Niia Lets Her Guard Down on Jazz-Pop Debut – Out Magazine

Posted: May 5, 2017 at 8:47 pm


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Niia's debut album, I, is an excercise in control, both maintaining and relinquishing it altogether.

Born in Boston to an English major father and pianist mother, the 28-year-old singer/songwriter was raised in private education, diligently honing her craft as a musician and eventually studying in the New School's competitive jazz conservatoryamong the country's most demanding, intimate programs.

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Like most industrious perfectionists, Niia continued on to a practical career in music, crooning jingles for commercialsa job that paid the bills in NYC's Lower East Side, but failed to foster Niia's underexplored artist. After being discovered by Wyclef Jean, who was recording in the same studio as her one day, Niia's voice became part of his viral 2009 single, "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)," and ultimately pushed her head first onto the path of becoming a star.

Photography: Jimmy Fontaine

But before Niia could fully enter the spotlight as a solo musician, she needed to learn to be vulnerable with her worka process of renouncing the control and privacy that defined her life growing up. Her 2014 breakout EP, Generation Blue, saw Niia defining her signature modern-classic sound, but hiding behind guarded lyrics about everyone but herself. Now on Ian appropriate album titlethe rising artist finds strength in vulnerability, reflecting on her own experiences with loveboth pained and empowered.

On the album's lead single, "Hurt You First," Niia reflects on the anxiety of a freshly developing relationship, as she warns a lover she'll "be the one to make him cry." Here, Niia's brutally honest, but her innate desire for control is still apparent, with flawless, fine-tuned vocals and a lyrical power-trip. "Sideline" is when the artist fully lets her guard down, delivering a chorus that edges closer to crying than singing: "I'm sick of all this trying, while I watch you drift further away," she wails, ultimately admitting defeat.

We recently sat down with Niia in NYC to discuss her debut album, I, out today. Listen to the full LP and learn more about the singer/songwriter's jazz-pop breakout, below.

OUT: Youre originally an East Coaster. Howd you decide to move to Los Angeles?

Niia: The industry is out in LA, and there were a lot of writers and producers I wanted to work with, so I put all my shit in storage and I was like, Oh Ill go for five months. Then I went and never came back. Ive lived there for four years, which is crazy. I think I was a little done with New York, needed a change and wanted to take my career to the next level.

How has California influenced your music?

I was a little hesitant about being in California because Im such an East Coaster and its such a whole new experienceyoure writing with palm trees outside and pomegranate trees. Theres a whole change of being an artist in completely different environments, and on top of that, I fell in love so hard and so fast that everything was hitting me at once. I wanted my album to be this really bad ass strong feminist thing and it ended up being about me being a crazy girlfriend and dealing with all my issues. Ironically, I think I did achieve being this strong female voice, but in a way I wasnt expecting. Being so transparent wasnt what I thought would happen.

I'd argue your music finds strength in being so transparent...

I was sick of the sad girl and wanted to be a positive influence to young girls, like, yeah, it sucks when you fall in love and they cheat on you, but you have to have some self-irony. Talking about it is important. Honestly, it just all came out. Im not a very public personI dont like talking about myself. I usually hide being my lyrics, so its funny that Im talking about myself and whats going on with me.

How doesIcompare to your breakout EP,Generation Blue?

Sonically, its still similar because I worked with the same producer, Robin Hannibal, for both. I love his production because he has this nostalgic old sensibility, but also these modern elements that make it feel fresh and timeless. Content-wise and vocally, I wanted to take a couple risksI get compared to Sade a lot, and I love her and love her voice, but I also grew up singing torch songs, like Shirley BasseysBondthemes. I wanted to showcase my voice a bit more and my range.

Generation Blue is the whole irony of sad girl problemswere all depressed, but we dont have any real reason to be. I explored that, but I think my outlook is sarcastic and not glass half-empty. Im a very pensive person, so I was like, I fell in love and it hit me on the head. It definitely took on a more personal narrative, whereas on Generation Blue, I was talking about what everyone else in my world was going through. This new album is like, Oh, Im being a little selfish here.

"Hurt You First" was the lead single off I. Why was this a proper first introduction?

Hurt You First is kind of like chapter one before a relationship, where its like, "This going really well, what the fucks your deal? Something is going to go wrong, so Im going to sabotage it first." This is the first thing I felt when I fell in love, like this is too good to be true. I have to blow it up.

You released "Sideline" next...

Sideline kept going with the same narrative as Hurt You First, where she thinks shes doing the right shit to protect herself, but shes totally not. Sideline is me getting a lit more like, Dude whats the deal? Im not going to wait around and I'm pissed off. sometimes when I hear that song, I cant believe I wrote it. Its a bratty little diva moment. I wrote the chorus with Mikky Ekko and wanted it to be a modern-day jazz standard.

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What was the process like for developing your sound?

Its still evolving, but love old music. I come from jazz, classical and soul music. Its hard to find ways to pay tribute to that or write that way when thats not really whats going on in todays music. Even singer/songwriter musicjust piano and voicethe way you write a song is so different than how people used to do it. So its a challenge of finding that balance, where it wont just feel just retro. I think its important to hybrid genresa combination of influences and references. I love cinematic movies and scores, so I think strings and giving it this overwhelming score-like feeling in some moments was really important to me. It was challenging to the find the production that matches my vocal style, because my voice doesn't really sound like its from now.

Like your music, your visuals are also very cinematic.

My moms from Italy, so I grew up watching really inappropriate Italian movies way too young, and Italian directors man they go to the jugular with visualsso extreme, so dramatic and so violent. I think it really shaped how important visuals are to me. My visual is a bit more stark, severe and modern, but I think that helps the overall music feel more fresh. I love clean lines, sci-fi films and old romance novelskind of this weird hybrid of the future meets the past.

I didnt want to be in any visuals at first. Im a very shy person, but all my favorite female artists,Annie Lennox, Sade, Fiona Apple, Carly Simonyou can see them when you think of them. This is my coming out of my shell to be honest with my fans and talk more about who I am and what Im going through. Im sharing who I am, because I didnt want to nor did I think anyone really cared.

Have you always been shy?

When I was younger, I was really shy and have horrible stage fright, so Id sing with my back to my family and hide what was inside. I went to a really rigid private school that had arts, but it wasnt the focus. My family is all musiciansthey come from the craft side, not the showmanship side. They were like, Work on your craft. Get better on skill and technique. Its not about performance.

I remember coming to New York and going to the New School and kids had green hair and were smoking in front of their moms I was like, Whoa, where am I? I was like, This is so cool. I can be my weird art nerd self. I went to New School to the jazz conservatory, but I got placed in the Parsons dorms, so all my best friends are fashion snobs.

Your first big break was through a song with Wyclef Jean, calledSweetest Girl (Dollar Bill).Whats the story behind that collaboration?

I moonlighted as a jingle singer, singing silly songs for commercials. Right place, right time, I was in the same studio as Wyclef Jean and the guy who was supposed to do my session blew me off. Wyclef finally came out and was like, What are you here for? This is my studio. Why dont you come check out my session? It was the first time I had been in a real beautiful huge mainstream studio. I played him a little song on the piano and sang and he explained to me, You could do this for your jobyou can make your own songs and be a star.

The whole concept of being a star didnt make any sense to me, so I was really lucky he let me sing a little piece on one of his big songs. I got to tour with him and see what being a star is like without it having to be about me. I was like, I want to try and do this. Its taken me a long time to jump in because it was a little overwhelming being on a big song so quickly and having all these labels be like, Whos this big girl on the radio? What is she about? I didnt know what I was about yet and had to take time to get stoned with my friends and start living. It took a long time.

When you listen to I in full,what do you hope it sounds like?

I want it to be like, youre a little tipsy on the beach at night and theres a warm breeze and the sun sets and it gets a little darker, stranger, and weirder, but still very romantic. Theres some bitchy moments on the album, which is cool, but youre still at the party and nothing has taken the turn for the worse, reallyyoure just starting to notice whos in the crowd.

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Niia Lets Her Guard Down on Jazz-Pop Debut - Out Magazine

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May 5th, 2017 at 8:47 pm

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