Neo-soul singer and producer Noah Slee is making a name in the international scene right now with his debut 'Otherland'. The Berlin based Tongan speaks to Yadana Saw.
“Music was a big part of my life growing up. I have a lot of siblings, and we were doing cultural floor show performances, had a family band, and also church.” Back then, he was going by his given names, Tau Manukia.
Though he’s coy about his musical background, Noah Slee has already had a shot at musical stardom. He’s wise to the industry. In our ‘Introducing’ with him in 2014, he described the demise of his old band - Spacifix - as 'another classic story of management screwing over a young crew. I had a bad taste in my mouth - in my soul'.
Spacifix was a funk/soul/reggae group. You might remember their 2006 hit single ‘Sunshine Day’ with its contagious reggae-inflected chorus and punchy horns.
You might have seen them support Christina Aguilera in 2009. Maybe you even watched the nine-part TV series made about their quest for success - ‘From Henderson To Hollywood.’
Formed at Avondale College, the group took out school music competition Smokefree Beats in 2003. They were groomed as international stars in the making.
The producer of their debut album was Skip Saylor, who had worked with Guns N' Roses, Tom Petty and Nas. He insisted that Spacifix would "put Auckland, New Zealand, on the music map."
With their afroed good looks, energetic choreography and snappy vintage 70s wardrobes, they might have been a good fit for Motown records, who they got the chance to audition for in 2007.
Hollywood didn’t come calling, but the band moved to Brisbane in 2009. Their last recorded gig was at Polyfest in Australia in 2011.
Tau Manukia has since reinvented himself and his sound as Noah Slee. Stumbling around the world, taking odd jobs, he eventually bumped into Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album ‘Eraser.’
“It was a moment for me, like I’m sure a lot of musicians have, where they feel like they’re born again. That happened for me.”
I took that inspiration from Eraser, and joined it with my other love, which is the Rhodes piano. I'm a sucker for the Rhodes."
He learned how to make music on a laptop, found a voice for years of notebook poetry, got himself a manager and started collaborating.
Over the past five years he’s turned up on tracks by Sola Rosa, Ben Esser, and Australian electronic act Carmada, and released an EP of his own called ‘To Your Inner Hippie & Cos You Fly As F**k’.
His debut album “Otherland” just dropped, and it features American singer Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Australian beat-maker Jordan Rakei amongst others.
Lead single ‘DGAF feat. Shiloh Dynasty’ has had over 6 million plays on Spotify alone.
But it’s ‘Lips’ which features fellow West Auckland musician Melodownz that stands out. With a hip-thrusting sensuality to the beats, and the lyrics “When you go lick them lips / you know it gets me in a twist / figure out where the safest place is” it’s one of the hottest songs we’ve heard this year.
“I’ve always been a sucker for like... For other people it’s eyes… what’s really annoying is I can catch myself looking at someone’s lips for too long, and you know, you need to snap out of it.”
Slee is upfront about his sexuality in the lyrics throughout the album, and has come out publicly as gay, something which he found difficult, being from a Christian, Tongan family.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, I mean it took me 20 something years. Tongan families are … pretty closed minded to the LGBT community and I had my own personal struggle with it.
"There was a lot of darkness, fighting with myself, and with partners, I had who were ready to make that move, but I just was still reserved in myself, and afraid.”
He says that the move to Berlin last year allowed him to really find himself, and become more comfortable with his sexuality. He knew that the album release would require him to rehash the conversations he’d already had with his family.
“I tried not to focus on it, because it’s just a part of me, it’s not what defines me. But in a way I’m happy that it has become kind of the focus, because I think a lot of ‘Otherland’ is based on me coming to acceptance of who I am.”