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 conservatory—among the country's most demanding, intimate programs.
Like most industrious perfectionists, Niia continued on to a practical career in music, crooning jingles for commercials—a 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 work—a 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 I—an appropriate album title—the rising artist finds strength in vulnerability, reflecting on her own experiences with love—both 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: You’re originally an East Coaster. How’d 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 I’ll go for five months.” Then I went and never came back. I’ve 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 I’m such an East Coaster and it’s such a whole new experience—you’re writing with palm trees outside and pomegranate trees. There’s 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 wasn’t expecting. Being so transparent wasn’t 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. I’m not a very public person—I don’t like talking about myself. I usually hide being my lyrics, so it’s funny that I’m talking about myself and what’s going on with me.
How does I compare to your breakout EP, Generation Blue?
Sonically, it’s 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 risks—I get compared to Sade a lot, and I love her and love her voice, but I also grew up singing torch songs, like Shirley Bassey’s Bond themes. I wanted to showcase my voice a bit more and my range.
Generation Blue is the whole irony of sad girl problems—we’re all depressed, but we don’t have any real reason to be. I explored that, but I think my outlook is sarcastic and not glass half-empty. I’m 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, I’m 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 it’s like, "This going really well, what the fuck’s your deal? Something is going to go wrong, so I’m 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 she’s doing the right shit to protect herself, but she’s totally not. “Sideline” is me getting a lit more like, “Dude what’s the deal? I’m not going to wait around and I'm pissed off.” sometimes when I hear that song, I can’t believe I wrote it. It’s a bratty little diva moment. I wrote the chorus with Mikky Ekko and wanted it to be a modern-day jazz standard.
What was the process like for developing your sound?
It’s still evolving, but love old music. I come from jazz, classical and soul music. It’s hard to find ways to pay tribute to that or write that way when that’s not really what’s going on in today’s music. Even singer/songwriter music—just piano and voice—the way you write a song is so different than how people used to do it. So it’s a challenge of finding that balance, where it won’t just feel just retro. I think it’s important to hybrid genres—a 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 it’s from now.
Like your music, your visuals are also very cinematic.
My mom’s from Italy, so I grew up watching really inappropriate Italian movies way too young, and Italian directors… man they go to the jugular with visuals—so 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 novels—kind of this weird hybrid of the future meets the past.
I didn’t want to be in any visuals at first. I’m a very shy person, but all my favorite female artists,—Annie Lennox, Sade, Fiona Apple, Carly Simon—you 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 I’m going through. I’m sharing who I am, because I didn’t 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 I’d 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 wasn’t the focus. My family is all musicians—they come from the craft side, not the showmanship side. They were like, “Work on your craft. Get better on skill and technique. It’s 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, called “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill).” What’s 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 don’t 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 job—you can make your own songs and be a star.”
The whole concept of being a star didn’t 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.” It’s 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, “Who’s this big girl on the radio? What is she about?” I didn’t 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.