Foundations: Niia

Foundations: Niia

Searching for her roots...

Niia has a deftness of touch that is absolutely devastating.

Striking neo-soul constructed with absolute care, her sparse arrangements have a kind of twilight feels to them.

Stylistically, you could place this Los Angeles based songwriter against FKA twigs or Banks, while there's a touch of Portishead in there, too.

A flurry of singles caught our attention, and - with a lot more to come - we've invited Niia to play a Clash Live event in London.

Ahead of this, we hooked up with Niia to explore the roots of her potent but hushed sound...

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Sade - 'Lovers Rock'

'Lovers Rock' was the fifth album by the English band Sade. I learned that the album was titled after a style of reggae music known as lovers rock from my mom.

I love everything about Sade. Every album. But this album felt. More romantic in sound and lyric content. It was seen as a departure from the band's previous use of jazz elements. Instead it pulled from R&B, soul music, folk, reggae to name a few.

I think what drew me to it was the album's production. It was so spare, with strong yet simple arrangements. Another thing that resonated with me was it felt like a concept album. The lyrics focused on both negative and positive sides of love on most of the songs. A subject I very heavily write about for my own work.

I feel my stomach in knots after I hear Sade sing. Her lyrics are powerful. Her voice both sad and soothing almost makes you want to be strong for her but you know she’s hurting. Whenever I write a ballad it’s hard not to think about Sade. I try to be direct and punch you right in the gut. Sade has this way about her where she can stay mysterious but expose us to her insides. The vulnerability wrapped in strength is debilitating and thats what sets her apart.

I also push myself to get rawer, more vulnerable anything to channel The Great Sade. 

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Diana Ross - 'Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings... Jazz and Blues'

This album makes me laugh. I actually got sent to the principal for listening to it during math class in high school. My mom didn’t know if she should be more upset that her 17 year old daughter was getting suspended or that she was listening to a live Diana Ross album. I just remember thinking Diana Ross was just so cool.

The album was recorded at the 975 seat Ritz Theatre in New York City in 1992. There were nineteen jazz standards on this album that all had been sung by Diana for the soundtrack of her award-winning film Lady Sings the Blues, which I wasn’t allowed to watch 'til I was older.

The band backing Diana includes jazz giants Roy Hargrove, Jon Faddis, and Ron Carter among many more. On this live album you could hear her stop the band mid-way and start it over because she didn’t like something. You could hear her laugh and tease the audience in between songs.

On one song she walks into the audience and I remember thinking, wow I wish I could be that comfortable with a crowd, directing a band, with my voice. Everything Diana just made you enjoy every second of it. I struggle with stage fright and I think I was truly captivated listening to Diana sing one of my favourite jazz standards completely fearless. Hearing mistakes, mic issues, glasses clanking was not only real, but in some way reassuring.

It taught me how live music has such an energy that can’t be stopped. You just have to go with it. Also the full orchestra arrangements make me swoon still.

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Miles Davis - 'Kind Of Blue'

This might sound dramatic but there really are no words for me to explain this album. Only that it changed my life and everyone should listen to it. It also has my favourite song in the entire world on it, 'Blue In Green'.

I remember thinking wow, that's what a musician strives to make in their career. 'Kind Of Blue' has been regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz record and one of the best albums of all time.

I don’t know what else to say..

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Marvin Gaye - 'The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye'

I am a fan of anything Marvin Gaye. But, I think his debut album 'The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye' really hits home for me.

It was released in 1961 and was the second long-playing album released by Motown Records. Some of the backstory of how this album came to be was extremely interesting to me. Shortly after signing to the label he began to clash with the musical direction. The label was used to recording R&B records for teenagers and Marvin wanted to go in a more adult direction. He idolised Nat King Cole and Ray Charles who had become famous for singing jazz and pop standards and wanted to follow in their footsteps. Rather than just R&B he felt he could add something else

. Gaye, once said he was told not to dance, also wanted to "sit on a stool and croon" rather than "shake my ass onstage" saying that his voice was what people paid attention to and not his dancing. After some back and forth Marvin was finally allowed to record an album of jazz standards with a compromise that he’d record a couple of songs with an R&B feel.

Being someone who would always rather sing a ballad standing still on stage I can identify with just wanted to sit and croon. All artists at some point feel pressure and influenced over what their music should sound like. I love that Marvin stuck to his guns.

This album isn’t just a straight jazz album. Why it's fascinating is Marvin wasn’t old like Nat King Cole, or Ray Charles so him being younger brought a different perspective and energy to it. The R&B influence and other genres Marvin invokes with his voice all came out. It truly is one of my favourite jazz albums and I recommend everyone to listen to it. You can hear Marvin still finding his identity as an artist and it’s beautiful.

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Nancy Ames - 'The Incredible Nancy Ames'

A few weeks into moving to LA I had become accustomed to spending most of my time alone in my newly rented cottage. I didn’t have many friends and eating alone became the norm. I got an invitation to go to Palm Springs to take some photos for a magazine by a girl I had only emailed with a few times and I decided to go.

I remember I pulled up to the most beautiful house I later learned was designed by a famous architect. I walked into an empty house and heard the most memorizing music. A record player in the corner of the living room was playing Nancy Ames. I had never heard of her before and I was under her spell.

An American folk singer and songwriter, most famous for being a regular on the American version of the television series That Was the Week That Was. The entire weekend we listened to only this record. It was very sexy and had these beautiful rhythmic patterns that carried Nancy's light but present vocals that were truly original.

I loved that she was a folk singer with a partially latin repertoire. With every song, I fell deeper and deeper under her spell. After leaving what felt like a dream weekend I spent weeks trying to find this album and couldn’t. It was only released on vinyl and to this day I’m still on the hunt. It was an album that caught my attention and has cast a spell forever.

The song 'Angel Cake & Wine' is one of my favourite songs I’ve ever heard in my life.

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Catch Niia at Clash Live in London's The Curtain on February 26th.

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