No one knows exactly how many realizations Kylie Jenner had in 2016, but apparently one was that she likes jazz – judging by a video she dropped late last year featuring the music of up-and-coming singer and pianist Niia. With her music school background and an eclectic, understated sound that incorporates Danish pop and 90s soul, Niia is a breath of fresh air – and a left turn for Jenner, known to primarily bump rap and hip-hop in the background of her Snapchats.
“She picked the song herself,” says Niia (pronounced ny-uh), a glamazonian, pony-tailed 28-year-old rocking all-black threads. “I was like, ‘What?’ [‘Last Night in Los Feliz’] is not a song she would normally choose. Everyone was like, ‘What’s this song?’ and I was like, ‘It’s me!’”
With the release of her debut album, I, Niia needs less and less of an introduction. Jon Caramanica of the New York Times called the record “majestic,” and a display of “millennial romantic angst.” But Niia never aspired to be the voice of a generation. “When I was little, I was never like, ‘I want to be a big star,’” she admits. “To me, being a singer meant you go to school and then you probably become a music teacher.”
But music school didn’t go according to plan, and after dropping out, Niia took to L.A. “You can always go back and get your degree – I’ll be that weird old lady with long hair in the vocal major class in a couple years,” jokes the Massachusetts native. “This industry is so youth-oriented and you should take opportunities when they come.”
Despite Niia’s thoughtful, refined delivery in song, she tends to be more off-the-cuff in life, like when she went on tour with Wyclef Jean after appearing on his sugary mid-2000s bop “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)“. “It all happened way too fast,” she told Vogue.com. But her move to Los Angeles paid off – both professionally and personally. It was there that she met Danish record producer Robin Hannibal – one half of the enigmatic dream-pop duo Rhye – who helped her crystalize her genre-bending sound, beginning on the 2014 EP Generation Blue. Around the time she moved, Niia also began a new relationship – a convergence of events that would inspire the album I, in which, unlike Adele (whose music famously reflects on romances past), Niia sings about her current relationships, flaws and all. “Falling in love is really shitty, to be honest with you, so I focus on the hard parts of falling in love, like being dissatisfied or jealous or insecure.” says the singer. “[But] we’re still together. I think it would be hard to go on tour and sing all these songs if we weren’t.”
With searing tracks like “Constantly Dissatisfied,” the record is, like any so-called angsty millennial, confessional. But, as Niia admits, that’s not in her nature: “I’m talking about things I, one, have never talked about, and two, would definitely not want anyone to know.” For “Sideline,” a song about vying for a lover’s undivided attention, Niia recruited the help of queen of catharsis Jazmine Sullivan. “I was like, if I’m going to lose to another woman, she’s going to have to be the most badass chick, that that’s Jazmine Sullivan,” Niia says of the duet, the inspiration for which wasn’t entirely autobiographical. “I was watching one of those channels where it’s all old videos from the 90s, and ‘The Boy is Mine’ by Monica and Brandy came on, and I was like, what if I do something like a modern day version of the diva duet?”
While she may take cues from previous generations, this jazz singer is anything but behind the times. “I wanted to give the idea [for “Sideline”] a more modern flip, because I didn’t really want to battle [Jazmine]. It’s more like we’re on the same team. I want to be a role model for women to band together,” she says. “…And beat up the dude. He’s the asshole, not us.”