By Ng Su Ann
It’s 6 pm on a Friday in Long Island City, New York. Over Zoom, Nathanie Ngu is astonished—no, appalled—to discover that this writer has not, in 30 long years, ever visited her hometown Kuching. It’s “blasphemous”, she says. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter and producer moved to New York last August, but she still calls Malaysia home. “I miss my family, the food, the people,” she says. “It’s interesting, y’know, being a transplant from Malaysia, coming to a city this big.”
She’s fresh off the release of her six-track, ten-minute debut EP nathanie was here <3. The title is telling: a classic, simple tag, a public declaration of identity, a message humans have carved, etched, scrawled, Sharpied and spray painted for millennia; to be known, to be everywhere at once, yet nowhere at all.
Nathanie spent a couple of months in Malaysia last year, in between finishing her undergraduate degree and moving to New York for graduate school, and that’s when her song “Sunscreen” blew up on local TikTok. “I forgot to wear sunscreen one time,” she began at the top of a clip, “and of course, I ended up writing a song about it.”
A ten-second snippet played—“Don’t let the sun kiss you before I do”—before she continued, all fast-talking, all smiles: if you, the viewer, could follow her, hype her up, show her love on Apple Music, Instagram, Spotify, YouTube, “whatever you use”, it would “help the algorithm”. She had a pre-save link for “Sunscreen” in her bio, and she promised to drop the song if—and only if—it reached 10,000 pre-saves.
The song made it, through a little bit of algorithm luck and a lot of hard work. Nathanie kept to her word, self-released “Sunscreen”, followed up with a succession of singles through the year, and even represented Malaysia as an Asia Pacific finalist at Vans Musicians Wanted. And she’s only just starting out.
A billowing, ruffled yellow gown; gelled down baby hair; statement lids—here a punchy pink, there some blinding bling—always with a matching lip. Nathanie is a creature of fashion in the one-minute music videos that accompany the EP’s six tracks.
“It plays into the concept of fast everything: fashion, food, falling in love on dating apps. It makes you think, like, is it natural, is it sincere?” she asks. “Some people complained, right, ‘Why are the videos so short?’ I’m just like, I don’t know, man. We created a society. As a whole, we’re each responsible for the society we’ve created. Everything’s so fast, so don’t ask me why my stuff is so short, y’know what I mean?”
In contrast to the stylised videos, though, the EP’s cover is a bare-faced portrait sans make-up. It’s an aesthetic and artistic choice; one-part commentary, one-part exploration of the irony of social media in an era of influence currency, of “Finstas” and “Rinstas”, and the self as the brand.
I don’t want everyone to listen to my music. I don’t want to be the next Justin Bieber or The Weeknd … It just doesn’t feel like me.
“You almost can’t recognise my face in the cover art because it’s meant to show how we create all these versions of ourselves to be remembered by the public,” she explains. “Do they remember us for who we really are, or just the show of who we are, like, this brand that we’ve created? Do people notice you or think of you in a certain way if you alter the way you act or look on the Internet?”
The blurred lines between performance and personality, between life and lifestyle, are the frequent focus of her art. She shape-shifts, right before our eyes, from girlboss with capitalist aspiration (“Paper”, one of the EP’s highlights) to fairy grunge-lite taking a casual dip in a lotus pond, all green eyebrows and cigarette dangling from her lips (“Emma”) to indie-kid-meets-mak-cik chic (“Who Do I Call?”).
On nathanie was here <3, she explores authenticity, identity, and fidelity to self in an age of curation, influence, mass broadcasting, and materialistic, high-surveillance lives on social media, the virtual world—I link, therefore I am—and what this means for a woman of colour, a minority at home and away.
Across nathanie was here <3, Nathanie showcases her talent for precise, potent lyricism. “Yellow”s minimalist beats provide a foundation for her to confront an ever-present undercurrent of racism and othering: “Does it get better with the times / Do you acclimate your life? / Why don’t it aggravate your mind / Why aren’t you sick of all these crimes?”
On the melodic neo-soul closer “Day Ones”, she reflects on one of life’s truly horrible realisations: learning that someone you loved was simply play-acting all along. “I cosplay as my old self, yeah I’m scared you get uncomfortable / I know you’re tuning in analysing all my syllables”, she sings.
The fifth track “Funny Life” (featuring Cazo) is the most pared-back, its downtempo, poignant turn ever-so-slightly out of step with the rest of the EP. Over sparse drums, she sighs: “Maybe it’s all in my mind.” It’s an explicit nod to her struggle with mental health.
“That specific type of depression that I talked about in that song is when you feel like you’re running out of time, which I feel a lot of,” she confesses. “Because of the way we consume media, because of the society that we’re living in now, it feels like everyone’s ahead and you need to catch up.”
She continues, “when I go to bed, I’m thinking of all these things I have to do the next day, and it’s like, why am I stressing myself out? Can I just give up, y’know?” Nathanie pulls back to assess the anxiety that modern life inflicts upon that impossible task. “I try my best not to overthink my work and just do it, really ‘Nike’ it out here. It’s a process.”
Even though nathanie was here <3 only came out earlier this month, Nathanie’s already working on a sequel of sorts, due this summer. But she declares, empathetically and repeatedly, that she doesn’t want “everyone to listen to my stuff.” She explains: “That’s scary. I have no interest in making music that’s too catchy. I do not want to be a pop sensation.”
Asked if her music-making process has changed post-TikTok fame, she replies, “no, no, it hasn’t changed the way I write. I feel like that’s bad, like that dilutes it to a TikTok song. I don’t want everyone to listen to my music. I don’t want to be the next Justin Bieber or The Weeknd. Like, I’m okay. I just don’t think I want to make that type of art. It just doesn’t feel like me,” she asserts, laughing.
Before we hang up, I ask her how she’d describe her music, in her own words. She’s at her most earnest when she offers: “Maybe we could call it Malaysian pop.”
nathanie was here <3 is out now.