning plays a central role in their lives.
"Our parents wanted us to be based in Broken Hill, in far-western New South Wales, to grow up with a cultural connection during our childhood," says Emily. "However, our parents found it equally important to move us to a major city such as Sydney for high school.
“Our cultural education never really stops developing and we both plan to continue to maintain our connection with our community."
But their connections with indigenous people stretch worldwide, as the duo also incorporate Native American elements in their image.
"We strongly connect with Native Americans and their indigenous culture as they are very similar in some aspects to us," says Emily.
"Originally we just started this by wearing it every day as young teenagers. The feathers and hair has continued to be be a way for us to express ourselves as Indigenous young women as we find them to be quite beautiful and eye-catching for our performances and they complimented our acoustic vibe."
But Nagaratya — whose name, pronounced "na-da-cha", means "together" in their grandfather's Barkinji language — have put down strong roots at home, working with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.
"AIME has been apart of our story for many years," says Emily. "We originally became involved in early high school. We currently have developed an ongoing relationship, such as Alicia becoming a mentor in 2011."
Both sisters are AIME mentors this year.
“We were asked to be guests for [the] internal training panel," says Emily. "Also we were invited to perform at the AIME National Hoodie Day launch 2011, which provided exposure for our music."
There are also lessons to be learned from their EP, which oozes exquisite soul. It is laced with lyrics that range from the raw emotion and pain of personal relationships in "I Saw You" to the struggles of Indigenous politics in "Self-determination".
"If you're sitting in that classroom/Not paying attention," sings Alicia in “Self Determination”. "You should remember that our ancestors/They fought for you to be treated/As an equal.”
Ngaratya take their education so seriously that it has put their debut album on hold.
"We have have a few new songs up our sleeve," says Emily. "However, due to our study commitments and university we will be working in our mid-semester break and spare time on developing some new material, which is exciting."
For Alicia, it will be a welcome break from studying anthropology, which she already views in a critical light.
"Traditional anthropology is based on ethnocentric and narrow-minded views," says the singer. "So their concept of the 'other' doesn't surprise me.
“In many anthropological writings, Aboriginal people have been called worse, though I just look at it from perspective that traditional anthropology was very different from [the] present and remember that most of their writings are outdated."
Hopefully, their album will be bringing such misconceptions bang-up-to-date.