interview by Michael McCarthy
Nikki Yanofsky’s “Miss You When I’m Drunk” was recently a song of the day here on Love is Pop and we are now pleased to present you with the following interview with the woman herself. Nikki started off her career almost by accident when she performed at a jazz festival when she was 12, which lead to her being the youngest artist to ever record for Verve Records when she was only 13. Since then, Nikki’s music has continued to dazzle audiences and she’s one of Canada’s most beloved artists. Her impressive first album, Nikki, was released when she was just in her mid-teens. It featured a perfect blend of jazz covers and sophisticated pop songs written by Nikki herself. Her second album, Little Secret, is a phenomenal blend of jazz, pop and soul with shimmering horns, irresistible hooks and gorgeous vocals. It’s the best album of its sort since Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and that’s no exaggeration. Next year, Nikki will release her third studio album, Solid Gold, but on 10/28 she’s releasing an EP of songs from the love-themed record and they are equal parts touching and catchy. If you like vibrant pop songs with an air of jazz then you’ll be hooked from the very first listen. In the meantime, read on and get to know the woman behind the music…
MM: I love how upbeat the songs on your new EP are. They’re just bursting with energy. Is that how you’re feeling lately?
NY: Thank you, yeah. The EP is kind of a glimpse of what the album will be. I wanted the EP to have more of an up sort of vibe, but the album definitely has its ups and its downs. There are slow songs on there, too, but this sort of snapshot of the album I wanted to keep it happy for people to listen to it and get into a happy mood.
MM: Would you describe yourself as someone who’s always on the go or do you have more of a laid back personality?
NY: I’m definitely always on the go. I’m a very fast-paced type of person in the way that I talk. [Laughs] I’m always ready to go.
MM: The songs on the EP have more of a pop vibe to them than a traditional jazz vibe. Why the shift from more traditional jazz?
NY: Well, it’s funny because I think that, you know, with my career people have always branded me as sort of being a jazz singer, but if you listen back to my very first record I ever did, Nikki, half of it was jazz covers and half of it was original songs and the original songs had nothing to do with jazz and was pop and my album Little Secret was very soulful and kind of bluesy and had jazz influence but it was still pop. And I think that this EP is actually, I find, the closest to more of my roots in the way that it’s really broken down in a way. It’s kind of more on the floor, more live sounding, less produced in a way. So, yeah, I think that it’s never deliberate and this is the first record I sort of went into with a complete open mind. I didn’t want to brand myself as anything before going into it. I wanted to write something that came from the heart, whatever that sounded like. I felt like that would be the most authentic me and I’m proud of the way that it came out. I think, generally, whenever I write, or I do anything with music, your roots always come through in some way and I find that the music in general on this record is very soulful, very kind of bluesy and my vocals always have that jazzy trill. There’s always kind of a glimpse into that, but, yeah, this EP for sure is a bit more pop but the album in general is more about the honesty and the authenticity of the music.
MM: I understand you’re a big star in Canada. Just how popular are you? Is there an artist who we’d know here in the States that you could compare your level of popularity to?
NY: [Laughs] I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to be objective about yourself. [Laughs] But, yeah, Canada’s been really supportive of me and very good to me. I’m really proud to be Canadian and to be from here. We’re kind of known for being supportive of our homegrown talent in general. And I’m just really lucky that they’ve taken a liking to what I do. Yeah, I love it here, so I’m happy.
MM: You’re from Québec, right?
NY: I’m from Montréal, yeah.
MM: I love Montréal, that’s great. I’d love to live there someday.
NY: It’s a beautiful city.
MM: Who is the artist in whose footsteps you would most like your career to follow? Is there someone who’s a hero and you just hope…
NY: Well, sonically there’s heroes of mine in terms of the sound that they have and I’m gonna go real old school and say like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald – these are my influences, but in terms of an actual career path I’m a huge John Mayer fan and I love how he has kept his authenticity throughout and has really made it about the music and stayed a credible artist and when you go see one of his shows there’s never any smoke and mirrors. It’s what you see is what you get. He plays his music, he sounds great and it’s all about the band, having a trio behind you. I love the way that he presents and I’ve always said that I’m a huge John Mayer fan and, to me, like that, especially in the height of his career, his album Where The Light Is – you know, that live show he did in New York – where it was just him and the John Mayer trio – that, to me, is so cool. That he sold out a huge theatre and had it just him and a trio. In terms of like what I see myself as, I think that he’s sort of kept his longevity and credibility throughout his whole career. I love John Mayer. I think he’s great in that way.
MM: I know you recorded a song for Verve Records when you were only 13 – how did they hear about you?
NY: Honestly, it was so long ago that it’s hard to remember exactly how it happened, but basically I was doing the Montréal Jazz Fest when I was 12 and I had this song that I did that was called “Airmail Special,” which was a formative scat song by Ella Fitzgerald and I think the fact that I was 12 and singing that type of material caught the ears of some people in the jazz world and Tommy LiPuma, a very legendary jazz producer heard me and he produced that for the We All Love Ella album, which was a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. And I was the bonus track on it and that was only supposed to be for Canada but Phil Ramone, who was actually mixing the record, heard my rendition and he decided that it should be a worldwide release. So, Phil Ramone is responsible for my first worldwide release on Verve Records and he actually went on to produce my first ever studio album. It was a good sort of series of events.
MM: I have your albums Nikki and Little Secret. Are those your only albums so far or am I missing any?
NY: Well, there’s a first album called Ella of Thee I Swing, which was a live album and DVD. So, that was the very first thing I released and then Nikki was the first studio album I did and Little Secret, the second, now we’ve got Solid Gold.
MM: Is Solid Gold going to be the name of the album as well as the EP?
NY: Yeah, it’s the name of the album and the EP. The reason for that title [is] in one of the lyrics of the most personal songs on the record, which is actually on the EP, “Me, Myself & I,” the second verse starts with the lyric, “In a lot of ways you’re solid gold,” and the you I’m referring to is who basically inspired the entire album so I wanted to name it after that.
MM: How old were you when you released Nikki and Little Secret?
NY: When I released Nikki I was, if I’m not mistaken, 15 or 16 – I don’t remember – I think I was 16. And then Little Secret I was like 18.
MM: I understand you’re 22 now. What did you do to celebrate your 21st birthday – or is that not a milestone in Canada?
NY: Well, it is a milestone just because of the fact that it’s a worldwide milestone, but in Canada the drinking age is 18. So, it’s not as big a deal in Canada as it is in the States, I think, but for my 21st I had a lot of my family over at my house and we just had a big dinner and that’s it.
MM: I imagine that you must have felt wise beyond your years when you were making your early albums, that you must have felt like an old soul. Do you feel like now you’ve caught up – that you actually feel the age you are – as opposed to being younger and feeling grown up?
NY: It’s an interesting question. I think, like I said, it’s kind of hard to be objective about your own self. I mean, I’ve always felt a bit different, but being dubbed an old soul is sort of something that other people have said about me. For me, myself, it’s just kind of like – it’s just who I am. For me, it’s just like, with my personality, I’ve always been friends with older people and kind of connected with older things, but for me that was my normal. So, yeah, it doesn’t really feel like I caught up to anything because I’ve always just felt caught up in a way to myself because I don’t have any other reference.
MM: That’s true. One of your new songs is called “Miss You When I’m Drunk.” Is there a story behind that one?
NY: Yeah, there’s a story behind every song on the album. The whole album is actually a concept album that chronicles my six year long relationship – and still going – and the ups and the downs and everything in between and learning about yourself through that. “Miss You When I’m Drunk” was about a two week period that I broke up – me and my boyfriend broke up – the only two weeks we were ever broken up – this was already four years ago – in that time I was out and so was he and I saw him at this bar and I had a glass of wine or something with some of my friends and the truth kind of starts to come out in that way. So, that is definitely what the song is about. I mean, it’s always there. Everything that you need to know is in the lyrics already.
MM: You have a rap part of “Too Many Songs” is that Wyclef [Jean, the EP/album’s producer]?
NY: That’s Wyclef.
MM: How did you connect with him?
NY: Wyclef and I met, actually, a really long time ago when I think I was 12 years old or 13. We were both affiliated with a charity and we met and he always said that when we met and we shook hands for the first time he had no idea what I did or that I sang or anything, but he looked at me and he said, “You are special.” It’s like we instantly had this artistic connection and we started to work together just after that, actually, and then we sort of took a little break. We were both kind of doing our own thing and then finally the timing was right to work on a full project together. Wyclef has always gotten not only me but what my sound is and he got me as a musician and as a person. I guess you have to get both in order to present both to the world and be really authentic and honest with your writing and your music, but he was a real great champion for me in that way and, yeah, we produced the album together – I co-produced it. I actually, well, I wrote and produced “Miss You When I’m Drunk” and a couple other songs on the record but Wyclef is exec producer on the whole thing.
MM: One of the new songs is called “Young Love,” which makes me wonder, how old were you when you first fell in love?
NY: I was 16 when I first fell in love and I have not fallen out of love yet.
MM: So, that’s when you met your boyfriend of six years then?
NY: Yeah. We started dating when I was 16 years old and we’re still together.
MM: That’s awesome.
MM: Did you write or co-write all of the songs on the new album?
NY: Yes, I did. Every single one.
MM: Did you write them in the studio or did you write them before going into the studio?
NY: A lot of times I would come in with ideas and lyrics then I would go into the studio with Wyclef and we would kind of write them out. The first song written for the album was “Me, Myself & I” and it kind of became like the cornerstone of the record. And that song I came in already with a verse finished and the melody and Wyclef really helped with bringing the form to life and he and I did the chorus together. There are so many different things. But in that song Wyclef came up with the phrase “me, myself & I” for that chorus and I did the lyrics to everything and the melody was him. So, that’s kind of like the basic process. I would come in with an idea and lyrics. There are certain things – I had a list of things that I wanted to write about based on experiences, things that really shaped my relationship and me as a person, too. And those were sort of what helped shaped the album. I’d say, “Today I wanted to write about this that happened to me. Let’s do it in some cool kind of subliminal role, not so obvious way.” “Young Love” is about facing adversity as a couple, having people in your life that maybe don’t buy it or don’t believe it and are trying to dissuade you from continuing in that relationship. Kind of trying to bring you down and tear you guys apart. That happened to me. That song was about the first time that I had to really trust myself fully, you know? And say, no, I know what’s best here.
MM: What was the schedule like in the studio? Were you recording into the late night or was it more of a morning routine?
NY: Yeah, late. Late. I’m definitely a night owl. The vocals to “Me, Myself & I” are from the original demo that we did. We did like a sketch version of it the night that we finished it in New York and I only had one night in New York. I was going back to Montréal the next day and we had finished it and I recorded those vocals at two in the morning and we just kept them. I never re-did them. [Laughs] So, a lot of stuff was done really late.
MM: Was most of the album recorded in Montréal?
NY: Yeah, most of it was in Montréal and New York City.
MM: Your publicist referred to you as Nikki Y. Are you dropping your last name professionally?
NY: No. I’m definitely Nikki Yanofsky, but online – my online presence – people often misspell it so it’s usually easier to detect Nikki Y and that usually pops up. So, on all my socials – you know, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook – it’s all Nikki Y so people can find me easier, but on my recordings it’s Yanofsky.
MM: Do you think you’ll ever record an album in French?
NY: Um, never say never. Maybe later in my life. For now, I’m really focused on my writing and, obviously, it’s much easier to write in your native tongue. I’m English, so for me it’s – I’ve always been a writer first so I’ve always been writing – even poetry – starting in the fifth grade.
MM: I was wondering if you do any writing aside from songwriting?
NY: Yeah, totally. I write a lot of poetry. It’s funny because a lot of the poems start as poems but are turned into lyrics afterward. I just come up with a concept and maybe write a couple lines and then as time goes by I look back on that stuff and I’m like, oh, this actually would be a cool concept for a song.
MM: You have a song I really, really like called “Wicked Games” on Soundcloud. What’s the story behind that song?
NY: That song is by The Weeknd, actually. And his version is a lot more crude, but I thought it was such a good song. He does it in a very different way. I sort of made it sound a bit like Nancy Sinatra. I wanted that sort of old school jazzy vibe. But his version is a lot more R&B and kind of slow and very dark. I thought it would be cool to take it and make it a bit of my own.
MM: That’s funny because I have all of his albums but I didn’t recognize it as being a cover.
NY: Good. [Laughs] That’s good.
MM: What about “All That Matters” and “XO”? Are those covers or are those originals?
NY: Yeah, those are covers. “XO” is a Beyonce song and “All That Matters” is a Justin Bieber song.
MM: Did you kind of twist those into your own thing as much?
NY: Totally, yeah. I have a rule – I will never cover something unless I change it. Because what’s the point of covering it if you’re just gonna do it the same as the original?
MM: Yeah, yeah. I hate paint-by-numbers covers like that.
NY: Yeah. Me, too. It’s like, you’ve gotta add something to it otherwise there’s absolutely no point.
MM: Will you be doing any touring to support the album?
NY: Yeah, I’m gonna be touring in the springtime, probably, definitely to support the record. Because April – well, not April, but spring per se, is when the album is predicted to get actually released. So, after the full LP.
MM: Will you be touring internationally?
NY: Yeah, I definitely intend to. We’ll see what happens with my scheduling. But there will always be updates when the tour’s announced, there will always be updates on my website and all my socials, too.
MM: Do you anticipate playing jazz clubs or are you looking to get into more mainstream venues now?
NY: I’m not really against any sort of venue. In the past, I haven’t really been playing any jazz clubs. In Montréal I played a place called Metropolis, which is a standing room only type of vibe. Especially in France, internationally, I always play more like standing room type of venues so they’re really fun, high energy, everyone’s dancing on their feet and that kind of thing.
MM: What size venues do you usually play in Canada now?
NY: In Canada? It varies. Honestly, I really like smaller venues just because I find them more intimate. I find it really easy to connect with the audience in that way and kind of feel like your own thing with every specific person in there. It’s like you’re really connecting on a different level. But, you know, bigger venues are fun to play, too. The Bell Centre here is very huge but it’s like you only really get to see the front row. I like it when you can see everyone’s faces and see everyone reacting and enjoying it.
MM: I understand you collaborated with Feist, who’s one of my favorite artists. What did you do together?
NY: She actually wrote a song for my first studio record called “Try, Try, Try.” It’s on Nikki. It’s on that first record. I think she wrote it with Jesse Harris. That was a song commissioned for my record and I loved it.
MM: Is it intimidating to work with people like Herbie Hancock, Elton John and Quincy Jones?
NY: I never try to look at it that way. I think that people are just people. Obviously, there are people that mean more to you because of what they do. How much you respect them and you sort of look up to them but the people that are as big as Quincy and Herbie – all those guys – I think they get there because of their humility and their presence and sort of being down to earth. You don’t get to the top by being rude or, you know, out there. I think that Quincy and all those guys are just like the most down to earth people you’ve ever met. So, whatever intimidation or nerves you might have with these legends, it’s like they all go out the window as soon as you start talking to them because you just realize they’re just extraordinary humans. They are – at the end of the day – just people. Some people have done incredible things and you just have to respect them and I just try to learn as much as I possibly can being in the presence of those greats. They’re amazing. They’re amazing musicians and people and I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of my heroes. They say you shouldn’t do that – you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but no one has ever let me down in any way. So far, so good.
MM: It’s funny you say that because I’ve heard that saying, too, but I’ve been interviewing people for around 20 years for various magazines and websites and such and there have been very few people who’ve left a bad impression.
NY: That’s awesome. It’s good to hear that. I agree with you on that. I think it’s so important to kind of keep yourself throughout everything. And Quincy always told me one of the things he always says is your music can never be more or less than you are as a person. I think that the people who have great music, it’s ’cause they’re great people.
MM: As someone from a younger generation that I am, I was wondering what your thoughts are on streaming services? I’ve interviewed a lot of the guys I grew up listening to from heavy metal bands and such and they generally don’t feel like they’re getting paid fairly, but I was wondering as someone who’s younger and more popular if you might feel more fairly compensated or whatever?
NY: Yeah, you know, I think it’s just a different way now. It was a lot less complicated back then when you just got paid for what you did. But, unfortunately, we just live in a world where music is considered, you know, a free right to everybody. Even if you put a lot of time into it and people don’t want to pay for it. It’s just a reality. And I think as soon as you drop those expectations it becomes a lot easier to deal with. In my mind, I’ve always grown up with streaming services. For me, that is the norm. Even though it’s sort of still being worked out, I feel like a lot of the services like Apple Music and Spotify they’re sort of figuring out ways to be more fair to the artists. They’re coming along in that way. I think it’s a really good sort of future of our music. For me, I’ve always grown up knowing you don’t make money in releasing stuff online. But the catch 22 is that’s also how you gain popularity and have people listen to your music. For me, in order to be able to do what you want to do and actually make a living from it and support yourself and have the freedom to do what you want with it, you have to tour and find money in other ways. For me, I’ve never done music ever for money. For me, it’s always been about making something that makes my hair stand up. And hopefully it could do that to other people, too. I’m almost happy to share it with whoever wants to listen to it because I think it’s nice that anybody can just go on their computer and connect to something. It might be different and maybe for older people who aren’t used to it, it might be a bit, you know, of a challenge to accept. But, for me, growing up in it, it’s kind of a nice thing. People can just listen to you no matter where they are or how much money they have.
MM: Yeah, that’s true. At the same time, as streaming has been getting so big, vinyl has been making a bigger and bigger comeback every year. What are your thoughts on that? Are you into vinyl?
NY: I am so into vinyl. I’m a vinyl collector. I could say I got on that before it was trendy again. I love vinyl. I just think that there’s something about holding something tangible that someone made and you can just feel all the hard work that went into it. You can open it, you can smell it – it’s just a whole different experience. You feel so connected to it. And you’re also more inclined to listen to the whole thing through as a piece of art and a piece of a real project rather than just the singles world that we live in. So, to me, it’s just a different experience. I love vinyl though.
MM: Will Solid Gold be released on vinyl?
NY: I think that we’ll probably do a couple of maybe limited edition vinyl. I’d love to do that. I did that with Little Secret and it was so cool to have my own music on vinyl. It was a weird experience to be able to listen to it that way.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
NY: The first album I ever bought with my own money was Christina Aguilera Genie In A Bottle.
MM: Name three artists from your parents’ record collection who you actually liked?
NY: I love all my parents’ music. It’s hard for me to name three because we sort of have the same tastes. But I guess people who’ve influenced me from my parents have been like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Beatles.
MM: Tell us three things from your bucket list that you haven’t done yet?
NY: Three things from my bucket list? I have not gone to Italy. I’ve gone to Perugia, but I haven’t gone to like Italy, Italy where I want to spend some time there. That’s one. Here’s another one – performing with Paul McCartney. That would be a very big one. And, what would be another one for me? It’s hard to say, you know. Three, let’s see, OK, having the option – can I make it as general as I want on my bucket list?
NY: Like a Genie in a bottle kind of wish. Let’s say, to have the ability to choose any producer in the world that I’d want to work with. I guess the bucket list maybe working with Bruno Mars or Mark Ronson.
MM: What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
NY: The most useful piece of advice? Obviously, it comes from my parents. I’m very lucky that I have a very close relationship with my family. And my parents have always been real supportive of everything I’ve been doing and I really couldn’t be here without their love and their support. So, the most useful piece of advice probably came from my parents, just telling me, I grew up with my brothers, and they’re always telling all three of us, you can’t be king unless you believe you can be king. To me, that’s just a very valid piece of advice to just believing in yourself. Like you have to just believe that you can do anything and then it’ll happen. That’s always helped me, just believing in myself.
MM: What’s the most awkward exchange you’ve ever had with a fellow musician?
NY: It’s a really funny story. The most awkward exchange I had was when I was in L.A and I was in a restaurant and maybe I was 15 years old and Kanye West was in the restaurant and I’m a really big Kanye fan. I think he’s an amazing producer and artist. I went up to his table to ask him for an autograph and I went up to him, and it really took me a long time to work up the nerve to say hello, and I finally did and he said, “Sure. What’s your name, Nikki?” And I said, “How did you know?” And it turned out I forgot I was wearing my necklace that says my name. [Both laugh] I thought that somehow he knew me. So, that was pretty awkward and pretty funny. He laughed it off. He was really sweet. But I always remember that story because of that moment of, “Does Kanye West know who I am?” [Laughs]
MM: And did he give you the autograph?
NY: He did. He was really sweet.
MM: If you could bring back any one musician from the dead, who would you resurrect?
NY: Ella Fitzgerald.
MM: What are you listening to lately?
NY: I have been listening to… What have I been listening to lately? I listen to so much music all the time. It’s hard to just pinpoint one artist, but I’ve been listening to Bruno Mars. He just released a new song. It’s amazing. It’s called “24 Karat Magic” and I’ve been listening to that kind of non-stop. I know all the words. I love what he does with his stuff because he never takes himself too seriously. At least in his up-tempo. There’s a lot of humor in his work and I just think it’s very light-hearted and fun and I’ve been listening to that a lot.
MM: What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever received from a fan?
NY: [Laughs] Strangest gift? It’s the funniest gift, but it’s also kind of weird, but really cute. I got a care package from a fan in Australia and within that care package was cute things like a stuffed animal kangaroo and all these little fun things but I also got a thing of Vegemite. I know it’s a very big thing in Australia but we don’t have that here and I guess solo – if you just take that apart – that was a funny gift to get. But I wouldn’t say it’s strange. Honestly, the fact that my fans care enough about me to send me anything is really sweet. I would not list anything I got as weird.
MM: What’s the best gift you’ve ever got from a fan?
NY: I know it’s gonna sound really cheesy, but it’s true – just their support is, I think, enough for me. The fact that people care enough to stop and take a moment to listen to my music, I’ll never get tired of that feeling. For me, that’s a great gift.
Extra special thanks to Nikki for taking the time to do this interview and to Renee Cotsis at Girlie Action Media for setting it up!