The voice of Noah Slee drifts from totemic soul to the unfolding limits of pop, slung mist-like between eruptions of digital rhythm.It’s a voice that slips between three continents, that can knot into pure percussion and uncoil into a thread of falsetto in the space of a verse. And a voice that has enraptured European festivals and tastemakers as varied as Boiler Room, Indie Shuffle and Okayplayer.
Berlin-based Aotearoa / Tongan neo-soul artist Noah Slee has shared his lavish Twice EP and lux visuals for reflective political track ‘America’.
Otherland bristles with instinct—the pensive, bruised tone of 2016’s ‘To Your Inner Hippy & Cos You Fly as Fuck’ at once magnified and transfigured. It’s a mixtape that flickers from the disconsolate to the ecstatic, something that offers—in delicate rnb and resonant pop— something from just beyond the here and now.
But for Noah Slee, the future has been a long time coming. Growing up in a Tongan household in West Auckland, New Zealand, he listened to African reggae through a wood laminate stereo and woke to the clamour of Earth Wind and Fire. Everything is gathered, disembodied, and reimagined, nothing from his past seems entirely discarded.
Even his frustration at studio recording in Brisbane obliquely clings to him years later—repelling him into the world of sampling and home recording, and leading him inexorably to Berlin and into the company of producer Ben Esser.
Slee and Esser’s relationship is one that is somewhat mimetic of Otherland itself—simultaneously instinctual and suffused with personal history.
“We did the whole listening to music thing, listening to all kinds of stuff from when I was young and when he was young” Slee smiles. Otherland’s sampling acts as a kind of cipher for understanding how they seem to work in both the past and the momentary. While the influence of vintage is spread audibly thick across the album, the much-lauded track ‘DGAF’ sees Shiloh Dynasty’s voice harvested from an instagram post, re-pitched, and a song scaffolded around it.
Part of Otherland’s diffuse range can be laid at the feet of Noah Slee’s own restless geography—but only a part. The spectrum the mixtape occupies is borne of thresholds more adverse than landscape. It wrestles with place as something internal and unstable, something that contains within it refractory notions of heritage, identity, sexuality and grief. “A big part of being in Berlin was coming into myself” Slee admits quietly.
And part of Otherland’s joyous, cathartic appeal is clear in its musical guests—predominantly songwriters rather than performers and people, Slee enthuses, “who were really into the record.” But despite “not being fazed with names” guests include such luminaries as Simon Mavin and Paul Bender from Haitus Kaiyote, seminal future-soul artist Georgia Anne Mudrow, Shiloh Dynasty, Auckland-based MC Melodownz and Brisbane multi-instrumentalist Jordan Rakei.
Otherland spans genres; it undulates between the bygone and the brand new. It’s confounded and irrepressibly catchy. Noah Slee puts it best: “It’s a truthful representation of where I’m at”.
“My name is Noah Slee, I’m a New Zealand/Tongan man. I make music and sometimes short films. I always ask myself if I am doing enough for my community. I’m surrounded by amazing people and I am constantly being challenged to be a better person, but I guess I was raised always needing more, and to be better. This can be a curse at times because I’m never celebrating the win but always working for what’s next, and maybe I have a lot of unnecessary baggage I carry on my shoulders because of this. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from my friends who are activists, it’s prioritise self and everything else follows through.
A friend once told me that I encouraged her to be her authentic self and that using my voice has given her light. I guess I took for granted the opportunities I’ve been given or maybe the way I view myself is inaccurate. The thing is, being my sensitive self writing these songs and being honest is the best I can do. It’s a privilege and as I reflect on who I was and where I am right now I never would’ve thought I would’ve come out, doing my thing and having fun along the way.”