Arig: “I Want Longevity. I Don’t Want Burnout”

arig interview

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“You fight off one devil and then seven more come for you.”

This Eritrean proverb is running through R&B singer-songwriter Arig’s mind throughout her chat with Junkee, and she’s using the conversation as a chance to reflect. The Eritrean-Australian artist went on a healing journey throughout the making of her new record, RECKLESS, and she’s stronger for coming out the other side. Since her previous project, Attrition, which she modestly dismisses as “a complete fucking fluke”, Arig has underwent radical change and braved adversity of all kinds. 

“I was just repeating the same cycles that I was going through as a kid with my parents in relationships, while trying to build a career that had this momentum behind it already. And I kind of just stopped and I tried to figure myself out but I was trying to figure myself out with no support, no help. I just had the most reckless period of my life,” she says.

Growing up in Meanjin/Brisbane housing commissions, she was raised by her single mother, a teenager at the time who couldn’t speak English. Subjected to the toxic and physically abusive relationships her mother found herself in, Arig found refuge in music’s escapist nature, disappearing in her room to drown out the hostility of her childhood through writing and doing her best mirror performances of the 2000s pop divas. 

“Being a child of dysfunction, a child of physical abuse, it changes you in ways that you don’t really even understand yourself,” Arig reflects. “For me, the music always let me — it’s such a cliché — but it always let me escape. There was a profound amount of pain that I would feel all the time that I really didn’t even understand and the music was just a way for me, it was just cathartic.”

The therapeutic collection of blues-pop ballads from her 2018 project saw her reckon with her dysfunctional early years. But the healing journey is far from linear, and life’s only guarantee is that it’s always in transition. While still making music, Arig took a step back from building her career and catalogue due to a lack of structure and support in her everyday life. Although she thought she was okay — she bought a new car, started living by herself, and worked three jobs — the truth was Arig was distracting herself from self-hatred.

“I had to make a change. You can only keep doing the same thing for so long before you snap or you break or you have this cognitive dissonance that is like ‘Oh, yeah, don’t worry. It’s all good. Just smoke another blunt and fucking have another bottle, you know, then pass out for the rest of the night,’” Arig continues. “‘Don’t envision, don’t envision change, don’t envision the future, don’t take accountability. Don’t do these things.’ Like there’s only so long you can keep that up because your body and your spirit knows that you’re not on your purpose.”

Having performed at most of the clubs and small venues in the River City, and in need of a new adventure to better support her mental health, her move from Brisbane to Eora/Sydney in 2022 proved to be the reset that would eventually end her hiatus. This is a destiny that I’ve chosen for myself. That, for me, is the biggest achievement and everything else is like the hundreds and thousands and the cherries on top,” she says.

Speaking of hundreds and thousands, the move to the seeming epicentre of the Australian music industry hasn’t been an easy one for Arig. From the scarcity of financial return and government grants, to the lack of creative opportunity due to other pressures and responsibilities, we may be living in the most challenging and unsustainable time to be an emerging artist in Australia. 

While tours and gigs were once the real money makers for acts, the post-pandemic era has witnessed over 1000 small and mid-sized venues permanently close across the country, according to APRA AMCOS’ latest Year In Review report. “There’s only so many packets of mi goreng someone’s going to eat,” she says, lamenting the increases in rent and the cost of groceries. “Junkee, I hope you take this and you put it all over your social media… The government needs to get their finger out their ass and start doing something about this situation.”

Featuring production from Harry Fox and Magnus Murphy, RECKLESS ushers in a new era for Arig as an artist, collaborator, and the author of her own narrative. Earnestly embracing her spectrum of emotions and each phase of the healing journey, Arig chooses solace in the path forward. “You just have to be okay with not being okay, and in that, you end up being okay,” she says.

The EP begins with the soul-cleansing track ‘Freedom’, a declaration of dedication to her healing journey. The ballad is reminiscent of her previous work, like the song ‘Mama Said’, with its stripped-back instrumental and Arig’s contemplative and determinedly hopeful lyrics. Arig purifies herself of the intense self-hatred by repeating “I do it all for freedom, I lost my life for freedom. I do it twice for freedom. I do it all for you”. “You do not have to and nobody is telling you to carry that shit with you for the rest of your life,” she says. “But it is a hard emotional slog making that decision.”

Arig strips away any pretence across the six-track project, even when reflecting on some ugly truths. On ‘Intoxicated’, she addresses her romantic missteps, recognising that “I’ve been faking the way that I feel”. “‘Intoxicated’ is just lust. I’m sure you’ve met somebody that the fantasies keep playing over and over but you know nothing is ever gonna happen, nothing meaningful is ever gonna happen. But for some reason we have such a visceral sensational reaction to them or the thought of them.”

‘Goodness Gracious’ finds her grappling with unrequited love, while ‘Intoxicated’ finds her relapsing back to the addictive and familiar comfort of unhealthy situations and people. “Maybe something shifted in my psyche, where I was like: I actually want to write songs that make me feel a lot more powerful than what I am,” she reflects.

This approach is best illustrated by the EP’s lead singles, which are imbued with the same empowering energy that superstars like Beyoncé pour into their biggest hits. As an ode to the classic soul-R&B sound, ‘Pop Off’ delivers an injection of high self-esteem to anyone who’s listening. “It’s a track where the ladies can celebrate their sexuality and robust personalities and be proud of that,” Arig says. “And we need that in today’s day and age, there is so much bad going on in the world with wars and inflation. It offers a boost in self-esteem.”

Arig continues the EP with unbreakable confidence on ‘His Nation’, released in September 2023 alongside visuals directed by Cleo Baldwin. Set in an auto shop, the music video is inspired by the misogynistic gatekeeping she’s experienced within the music industry. Knowing there’s strength in numbers, her focus has been on expanding her collaborative circle and support systems in the last 12 months. While her early entry into music was an insular activity, Arig is wary of artistic fatigue. “I can’t do this by myself anymore,” she says.

“I want longevity,” she adds. “I don’t want burnout. I want to make sure that I can take this for a long time. And everything is super incremental. You know what I mean? It’s like these little threads that connect everything along the way. I’m just kind of here for that journey.”

Taking its name from where Arig grew up, the EP closes with ‘Lambos In Logan’, a slick and final display of her resilient authenticity. RECKLESS depicts the gratifying but gruelling process of working through trauma and learning to love yourself again, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. There’s no lyrical sugarcoating on the project, but it’s a lot easier to digest her honest and vulnerable lyricism thanks to RECKLESS’s sweet hip-hop and R&B-infused pop sounds.

At some point, we all have to come to terms with the fact that the road of self-healing is a lifelong commitment. Instagram might indicate otherwise, but the truth is that we are all, always, works in progress. RECKLESS encapsulates this sentiment by celebrating all aspects of Arig’s own journey and in doing so, encouraging her listeners to do the same. “It is all about the work,” she says, “but can we not glamorise it though because it’s dirty and filthy and disgusting but it’ll give you a backbone and some fucking integrity.”

“It’ll make you a person.”

Arig’s new EP RECKLESS is out now. She’s also set to play a show to launch the EP on Sunday, February 18 at The Dock, Eora. 

Image: Supplied / James Kenny