Noelani Petero is on a mission to bring back early the iconic 2000s R&B sound. The Melbourne-based singer-songwriter is unabashedly old-school in her approach to hip-hop and super-smooth R&B in the vein of Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah. Under the stage name NOE (pronounced “Noii”), which includes a loose collective of beat-makers and producers, Petero just released debut single “Sweat.” With a string of new tracks set to drop in 2021 in the lead-up to her debut EP, NOE’s bold sensuality fairly oozes out of the speakers, even while the beats threaten to blow the bass.
NOE stands for New Old Experiment, and in its clever channeling of ’90s hip hop, funk and R&B into the 2020 world of streaming 24/7, where only the catchiest tunes will survive, it does indeed combine the Old and New.
“I’m a ’90s kid, so I always revisit artists like Ashanti, Ja Rule, Aaliyah and Janet. R&B from the early 2000s was so dominant, but it was only three or four years before it became really poppy with artists like Britney Spears,” says Petero. “After Aaliyah died – and she was meant to be the future of R&B – it stopped with her. That’s my motivation, to bring that back. That early 2000s R&B has such a drive and energy to it. I feel like it’s much more chilled and relaxed, the R&B these days.”
Over the years, Petero has been working as a producer, an artist, a dancer and a writer within the Melbourne improvisational hip hop and R&B community. She was vocalist of Killah Hurtz, an early vocalist of acid jazz collective Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange (now based in Berlin), and a singer with LOGO.
Her emergence as a solo artist happened along with her new role as a mother. Petero has a 18-month old son who is “going through the annoying toddler phase early, but [is] the most fun.” Even so, becoming a mother has posed challenges to NOE as an artist. “My content is very sexually driven. I like to be very empowered in my sexuality, but I kind of lost that with having a child and not going to gigs anymore,” she confesses. “I reached out to Michael Cooper, also known as Mikki From Preston, and producer 2Point0, and said I feel like I’m stuck, I need something to drive me to write.”
2Point0 (aka Myawae Tarwo Sonkarlay) sent NOE some beats, which she listened to for weeks while at home or walking. “When I heard the bass beat for ‘Sweat,’ I went ‘yep!’” she remembers. It mattered very little to Petero that 2Point0 is still in high school.
“He’s so beyond-his-years as a producer and an artist. He’s very shy, he’s very quiet. He’s one of those kids who can just absorb so much knowledge. I was sending him opera, classical and country samples and he just absorbs it and puts it into his bass beats,” Petero gushes. “We were giving him a lot of information, so I’m really excited to see what he does. Mikki and I were just like, ‘We have got to keep working with him.’ It’s a collaboration. That’s why [we call it] NOE: it’s a New Old Experiment with a whole bunch of collaborators.”
Growing up, Petero was able to pick up music very easily. Her mother was a classically trained in piano, her brother played cello, and her sister played clarinet. She attended various band camps, though her school wasn’t strong in its musical offerings (to this day she says she feels let down by how boring their curriculum was).
After graduating from high school, NOE modeled in Queensland for a couple of years; she moved to Melbourne when she was 21, and modeling took a back seat to musical theatre, songwriting and performance. “It was an overwhelming feeling when the plane landed in Melbourne. It’s hard to explain,” she recalls. She knew this was home, though, and the arts scene embraced her as enthusiastically as she embraced it.
Ten years later, the arts scene is looking much different – certainly quieter under pandemic conditions. “The arts sector really got hard done by. After the bushfires, a lot of artists donated their time and funds towards the victims, and then COVID-19 hit. A lot of artists were left behind when they really needed it,” NOE points out. “A lot of musicians I’m around weren’t able to get government support because of all the red tape involved with being sole traders. A lot of artists slipped through the cracks in the system designed to support the arts.” Though more than $250 million worth of emergency funding to arts and culture in Australia was announced over the summer, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has yet to disburse much of the money. “We just haven’t seen it. I’m concerned about how artists and venues will continue their work to the same standard,” Petero says. “Not one dime has been spent. They couldn’t even answer public questions about it. The arts, especially in Victoria, is relied upon for revenue, so it’s disappointing that this has happened.”
Though the Australian government has left many artists and musicians unaided, artists in Melbourne are resourceful. They’ve embraced online performance and collaboration across genres. Like many other projects this year, “Sweat” was recorded at home, mixed and finished all within the space of a month during the pandemic. NOE usually has an early dinner with her husband, then heads up to the studio for two hours to “smash out” lyrics and vocals.
“I get the bass beats from 2Point0, then I record the vocals at home,” she says. “When I realised we were going into lockdown, I got some really good equipment. After recording the vocals and backup vocals, I clean it up and send it to Mikki. Then, Mikki adds the synths, fine tunes the vocals – which he’s really good at – and then we send it to another producer and good friend, Amin Payne. Amin Payne is a DJ and makes his own music. He can hear things Mikki and I can’t necessarily hear through the speakers when a song is turned right up, but Amin does his own little mix on it to tweak it. Then we send it to Choi Productions to do the mastering.”
NOE intends to do a music video for “Sweat,” but at the moment her focus is on putting music out regularly – and promoting it on her own. She hopes to release a song every two to three months, with the debut EP slated for July 2021. “At the moment, I want to get my songs out to prove to myself that I’ve been productive in lockdown,” she says. “I want to come out on the other side showing I’ve been busy.”
Follow NOE on Instagram for ongoing updates.