On a humid Thursday in June I sat down with Niia, an upcoming jazz-pop singer based in L.A. on a back porch on the west side of Chicago . She was in Chicago for a week of recording at SoundScape Studio, working on new music at a clip of a song/day. There’s something that immediately catches your attention when you first meet Niia, she looks like a fashion model, she speaks with an authority and has a zen, in the moment presence about her. A lot of interviews start off slow, with artists becoming more comfortable and opening up towards the end, but with Niia as soon as we sat down we were able to go in depth. She comes from a musical family and has a deep understanding of music, her sound is intentional but she isn’t afraid to experiment. We talked about her influences and her process, people having sex to her music, how she got where she is now, where she wants to go, and how she plans on getting there. Check out the full interview below.
rubyhornet: How did today go?
Niia: Great! We wrote a whole song, which is nuts. We’ve written a song a day, which doesn’t seem like a lot but it is when you’re trying to write songs that you want to use. It’s great because a lot of the writer’s I’m working with are also artists, so they’re also really good singers. It’s nice having them demo some stuff vocally because they will do something that I wouldn’t do, and then it’d be cool for me to do it. I would never think to do that, but then they do it, and I’m like, ‘tight i like that. But then that’s the worry, having another great singer demo something but then I go home and demo and i’m like damn, it doesn’t sound as good as his voice. But today was great.
rubyhornet: Usually how long does it take for you to write a song?
Niia: It really depends. For example, some of my biggest songs I started 5 years before they came out. I put them in a folder on a desktop and they sat there for years until someone asked me to send them some demos. I had nothing else to send so I sent old ones and we re-worked it, rewrote parts, changed things. It can take years to complete a song, but it can also take a day to record a good demo.
rubyhornet: Why did you choose to record in Chicago specifically? Do you think that the location of the studio affects your music?
Niia: I think it definitely does, it shouldn’t but it does. And it depends on the studio too. If you’re at a beautiful big studio that’s a famous one, like West Lake in LA that Michael Jackson was known to be at, there’s this weird pressure. I think it does, you pretend that it doesn’t though. For me, I feel more like, ‘alright, this is where Michael Jackson made Off The Wall. Let’s go! Something special is gonna come out of it,’ and nothing good comes out that day. It’s more like what you make of it. It’s weird, yes and no.
rubyhornet: Is that a reason why you chose Chicago?
Niia: I chose Chicago for the writers. I think there are some really good musicians and writers and artists in Chicago right now that I really love, so I wanted to get out of LA to be honest and go on their turf, and pass the ball to them to lead. I feel like sometimes artists eat their own ego too much, and I’m a little sick of myself. It’s nice to get inspiration from other people. And there’s such good food here that I was like, ‘I’ll go there for a minute.’
rubyhornet: What do you do to prepare for a recording session?
Niia: When I started writing my first album that was more: be open, try everything. That was cool, but I also then ended up with a bunch of songs that were in all different styles, written from very different perspectives. It was a little too disorganized, but you have to do that before you find your lane, or which one sounds the best with your voice. Now for my second time around, I know what I want and what has worked. I can challenge myself vocally, sonically, and in my production where I feel my weaknesses are and try to build on it. I know what I do well, and now it’s like, ‘what can I do better?’ and where are those writers and those producers that will take me over that goal line? As opposed to saying, ‘I don’t know, let’s see what happens?’ I don’t want to waste my time anymore, I know that I don’t want to make a country album – nothing against country, maybe someday I will – but I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing, just better. It’s hard though because you have to pre-write in a way, so I think ‘what do I want to write about? What do I want this to sound like?’ I find other songs that I really like and I make an inspiration playlist or a bunch of free write that I can pull from lyrically. I have a bunch of free written lyrics and things that I feel are the direction.
rubyhornet: Was I your first time in the studio?
Niia: Yes and no, when I was younger, to make money in New York I was singing on jingles. So I was in studios recording stuff for Subway commercials, singing about tomato sauce. I was always really comfortable in recording studios, but not for my own project. When I moved to LA it was time to really do something for real, I had to say something and define myself. There’s not a lot of bedroom studios in LA, but people will record in their bed. You can kind of record anywhere, my first album I recorded in my house, in our home studio. I was in and out of little studios and also in my home.
rubyhornet: Did you do bedroom recordings before that?
Niia: Yes, there were definitely some times when I was literally in my bed with my midi keyboard and I could just sense that my roommate was thinking, ‘You’ll never make it, you can’t even get out of your bed” but I was like, “It’s all good though, it sounds good”. It’s so amazing because you can do anything, you have your little inbox, so it was just play time.
rubyhornet: How was that transition from your bedroom?
Niia: It was hard. With mic technique and being in studios can be really intimidating. You feel all this pressure. It felt that there was an expectation in a sense, signing to a record label and everything that comes with that. Trying to be a team player while also staying true to your own vision while also not knowing 100% what’s right. No one knows what makes a hit song or what makes an artist resonate. So you have to follow your gut while also listening to people because it might be good advice.
rubyhornet: How does your jazz background influence your sound?
Niia: When I was younger I started classical piano. My mom was a classical pianist, and I loved it, but then there’s a year when it gets really hard and you don’t want to practice, so I started fucking around and my mom was like, ‘Why don’t you try jazz piano?’ It was still structured and challenging so she was like, ‘We’ll do jazz.’ So I started on jazz piano, and back then I was super shy, and one of the exercises my teacher had was to sing along. My mom tells this story where one day he pulled her aside and said, ‘Niia’s a good piano player, but she’s a really good singer. I’m gonna put her in my jazz ensemble group.’ I was singing a little, but it wasn’t performing. My whole family sings, so it’s wasn’t like, ‘Niia’s a star!” My mom gave me a Sarah Vaughan record when I first started jazz and I fell in love with her tone, and also the fact that all these women in jazz were all singing the same songs, but they all sounded so different. Billie Holiday sounds nothing like Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Sinatra. All of these female chanteuses were singing the same material but making them their own, so I fell in love and went down a deep hole of studying jazz vocals. Then in high school I felt like I didn’t want to play field hockey and listen to NSYNC all the time so I was really into jazz.
rubyhornet: What do you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
Niia: I feel like these days everyone is trying to make things about themselves, I feel like just sharing justifies bad music. I never got into music to talk about myself, it was a portal for me to express myself. Instead of just writing emo stuff in my diary, I could get it out singing other people’s songs. But then when I became my own artist people were like, ‘we want to know who you are, people want to know.’ I thought, ‘really, I can’t just sing and have a good voice?’ I realized that you can’t, people really want to know about the artist and what is honest and what isn’t. The more that I’m being transparent, people resonate more with my music, which kind of terrifies me. But it’s the same with the artists I really like, I want to know everything about them. So I get it, it’s just really hard. Figuring out what I want them to take away – I could never believe that people have sex to my music. So I don’t know. I guess I want people to know that I’m being honest and that I’m trying to challenge myself, so I hope they see that. Because now everybody says everything, there’s nothing that hasn’t been sung about. There are so many artists, everything is so oversaturated. The only thing I can do is just be myself and find a way to just be me and then automatically that will make me different than other female artists.
rubyhornet: What’s been happening since you released I?
Niia: A lot. When you go for it on the industry side, you psych yourself up and then it’s really hard. You see these people that look like they blow-up overnight, and it’s never that. And if it is, it’s because she’s worked very hard or someone championed her. We’re living in this age where you can see everyone’s progress and cool shit, so it’s really hard to make excuses for yourself or just become super depressed. There’s no ceiling to what you can achieve, so I’ve realized I need to set goals for myself of what’s most important so I can kind of rationalize the reality of things, or else you can float on and really feel like shit about yourself.
And when you’re really going for it, it’s a really competitive thing and you have to remind yourself what’s important. Making timeless music, it’s not about getting a million hits on the first day. I also think I’m also trusting myself more and picking the writers that I think I’m going to make something cool with and also really trying to improve. I think when an artist thinks they know everything, that’s when their career is over. In this process, I wanted to be a team player and compromise a lot, but also it wasn’t that hard. I think I know how to make music. And I have a hardcore Italian mother, who when I would come off of my piano recitals as a kid would say things like, ‘You missed that B flat.’ So I’m a good critic of myself. I know what I want to do better this time, and what I want to try and where I think I need to go with really exposing myself. It’s hard because you have to believe in yourself and also take risks, which sounds so cliche but it’s hard to do both at the same time. You have to be certain that you’ve got it, but also know that it might not work and it’s okay. And just be happy, it could be so much worse, I feel like it’s always life or death. I’m just making some cool jazzy pop so I should just relax. Smoke more weed is definitely a mantra for me this year, just chill out Niia. So yeah, that’s what I’ve been up to.