Emerging from West Melbourne with glimmering synths and trap-licked rhythms which flicker around her beautifully textured voice, Pania draws threads from all the fabrics of her life to create tactile, carnal sounds. We spoke about cherishing friends, envisioning iconic outfits, and why it’s up to grandma to keep you real.
Does your name come from the Māori myth?
Yes! My grandma actually named me – she kind of raised me – for this mermaid in New Zealand: Pania of the Reef. It’s like a mythical creature, like a siren. And that’s my real name. I’m half Māori and half Indian.
It suits your style hand-in-glove; one of the coolest things about your music is its pace. You give your lyrics and melodies exactly the right amount of fluid space they need. Is it something you've consciously thought about?
I listen to a lot of slow music… but I don’t really think about it too much, so it might be an influence from what I’ve grown up with. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s weird! I just write whatever’s in my head, and sometimes there won’t even be lyrics.
Your single Tiki is a perfect example – it’s super energetic but sensually slow (you even mention “Island time”!). Lyrically, how did you come up with rhyming ‘Riri’, ‘kiki’ and ‘Contiki’?
Ha! Me and my homie were just going back and forth freestyling, and then – a lot of my homies are in the ballroom community in Melbourne, and we’ll listen to this song [Let’s Have a Kiki]. We’d always sing it during lockdown – ‘Do you wanna kiki, do you wanna dance with me?’
It was a fluke; sometimes it comes really fast, and sometimes it takes so long, just sitting there with a blank canvas for hours.
When you say ‘blank canvas’, do you mean you literally sit there with a pen and paper, thinking of what to write?
I get on the mic and sing whatever’s in my head. I’ll [record my] freestyle, and then pick out the good bits, and then structure it from there. Or, sometimes I’ll listen to the beat and write it out on my Notes app, then sing on the mic.
So you most often begin with improvising?
Yes. A lot of it is freestyling because I have so many ideas – my brain has too many ideas sometimes – so I have to filter them out as soon as possible, otherwise I’ll be left with 50 different melodies and it just won’t make sense. That’s why I have to make myself record straight away.
You’ve said in interviews before that you never sang when you were a child. That’s so refreshing in this era of everyone starting on the Disney Channel!
Yeah, I was so shy! I hardly spoke as a kid, it was crazy. I didn’t speak, so I would never sing. My family would be doing karaoke and they would try and force the mic into my face, and I just wouldn’t do anything. A lot of my friends were in the choir and I always thought that was really cringe, like ‘No, I’m not doing that!’ It just wasn’t my thing in school.
You performed at Heaps Gay at Sydney’s Luna Park a couple of weeks ago – and at one point you were wearing the Tiki outfit. Did you plan for it to become an iconic look?
I was going to be dancing for Tiki ‘cos that was the last song, and I was like, ‘I kind of want to wear the Tiki outfit. Let’s just put it back on!’ I got it custom made from one of my homie’s mums who’s a designer.
What kind of brief did you give the designer?
I was really, really specific. I was watching a lot of 2000s music videos, so I got the inspo from that Xtina video, and I think there was a military skirt in someone else’s film clip, and I was drawing stuff from Pinterest as well. I literally told her exactly what I wanted, and she brought it to life so perfectly. It was exactly what I wanted.
I’m a very visual person. If I have a vision, then I’ll be specific with it because I’m such a perfectionist when it comes to that stuff. It’s part of your whole brand; you have the power! That’s the fun thing about being an artist: I get to dabble in fashion and all of that creative stuff as well. It’s so much fun, it makes things way more enjoyable.
You’re all about having your friends involved in your creative processes. Why's that so important to you?
I really treasure all my friends. I feel like if I win, I want them to always be a part of it, because they’re the ones that are important to me. They’re going to make the experience more enjoyable if they’re involved, rather than just some random that I’m paying to do the job.
I’m still pretty shy as a person, so trying to explain my ideas and express myself to, say, just a random that I’d hire, I feel like they don’t understand it. Trying to bring a vision to life with someone who doesn’t understand me has always been really unfulfilling – it never really hits the spot, if that makes sense.
It makes total sense!
Shooting the Tiki video was so fun because it didn’t even feel like a music video. It felt like we were literally in a club. It’s moments like that, that are special.
Which club were you at, for the record?
It was at Poof Doof, at Chasers Nightclub in Chapel Street. It’s lit.
Last month you tweeted, “I [swear to god] ethnic families are the goats at humbling their kids [multiple cry-laugh emojis]." I 100% agree. Tell me about that.
No, literally! You know what my grandma said to me? I came home from Sydney and the first thing she says to me is, ‘You need a new outfit, you’ve worn that Tiki outfit before’. I was like, ‘Thanks, don’t even congratulate me!’
[Laughs] That’s why I’ll never be cocky. Coming from an ethnic family I can’t have a big head – it’s impossible!
We’re reading so much recently about how R'n'B is finding its place, its new icons, and its momentum in Melbourne. Do you feel this momentum?
I feel that Melbourne in general, musically, it doesn’t really get a lot of attention. A lot of the Australian industry is in Sydney, there’s a lot of focus there. But there’s artists like me, and CD, and Mango… we’re getting more attention now. For a while now, it’s been… not popping, but it’s swelling. I guess it’s just all coming to the surface now.
Pania’s upcoming EP will be available soon; singles LETHIM4ALL, Tiki and ICYY are out now.