In Conversation: Niia

"You have to think about how you stand out..."

Matching R&B grooves with silky, jazzy, pop-tinged vocals, Niia has character and musical dexterity in abundance.

The LA based artist originally grew up in Boston before moving to New York to study music at the world-renowned New School. However, Niia dropped out when a chance studio encounter with rapper Wyclef Jean led on to her joining him on his upcoming tour.

Her debut album I came in 2017 with its follow up La Bella Vita arriving three years later. 'If I Should Die' is Niia’s latest body of work due for release on June 4th and features several collaborations including Khruangbin’s Laura Lee on its stand-out track ‘Not Up for Discussion’.

Niia’s proud Italian heritage seeps through her personality. But with her classical, jazz, pop, funk and R&B leanings, her musical influences span across various countries and cultures to form a sensuous style that’s evocatively smooth. We chat to the artist, multi-instrumentalist, producer and director about competitive people in the music business, her new music and how she likes to live behind what she describes as a “mysterious façade”.

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Hey Niia. How are things over in sunny LA?

It’s going good here. I think we all forgot that it’s sunny every day here because we’ve been inside. I’m usually always in studios too, so I have no sense of time or sunshine. I’ve been trying to go out and walk more and feel the sun on my face.

What kind of records were you listening to when you grew up in Boston? I heard your mum introduced you to Annie Lennox?

I give my mum most of the credit for having decent taste in music. She was a classical pianist and her mother was an opera singer, so there was a lot of classical in my house. Her discography was like Sting, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, Sade, Sinead O’Connor. My friends didn’t listen to any of that, so it’s funny that that was my introduction to pop. I still think now that they are some of the best artists out there for songwriting. I just remember hearing Annie Lennox’s voice and being like ‘holy shit’.

Then jazz too, I just became so enamoured by it. At first, I was like ‘what is this?’ but everyone was singing the same songs which was cool. Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald would sing the same stuff but sound totally different, and that made me understand how important finding your voice and being yourself can transform anything.

I read that you were classically trained as a pianist. What effect has this had an effect on the way you view music today? Do you still ever recite some Chopin pieces?

I was once a classical pianist I’d say, I’m really rusty! I’d like to say that I have some classical influence because it’s so romantic. When I’m in a bad mood, I’ll definitely still play some Debussy or Beethoven. Everyone thinks classical is very traditional, but Chopin and Debussy – they’re nuts. Some of those chords are very jazzy or just weird. Whenever I’m stuck on music, I’ll always play some classical stuff because it’s really out there and super weird.

You dropped out of New School in New York after you met Wyclef Jean. Do you think artists today have a better chance of making a career on their own terms as opposed to graduating in music?

You have to take the opportunities when they come, which is why I dropped out. When I went on tour with Wyclef, that was like a pop star bootcamp. Learning from videos on Youtube might get you pretty far, but if you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t study other people, it’s not going to last forever. Nowadays, everyone wants to fast-track things and just go online to be famous and I’m all for that. But I guess I feel lucky because I did have the training, and the one thing I do find being in the industry is that no-one necessarily knows the theory or the craft of anything. It’s all good to go for it, but I think it’s important to know your craft. It’s like that rule: learn all the rules then forget them.

What inspired your move to LA?

I think LA was just a calling to me; there was more producers and writers in the genres that I wanted to work with over there. But honestly, you can get kind of stuck in a circle of your friends and I realised that if I’m going to really go for this, I have to separate myself from my friends and be somewhere else to just focus. – So, I left everyone, moved here alone and just started working with people. I needed a page-turn. It was a transition though, because I am not a west coast type of person. The sunshine and everything, I was like ‘I can’t do this’. It took me a while to make the transition from a masochistic New Yorker who’d be like ‘I can only write when I’m depressed’.

In what ways has your music progressed from La Bella Vita to your new EP, 'If I Should Die'?

‘La Bella Vita’ was this grand, romantic thing. I wanted these big arrangements, lots of vocals, lots of production, so there was this cinematic feel. I grew up with Italian cinema and I love all this kind of stuff. But I realised, sometimes it’s cool to be a little more stripped back and a bit more undone. With this EP, I just wanted to leave it as it is. I think I was always resisting keeping things simple because I always wanted to make this big thing. I guess there’s also this insecurity about it sounding too indie or too bedroom but I was like ‘you know what… I don’t think it needs anything else’. It’s made me learn about knowing when to restrain things. If a song sounds good as it is on the piano, it’s a good song. It’s finding that balance between simplicity and still feeling complete.

Is there anything you’re hoping to communicate about yourself in particular through this EP?

I tried to really focus on life and the things I’ve been questioning as I’m getting older. ‘Not Up For Discussion’ is all about how I think life is a joke and it doesn’t teach me anything. Calling the EP ‘If I Should Die’, it was actually me thinking ‘what happens if I die?’ you know? I’m still talking about some of my bad habits but more from my perspective versus what it means to the guy or someone else involved. It’s less of worrying about what other people think and more about what I think and what I worry about.

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As well as crafting your own sonic identity, is it also important for you to create your own visual persona as an artist and director?

We live in such a visual age, sometimes the visuals are even more important than the music. It’s different when you’re a musician compared to a director because there’s so many factors involved that go into visuals. Even if I know they look right in my head, they might not always look the same when you play them out. I’m still getting my footing but I definitely think it’s important to show people what you want to do visually and it can embellish the music too.

You’ve collaborated with a number of artists in your career. Do you see making music as a communal experience as opposed to a solitary experience?

My last album was all me. There weren’t really any features, and I kind of got sick of myself to be completely honest. I kept going to the same chords, the same melodies, the same words, but when you trust other artists or writers, they can bring something to the table you don’t always see. It’s about finding the right artist that can respect the idea and take it somewhere better. There are so many collab features that just feel so static, like they’re phoned in. They’re not even friends, you know? I didn’t want that. I’m really lucky that the artists I worked with cared and they wrote really interesting things. If you do a collaboration well, it can be magical.

What was it like to collaborate with Laura Lee from Khruangbin?

Oh my god, she is amazing. We had a meeting years ago and I was so nervous because I was going to go on tour with Khruangbin, but then they went off and toured for like a million years. We’ve always kind of been friends, and when I was finishing off one of my songs for the EP, I knew it needed something else – not a featured vocalist, but a featured instrumentalist. She’s just magic; so chilled, so beautiful and can fucking play. But you’d be surprised how not-friendly everyone is in the industry…

That’s interesting. Have you come across a lot of competitive people in music so far then?

I mean, maybe it’s me being kind of insecure, weird or socially awkward, but it’s a tough industry. If you don’t stab someone and jump on a table, someone will take your place. I’m not a really competitive person, but the industry definitely breeds this subconscious fear that tells you you’re not enough or someone’s going to beat you. And in my genres like R&B, jazz and pop, everyone’s doing the same thing. You have to think about how you stand out, how you work with people without them getting weird about it. Also, why would I compete with Laura Lee? She’s a G, she’s an icon. Just share the love.

You said in an interview four years ago that, “I miss the time when artists had a bit of mystique about them.” Do you think things have improved or gotten worse since? What role does social media have to play in this?

It’s so ironic because I hate attention and being in things; I always thought my work should just speak for itself. But people now really do want to see everything and know everything. I felt very overwhelmed by it, and even with my management telling me I’ve got to post reels and do all this shit behind the scenes, I’m like ‘can’t I just be enough?’ – I like to live behind this mysterious façade. But I’m realising that when I do post something more undone, people really respond to it. It’s doing what you feel is comfortable, but I do think it’s getting worse though. Nothing is actually interesting anymore because there’s so much content. I wish I could just not be videotaping everything, but at the same time I’m trying to embrace it and it does feel fun.

Are you any closer to achieving your goal of setting up creative arts camps?

Not yet, but that’s one of my priorities this year. Even just getting kids into a field to write – start simple and then build from there. My goal is to be able to get everyone to express themselves and do things, because a lot of arts programmes are getting cut in schools which is fucked up. I know that I wouldn’t be as comfortable or as confident in myself if I hadn’t been exposed to arts programmes or just being with other weirdo kids where you realise you’re not weird, you’re just an arty kid. I’m still friends with some of the kids from those programmes over twenty years ago.

What’s in store for the future?

Right now, because I’m tired of myself, I’m working on an ambient sounding meditation album – no more words, I have nothing to sing about right now! I need a little palette cleanser, and this will also be a challenge for someone like me who’s also a music student because there’s no rules with ambient. It’s a wild genre.

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'If I Should Die' EP is out now.

Words: Jamie Wilde

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