Niia on Her Love-Centric Concept Album: 'I'
Niia will be the first one to admit that I‘s concept was fairly accidental—love often is—but after laying the cards out on the table, it was all but impossible to ignore. She’s incredibly vulnerable, each track revealing layers of emotion, like amped up soul that got a boast from famed producer Robin Hannibal’s (yeah, the Robin Hannibal of Kendrick Lamar and Rhye fame) expert mastery of space and sound. Her brand of feminism is the 100% raw, real kind: not holding up a facade of strength but rather tearing it down, to reveal the true foundation of what’s left behind.
We sat down with Niia just before I‘s release to talk expectations, individuality, and the female perspective in 2017; check ’em both (the album and the interview) below.
Let’s talk I. What was your creative process like for the album?
It took a lot longer than I expected honestly, it’s been around two years in the making. I really wanted to work with just one producer and keep like a set team and make a full body of work, as opposed to all these different sounds and different writers. I worked with a few writers but one main producer for consistency. But yeah, we’ve been working on this for years kind of. I wanted to add some jazz elements, some old stuff, but still keep it relevant and new.
And is there a thread that ties the songs together, or not so much?
Kind of. I didn’t go into it making a concept album, but somehow it just kind of happened. It revealed itself and it’s pretty much about me falling in love and being a crazy girlfriend and not knowing how to handle it.
I think everyone can relate to that.
Which I’m learning and that’s cool! Initially I wanted it to be this strong female album. Ironically it is that, because it’s a female perspective, but I didn’t think the content would be about jealousy, insecurities, and things I wasn’t comfortable talking about. I just really couldn’t not talk about it because I was like, “there is a photo of a chick on your phone,” you know, just silly things girls go through when they are with someone now. It’s cool, people are really responding to it like, “he has my passwords but I don’t have his” and shit like that.
I feel like part of being a strong female is being vulnerable and breaking this facade of constant “strength”.
It took me a minute; I usually hide behind my music because I’m pretty introverted and shy. But for this album I got hit pretty hard with the love stick. Sometimes I hear my songs now and I’m like, “Oh God,” but you’re right, people like when you’re vulnerable and honest. So I was just like, “This is what I’m going through.”
People definitely like to connect with a real human!
What was it like working with Robin Hannibal?
It was great. We’ve worked together now for a while. I just think he’s one of the best producers out there. He reminds me of one of those old like Quincy Jones producers; he has the sensibility that some of these new producers don’t and he knows how to play beautiful records, knows how to score music but is also Danish and hip so he knows what’s cool. He’s always up with new music before I know anything, like we both love old music but want to keep it fresh and he brought that to the table.
Are you prepared for people’s reactions or nervous at all?
Yeah. I mean come from a pretty disciplined background with my mom, who’s a pianist. I would have piano recitals and do a really good job but my mom would be like, “you missed that B flat.” So I’m used to critique in a way and I went to an all-girls Catholic school growing up, so I’m used to mean behavior.
So you have a tough skin!
Yeah, I’m pretty used to it. I’m really sensitive but with music it’s so subjective. If they don’t like it, there isn’t anything I can do about it. That’s where I’m at right now. I always want to improve and get better but I don’t know, it doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it to. But who knows, that might change with this project [Laughs]. It’s also that some artists fit in more and others don’t and I think certain artists like myself have a tougher time, because I’m not always present and public all the time and I don’t explain myself all the time so it comes off as complex and hard for people to get it all the way. So, I’m used to a slow build and I don’t really expect a giant pop success. I like slow and steady for people to think, “I’m not sure about this,” then keep visiting it, and become core fans.
What first drew you to music? Have you always wanted to be a musician?
That’s such a weird story. In my family I’m one of many singers and musicians, so on like Christmas Eve we do a “Star Search” at my house, it’s so weird [Laughs]. In high school I was in a jazz band because I love music and that’s what everyone did in my house. When it was time to go to college I was like, “uh, that doesn’t sound fun” so I went to music conservatory instead. I didn’t really realize there was an actual music industry—I mean I knew there were artists on the radio, but I didn’t know how it worked. I was in such a jazz bubble at my conservatory that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life after, then people told me I could be an artist and actually get paid for doing what you love. I started to dip my toes in and met a few people that helped along the way, but I’ve taken a long time to jump full feet because it’s really intimidating and competitive. Also, you can get lost easily and I’m not the type to just stand on the table to sing for people. I think it took me a little longer to finally feel comfortable, even going for it because you see people die like Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. It makes me scared a little. I’m a little older than most new artists but I feel really happy about it now because I feel really confident about it and what I want and my label is like, “Cool, we don’t have to make you into something else.” So yeah, it happened organically to get into it.
As an artist, how would you define or describe your sound? What makes it stand out?
I mean I always hope because of the way I sing, my voice. I studied jazz voice initially and once I realized I can’t sing on pop stuff. I started wondering, “What is my own music?” I wanted to really curate my voice. I think it’s really important to find your sound opposed to production because production can always change. If I want to do a reggae album some year then people would say, “Oh, that’s Niia doing reggae.” So, I’d say my voice, but then I found Robbin, who’s pairing it with a production that sounds lovely. It reminds you of the past but feels like the present, like Sade, and jazz stuff.
What conservatory did you go to?
The New School. That’s also how I got into fashion because my roommate was like, “No, I can’t be seen with you” [Laughs]. They were all fashion majors and I was like the nerdy jazz vocalist. But it’s cool because I really learned about fashion from a positive perspective because it can be so competitive, intimidating, and mean. But music and fashion have gone hand and hand for years so they really helped me curate who I was and how does that translate visually. It’s a visual age; the way I look and my videos are almost more important than songs these days. And it helps resonate, like people might think I look cool and want to listen to my music or they might hate my music but they like the way my styling is. It was cool, it’s like I got crash course in what to wear.
What’s in the pipeline for the rest of 2017? What’s your long term vision?
I’m hoping to go on a tour after my album comes out. The goal is to make more albums for sure. I called it I because I was hoping there would be a 2, 3, 4. I also want to keep hustling, to make creative arts camps for kids, and get involved more in the arts for younger people. If I didn’t go to those camps I would never of made it. Just because some people don’t have those opportunities or even know about them, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have them. I want to write a musical, I want to do my James Bond show again…lots of things.
Images courtesy of Niia
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