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In the Studio with NIKI

If the saying is true that talent comes from the heart, then artist NIKI’s probably outsizes everyone in the room. Upon first meeting the 88rising creative, it’s difficult to imagine her signature, powerhouse vocals streaming from such a small frame, but somehow, to NIKI, it just comes as second-nature.

Originally hailing from the outskirts of Jakarta, NIKI first moved to the U.S. in 2017 as a college student with dreams of pursuing her art professionally, but with a lack of guidance on where to begin. Getting her start by uploading homemade indie and acoustic music cooked up on Garageband to a personal YouTube channel, she had no idea just the whirlwind journey her 18-year-old sound would take her on.

Fast forward to now, a mere two years later, NIKI has fully established her footing within the industry as one of the most inimitable voices poised to take over the charts. Translating her neo-soul and gospel roots into pop-inflected, R&B jams, her sound is evocative of a time before—vintage, if you will. A self-taught writer and producer, NIKI does it all, guiding a quick wit and poet-like creativity into pop hit songwriting while also creating some of the most innovative instrumentals that toe the line between genres we thought we fully understood. The first female artist to sign to record label 88rising, the Indonesian artist is a revolutionary, although she might not think of herself as one. NIKI is making waves on her own terms, refusing to compromise a honed, artistic vision which she’s been truthful to since the start.

Just before the release of her sophomore EP, “wanna take this downtown?”, we sat down with the rising star to talk about the genesis of the project. Read on to get a glimpse into NIKI’s creative mind, from the influences that shaped her sound, what it means to be a role model, and all that she has in store for us the rest of 2019.

Could you tell me about the name of the EP?

The EP is going to be called, “wanna take this downtown?”. It’s a little excerpt from the first single, ‘lowkey’. It’s a lyric from the song.

What made you want to name the EP that?

The EP started with just “lowkey”. We were just going to put that single out, and there was another song, so we were just going to put those two out. That’s it. Initially, we were going to call the little project, “low-key”, one of the single names. But as time progressed, I wrote another song, and after that, I wrote another song. I basically gave my management the biggest headache. Then it turned into a full-on EP, and I didn’t want to just call it “lowkey” anymore, because that felt kind of lame.

Also, the EP is very much not lowkey! 

Exactly! It would be contradictory of the goal and purpose of the EP. So, I was trying to think of what line from all of my songs that would perfectly encapsulate the mood and the vibe of this EP. “wanna take this downtown?” is kind of cute. It kind of summates this effervescence and young love and spontaneity. This whole EP is the epitome of spontaneous. It was boom, four songs out of nowhere.

What was the process of writing the EP like? 

This is kind of a downer, or at least starts off that way. My mom, she passed away in February, and I posted about that. She was sick for a whole year, and I was writing songs that were just a lot darker, brooding. And when she finally passed, for some reason, I just didn’t feel like I was in the headspace to continue down that route, which is pretty ironic to me. Generally, I feel like when something really dark happens, people write really dark shit. But it was actually the opposite for me, it triggered something. I felt like I needed to write something light, and happy. It was kind of therapeutic and cathartic for me. I ended up writing these four pop songs out of nowhere, as a way to cope, in a way. It started with “lowkey” and “odds”. Then I wrote “urs”, and “move”. It just came together like that. It’s funny, because it started from such a dark space, but then evolved into this vibe-y, cute, fun thing.

I think that’s what interests me most about you as an artist—you’re so involved in every step of your music. You’re a writer, and you record and produce by yourself, and while I’m sure you have collaborators, but you’re very involved in every step of the process so it feels very organic. What makes you feel the need to be so immersed in the process? Not every artist is interested in working this way. 

It’s funny. There is a duality to everything in life. Honestly, I’m just a big control freak and am literally OCD about everything. Particularly, I just feel like there is no one who can understand my artistic vision better than me. And, I could spell it out for somebody and they would take it and run with it, but it still wouldn’t be authentically me. They would interpret it their way. I just care too much about my artistic integrity to let it go and let someone else run it, because I’m all about authenticity and being true to myself. For me, it’s about artistic expression, and being true above all.

Despite only being 20 years old, you’re so honed and focused on your vision and directing your sound. Since you’ve begun working with 88rising and when you released your first EP last year, I’m sure there’s a lot that has been changing around you. What are some of the biggest surprises or changes that have come with your success? 

To me, it’s been about my fans. The people that I tend to attract, it’s really interesting to me. I’ve really learned that you attract what you are, or who you present yourself to be. I’ve found so many friendships in my fans, and it’s really interesting because they are so much like me. Whether it’s their sense of humor, or how they articulate things, every time I read something from one of my fans, I think that I could be friends with them. I’ve been very true to myself from the get-go, I’m just very goofy, just normal, regular, ordinary human being. I’ve put that out into the sphere of the internet, and people get it! People understand that I’m real, I’m myself, and it resulted in this fanbase that is full of people I see as my friends. They mean so much to me. It’s so crazy how things of grown, and how much people engage on my social media, and they even talk to each other. It’s so cute. I love my fans so much. That’s the one thing, the biggest thing, that surprised me. Who likes my stuff, and who listens to my stuff. It’s been the most pleasant surprise, really.

Would you say that your success was unexpected?

Yes, 100 percent. It came out of nowhere, I had no expectations. I was in college, graduated in 2017, I moved to the US to go to college in Nashville. I was a music major on a scholarship, but I was this close to switching to dietetics and going on that route to getting a bachelors degree and getting a job. I knew in my heart and soul that I loved music, but I didn’t necessarily have an outlet or platform for it other than a little YouTube channel. This all was so serendipitous, this moment of clarity and confirmation that maybe the universe is telling me to do this. I really think that this is what I have to be doing, it’s what I’m meant to do. It was 100 percent unprecedented. I was like, OK!

Would you agree that your music has primarily an R&B sound, with strong pop sensibilities? 

100 percent.

Where do you draw your inspirations from? 

I drew a lot of that from ’90s throwback music, like Aaliyah, Boyz 2 Men, Mariah Carey. My mom was a singer in church, and our church was for some reason really had honed this neo-soul gospel sound, and literally the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia. It was so random, this middle of nowhere church, and they were super soulful. I grew up around a lot of musicians who knew chords and had backgrounds in blues, and jazz, and soul, so every Saturday I would go with my mom to her rehearsals, and I would just watch them have jam sessions. Sometimes, my mom would force me to sing on the spot as a little timid girl, but that was how I established my roots in music, in that sound. As I grew up, there were different world views and different genres being instilled in me from school, and friends, and media. So I broke out of that, I discovered indie, pop, whatever. When I graduated from high school, I was making indie music and acoustic music—which really did resonate with me, by the way—but I was trying to figure out what I actually wanted to make, and what accurately represented me musically. What you hear today is what I believe the most accurate representation of what I’ve always wanted to make, but never had a platform to. I learned how to produce, and that helped as well.

You learned how to produce just by playing around with it?

I mentioned before that I had a little YouTube channel, and that’s how I started. That’s how me and Brian connected, through my YouTube channel. I would use Garageband to record my vocals and guitar, and I had a little mic so I would sing into that. I put it in Garageband, and on a whim one day as I was editing my audio file, I discovered the sound library. I accidentally clicked a button, and it popped the fuck up. I was mind blown, this existed the whole time? There were bass instruments, and drums, and horns, like oh my god! That elevated my YouTube music, and then slowly I learned how to make beats with that stock library. After that, I got Logic, and I literally self-taught myself. It was organic.

Do you ever feel that as an Asian person, in an entertainment industry that is so overtly not Asian, do you ever feel pressure to be a role model? 

I’m not really caught up in that so much, but I do feel a social responsibility. I view this as an opportunity, but also a responsibility. At the end of the day, I am Asian, and I am fully aware that this is not an Asian industry at all. I fully have taken up that responsibility, and one hundred percent feel that we have to be doing this, this is the time to be doing this. If I’m going to be out there, I’m going to be fully out there. I’m going to put myself out in a way that inspires people, and lets people know that you don’t have to go to medical school or law school to succeed, this is totally viable. It’s 2019, you can have a career in the arts, or anything creative really. For sure, I’m out here representing all the Asians, and I love it. It’s a huge part of my identity, but also my artistic identity as well. I grew up thinking, “why is there only one Mulan movie? Why are all my Barbies white and blonde?” It feels good to watch Riverdale and see that the jock is an Asian dude, Charles Melton. It’s interesting, people are really out here putting in the effort to break stereotypes, and that’s exactly what 88rising is doing. We’re not so caught up in being Asian, asking people to look at us because we’re Asian—but we are Asian and people can tell, from our hair to our skin, our eyes. We’re Asian, and we’re just doing it.

It’s beyond race. It’s being an individual and expressing yourself in your most authentic way. What are you most looking forward to with the release of this next EP?

Definitely the music videos. Am I allowed to reveal that? They exist, they’re coming out. The music videos are next level, and that’s all I’m going to say.

When I saw the visualizer for “lowkey”, I got my life. My entire life. 

That was an out of body experience. I felt like I was embodying an alter-ego with my stiletto nails. They were totally fake too, by the way. You can spoil that, it’s fine. They were stick ons, but they looked fire.

Do you have a favorite record of the four on the EP?

That’s a hard question. I love them all equally, they are all my little babies. Again, the way they came together was super weird and unorthodox. When I was arranging the tracklist, I realized that they could be a cohesive single-line narrative. I won’t spoil the tracklist, but it sounds like they could all be written about the same person. That was not intentional, but it became a narrative.

What can fans of yours expect to see from you in this upcoming year, and potentially beyond? 

So there is an album, and that’s TBD. It kind of took a backseat as we were working on the EP because it came out of nowhere. It was born out of grief, and so many emotions. My album is in the works, and I’m very, very excited about that. In the past, I feel like the NIKI universe has been very… I don’t want to say innocent, but green and youthful. And it is still that, but you can definitely expect to see and hear more maturity. A more mature sound. Elevation is the name of the game.

Photographs courtesy of Joan Gallo and Thomas Chou.

Stay tuned to Milk for more creatives to watch.

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