It’s only fitting that singer-songwriter Niia, who burst onto the music scene, all guns blazing, in 2007, does such a despairingly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” While still enrolled in Manhattan’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, she teamed up with Wyclef Jean on his hit single “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill),” appearing on stage with the music mogul at The David Letterman Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and MTV’s New Year’s Eve broadcast. The 24-year-old New Yorker has since branched out on her own, crafting a collection of introspective, dark, and startlingly original songs that will appear on her debut solo album, scheduled for release next year. With a soulful range reminiscent of Nina Simone’s, emotions as paper-thin and raw as Fiona Apple’s, and biting lyrics that channel everyone from Daria to Dede Truitt, Niia is an anomaly in contemporary music—neither preening pop princess nor counterfeit eccentric. In short, she’s the real deal.
BULLETT: Tell us about when you first realized your passion for music.
Niia: I guess I first became aware of what music meant to me in high school. I would skip classes and sit in the auditorium playing piano all day. My teachers were constantly looking for me. When they found me, I think they were just relieved I was playing Chopin and not smoking cigarettes.
One gets the impression that your sound is in constant dialogue with inspirations across other media—film, literature, fashion, folklore. What source material currently influences the music you make? I’ve always been drawn to Italian cinema. My mother was born in Italy, so I’m sure that has something to do with it. The plots are always so dramatic, yet they are presented and directed in subtle ways. I’m a very visual person, so films and images influence me musically more than anything. I tend to be drawn toward depressing or dark images for whatever reason, so films like Man Bites Dog and Buffalo ‘66 appeal to me as well as old horror movies. Anything mysterious makes me happy. My favorite book is probably [Elizabeth Kostova’s] The Historian, and when I’m not reading Agatha Christie or classics, it’s usually Anne Sexton or a biography.
How would you describe the sound you’re cultivating? It’s mellow at times but also desperate for answers.
There’s a darkness and an experimentation inherent in your songs that one doesn’t often find in much radio-friendly music. Is mainstream success something to which you aspire, and are there established musicians whose career paths you’d like to emulate? I grew up singing jazz standards mostly, so that accounts for the darkness and experimentation. Singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were singing songs that everyone knew, but they were injecting their fucked-up personal lives into the melodies—maybe even without entirely realizing it. I would love to achieve mainstream success, but at the same time I don’t want to water myself down musically, so it’s always a fine line.
You worked with Wyclef Jean for years before branching out on your own. What did you learn about the business from spending time with him, and what did that initial burst of success teach you about fame? Clef was the first person who was honest with me about the music industry. I’m lucky to have him as a mentor. There are too many crazy stories to tell. One of my new songs “Secrets of the Trade” is based on having the experience of a mentor.
Can you recall the first time you performed in front of an audience? Where were you, what did you sing, and how did it make you feel? I was at St. Joseph’s elementary school in a green dress singing “To Sir With Love” in a ’60s variety show. It was the fifth grade and I was the only one who didn’t lip synch. I threw up in the parking lot of Friendly’s for two hours afterward.
What is it about the jazz standards you perform that speaks to you? Jazz reminds me that I’m not alone.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for today’s aspiring musicians? Personally, the biggest hurdle is being honest with myself and with my audience. Exposing yourself to strangers isn’t easy. For other artists, I think longevity and staying relevant in a culture with a short attention span is the biggest challenge. You’ve performed on television, in front of huge audiences, and even in the presence of Björk. Who have you been most intimidated to sing in front of? I’m actually always a wreck singing karaoke. I’m also uncomfortable singing around people I know really well. I feel more at ease when singing in the presence of strangers or artists like Björk, Stevie Wonder, and Patti Smith. There’s a long history of artists of all kinds who’ve been romanticized for using substances to create their art. Do you think drugs help or hinder the creative process? I say whatever works. Most of my favorite artists, one could argue, were either geniuses or just junkies. There’s a fire in a barn.
Do you save Christina or Britney? I’d call Denis Leary and let him know.
Photos styled by Kate Lanphear, Photography by Jenna Elizabeth