The first sounds you hear on ‘WE STILL YOUNG (FREESTYLE)’, the opening track from Melbourne R&B artist PANIA’s new EP of the same name, are running water and the muffled chatter of an inquisitive girl talking to her elders. One sound suggests emotional decompression under a hot shower; the other: family, home, growth.
Then, as if one of PANIA’s relatives has pulled out the acoustic guitar at the family function, the warm plucks begin. PANIA starts to sing, reflecting on her ambitions, insecurities, messy relationships, and the journey so far.
It’s an intimate opening to an expansive EP that tours through party starters and classic sultry R&B jams, before finishing with a bossed-up, body-shaking drum & bass banger. With old pal Hamley at the wheel of much of the production, it’s the same old diva with a fresh new fit, trading in the drill R&B sounds for a more timeless, live-instrument-backed sound as heard on ‘P STANDS FOR PLAYA’ and ‘ALL MINE’. Speaking about the project, PANIA says it’s representative of a formative time in her life.
“I guess WE STILL YOUNG kind of represents being in your early twenties, when it’s like the most important years of your life in terms of decision making. But it’s also the years that you don’t get back.”
PANIA: Living In The Moment
For PANIA, the opening title track is a favourite. It helped shape the whole EP, as “the way it came about was just so off the top, raw and exactly what I was feeling in that moment”. On the track, she warns against being sad about things you can’t take back. “I don’t regret anything, anything that I do, because I always just feel like if I’ve done something wrong, then I’ll learn from it.”
Looking at the journey the Melbourne singer has taken over the past few years, it’s easy to see why she isn’t too bogged down by regrets. In the months since releasing her first EP under Say Less/Warner Music Australia, last November’s burnt ur clothes & changed the addy, PANIA has been making her presence felt. She opened up for Kehlani on her most recent Australian tour (initially only meant to support in Melbourne, she ended up performing at all remaining dates), played a solo show at the Sydney Opera House, had two songs featured on the Heartbreak High soundtrack and got the call up to perform at events thrown by the likes of Hermes and Vogue, as well as festivals like Listen Out. Just yesterday, the ARIAs announced that PANIA had been nominated for Best Soul/R&B Release with ‘P STANDS 4 PLAYA’.
So what defines this era? “This is my ‘trying to get it together’ era.”
Ever on the quest to put her name up in lights, getting it together looks a little different for PANIA when compared to most people. Earlier this year, PANIA spent some time in London, and much of WE STILL YOUNG was recorded during separate excursions to the opposite hemisphere. The London trips were an interesting challenge for P, who’s a “very private, shy, personal kind of person”. But, ever the advocate for growth, she relished the opportunities afforded to a buzzing artist with a major label budget and connections.
During one studio session, while working on ‘PLAYLIST (ROCK DA BOAT)’ with producer Ray Michael, he was sharing stories about his sessions with Burna Boy and his approach to music. He emphasised Burna’s efforts to incorporate things into his music that may not be as familiar to the rest of the world, “but he and his family and his culture and his people know about”.
In light of this, Ray wondered which nugget of her own culture PANIA could sprinkle onto ‘PLAYLIST’. “He was like, what’s something that you guys do? And I literally couldn’t think of anything, but all I could think about was that cheehoo, because that’s just such a Poly thing. If you’re Poly, you know, like, that’s the thing. I was like, this is the only thing I could think of.” “He’s like ‘nah, that’s hard — let’s add it in’.”
Just like that, ‘PLAYLIST’ — the hip-commanding, ‘island-time’ dance-floor anthem that brings to mind the locally iconic ‘tiki’ from her last project — was blessed with some sauced-up, beautifully sung “cheehoo” ad-libs. “I want people in Paris to be saying cheehoo even though they don’t even know what it means. Like, that’s the goal with that song.”
PANIA: From Melbourne To London (And Back Again)
Miles away from recording studios in London, PANIA grew up in Melbourne’s west and first began to find her footing as an artist at PRPL, the Footscray studio owned by producer Eleftherios. There, she built a community, collaborating with like-minded artists like CD, 3K, MAMMOTH. and Agung Mango. While she’s plotting selling out shows across the planet, she remains committed to putting on for her city and showcasing it to the rest of the world.
So, while one of the EP’s singles ‘BURNA FONE’ — produced by English DJ Toddla T, who’s worked with everyone from Stormzy to Skepta to Craig David to Aitch — is practically dripping with the sweat of a London rave with its massive drum & bass sound, PANIA wanted the video to shine a light on her city. The video intentionally includes recurring images of the Melbourne skyline and uses the shots of a convincingly turnt party scene to “showcase actual people from my city”.
The EP’s only guest appearance comes from another Melbourne artist with his sights set on Hollywood, Miko Mal. “I kind of wanted to get him in a different pocket,” says PANIA. Under her guidance, Mal forgoes his usual cocky cheekiness for a sentimental verse on ‘DNT NEED YOU’. His bars were inspired by the Drake school of downcast romance raps, where the primary settings are the club and their mobile phones. “I think he’s really unique. I don’t know where we met, but we’ve just always supported each other since … and to be able to, you know, put on [for] Melbourne is cool.”
PANIA: Throwing It Back To The Early 2000s
A pretty quiet person, PANIA’s superstar aspirations can be partly explained by her reverence for the fashion and aesthetic of the pop and R&B superstars of the 2000s. She holds the legendary Aaliyah in the highest regard, as evidenced by her Aaliyah-inspired ‘ALL MINE’ cover photoshoot. “I love that every aspect of it was sick, like when it comes to the fashion, the videos, the live performances. It seems like they’re all thought out and they’re all cool with it. So, that’s something that I want to bring back: that essence.” For the ‘BURNA FONE’ video, PANIA took inspiration from the colourful visuals of hip-hop cinema classic Belly and the Fast & Furious movies. “All my stuff is inspired by that, like, early 2000s, late ’90s era of film and music videos.”
PANIA’s total commitment to her persona and visuals is plain to see — and if her new releases are steps towards bringing back “that essence”, then she’s well on the way to resurrecting that era of pop culture altogether. For her early 2023 single ‘P STANDS 4 PLAYA’, she inked the song’s title on her lower back, capturing the tattoo session for the song’s visuals (although a recent Instagram post has called into question PANIA’s claim to Junkee that the tattoo is “definitely a real tattoo”).
“When I was thinking of ways to shoot the cover art, I wanted to do like a face tat. And I was like, nah, ‘P STANDS 4 PLAYA’. Like, I guess when you think of ‘player’ — if you were to call a girl a player, people would kind of call her like a tramp? You know, use those words. So I’m like ‘yo, it would be so sick to get like a tramp stamp’, because obviously, you’d call a girl player a tramp. I can get a tramp stamp that stands for ‘P STANDS 4 PLAYA’.”
While PANIA makes no secret of her ambitions to reach the greatest heights of showbiz, her global ambitions aren’t given much thought when she’s making music. “I don’t think about that. Honestly, I’ve always just made music that is exactly how I’m feeling. And I guess it kind of translates. Like, I just make music for everyone. The whole world. I don’t think about anything other than what I’m feeling in that moment.”
“So yeah, I’m glad that people think it’s like a global sound because it’s not something that I like, think about. It’s just something that is just automatic for me.” Already touted as the ‘it girl’ and the one among her local R&B peers most poised to crossover into international markets, it’s easy to imagine the pressure becoming a heavyweight. “I definitely do feel it, but I think I just have to remind myself like, have fun, be present. And like, remember why you started and just keep that in mind? Because yeah, WE STILL YOUNG.”
So, is the plan still to move to LA?
“Yeah, when I get famous.”
“Soon come. 2024, inshallah.”
PANIA’s new EP WE STILL YOUNG is out now.
Connor Barkey lives in Sydney and likes rap music and occasionally writes about Australian rap music for his website, Dog Scraps. It would be in the best interest of the nation for you to follow the Dog Scraps Instagram page.
Image credit: Warner Music Australia