Nancy Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, these are the names that come to mind when Niia’s sultry voice fills the room. Her hypnotic renditions of the classics are imbued with a virtuosic clarity that stem from her prodigy-like background. The natural beauty in her physical presence is more Giselle Bundchen meets beat poet than Billie Holiday. Niia owns an exclusive, soulful range of styles that has allowed her to create a cult following for her Bond Girl shows in Manhattan that feature her renditions of the Bond themes backed by a 14 piece orchestra. While still a student, she became the accidental muse of Wyclef Jean and suddenly found herself immersed in a high-profile music career that belonged to someone else. Grateful, but yearning for self discovery, Niia took some time off to circle back to her roots. With a debut solo album, scheduled for release this year, Niia is ready to take on the world.
CHRISTINA LESSA: When we first started talking about doing an interview, you were hesitant. You felt that because of modern media people have become more interested in the artist behind the work than in the art itself.
NIIA BERTINO: Well, I guess I grew up listening to people’s music and seeing them perform live. That stood for itself and that spoke for the artist. You didn’t have to understand what it meant. You didn’t need to have a person justify it before. Our culture is obsessed with learning about everyone on Facebook. Everyone sees what everyone else is looking at. I miss the time when artists had a bit of mystique about them. The truth is, I think interviews sometimes water down the work, sometimes work should be able to speak for itself. I don’t want to overdo it, but talking about it instead of just making it…well. Who cares about me? I’m just the portal of a song. It’s up to you to decide where to take it. CHRISTINA LESSA: Who do you think some of the best songwriters are?
NIIA BERTINO: I grew up with some of the standards, so I love all of those old songs. They are so beautiful, but lyric-wise Leonard Cohen has some unbelievable lyrics, I’m a huge Carly Simon fan, Joni Mitchell, I think Fiona Apple has some great lyrics. I love Sting. It’s all coming back around. Indie bands. There are some really talented people right now and it’s exciting to see. I think if you write a great song it can be not only be popular, but still of great quality, this is possible nowadays. It seems so easy, simplifying. One of my favorite quotes is, “finding simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.”
CHRISTINA LESSA: I understand that your mother was a classical pianist.
NIIA BERTINO: The majority of my family members are all musicians, a bunch of opera singers. I studied classical piano and I love all the Nocturnes. I love Chopin and the more depressing Romantic music. It is pretty dreamy and transported me out of my boring little life in Needham, Mass. I went to a really strict all-girls school. Music was my only friend. My mom sent me there because she knew I was going to do something in the arts. She wanted me to get a strict foundation. She had to pay for me because I was a terrible student, but I worked hard at my music. It was the reason that I got really serious because I didn’t like my school that much. It’s tough when you are a different. Music kind of came as my escape from having to deal with stuff I didn’t like at school. Then when I turned fourteen, my voice changed drastically and my mom gave me a Sarah Vaughn album to listen to and it was love at first listen. I switched to jazz piano. I auditioned for the bandleader and he thought I was an ok pianist but a far better singer. Which surprised my parents because I was really shy, but I ended up the lead singer of a pretty decent jazz band at 15 and had a crash course in jazz. It was exciting because I didn’t really learn the rules of jazz and kind of got the opportunity to find my own way in what I wanted to do stylistically with my voice. I was singing standards without anyone really guiding me and then started to go backwards and learned how to use my voice as an instrument. It was less about singing. It was fun and I liked the challenge.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You were saying how important it is to understand the tenacity and rigor behind the kind of virtuosity it takes to be successful. Your parents must have been really hard on you being classical musicians…
NIIA BERTINO: I grew up in an Italian household where even if I had a great recital my mother would say, “well, you’re a little off on that note.” Sometimes you wish she would just say, “great job.” I was lucky she was a musician, but my parents never praised me for the wrong things. Being a star or being famous was never mentioned in my house. Even when I went off to music school I didn’t think about the whole concept of being famous. You work hard to get good at what you want to do. That was instilled in all of us. Nowadays we have all of these competitive shows about music, but there’s a lack of reality of what it takes for the majority of people to get to such a high level. Working hard should be the thing that is praised. There’s something that should be said to kids – that it’s cool to work hard. I think it was Andy Warhol who said, “Its hip to be square.” It’s interesting how pop music has changed a little to where Adele is on top, and it’s more about her skilled voice and less about the presentation and dance.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You didn’t go to a traditional conservatory though you ended up at the New School, why?
NIIA BERTINO: I wanted to go to the New School because it was in NY and I remember going to their vocal showcase and falling in love with this man’s voice. It was overwhelming to be in NY, but exciting to be among other nerdy musicians that were just as good if not better than me. Suddenly it was more fun to be challenged even further.
CHRISTINA LESSA: The legend goes that Wyclef Jean discovered you while you were playing around in the studio… and the rest is history.
NIIA BERTINO: Well, that is true! I was in the studio and Wyclef was recording upstairs. He heard me and invited me to sing on one of his recordings right then and there. I dropped out of the New School because I met Wyclef, which was totally about being in the right place at the right time. That was a couple of years ago. As much as being in a classroom was great, being in an unbelievable recording studio with Wyclef Jean was better. I was at the New School for only a few semesters and had just turned 20. He let me do some demos on the spot, just for fun. Because my parents never put pressure on me to be famous, I had the luxury to just dive in and absorb it all. Everything happened really fast after that. I ended up singing on one of his recordings and then went on an international tour with him, which was probably one of the best experiences any artist could ever have. As I got better he would give me more time on stage. It all happened by accident and then I ended up on this huge song with Lil Wayne and Akon. I got to sing on David Letterman and got to do all these things that artists dream to do. Suddenly everyone wanted to know, ‘who the hell the artist Niia is’. I had no idea how to answer that question.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That sounds like an amazing adventure, but also one that could have backfired quite easily. Did you have anyone giving you advice? How did you handle the business side of it all?
NIIA BERTINO: I didn’t know anything about the business side – how competitive it is or what it takes to actually do it. Suddenly I had all of these labels interested in me and Wyclef and I were going to work on some music. People were trying to have me sing songs that I didn’t relate to. It’s impossible for me to do music that I don’t like. Part of me used to wish I could just sing songs that other people would write for me that I didn’t really like just because it would be easier, but it doesn’t work that way for me. I found that out the hard way. I’m definitely better off going through the process and sticking to my gut.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So you followed your own path..
NIIA BERTINO: Yeah. I think that back then since I didn’t really know how to answer the question, who am I? I know who I didn’t want to be. People would answer that for me. I think Wyclef was the only person who encouraged me to take a step back and take time to figure out what I want to sing about and what I want my sound to sound like; things that take people years to figure out. I decided that I needed to process my life and I kind of walked away from everything. People thought I had made a huge mistake. Everything was popular and I was relevant. In the industry things go by so fast. For two weeks you are an over the top wonder and the next day someone else has the next best track. I needed a break though. It was the most important thing I could have ever done. If you aren’t ready and you do something you regret, you can’t take it back. I’ve just spent the past few years figuring out what I want to do or make.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Do you feel like you have the answer to that question now?
NIIA BERTINO: Yes! I think jazz has helped me in a double-edged sword way. In the sense of being able to sing songs I don’t like… I don’t think I could do that if I hadn’t sung jazz standards. They are so emotional and you have to believe the artist that you hear. When I hear Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn, I believe every word. I think that singing lyrics or songs that I don’t really love… you can tell. People can hear it in the demos of mine. They say, ‘Niia’s such a great singer’ but no one could figure out why. After a few years I figured out my niche and my own style. I love working with other writers, but it’s just easier now when I can come in and say, ‘these are my favorite songs I’ve written’ and then collaborate. So they know who I am now. Ultimately now music is the most important thing. Artists are popping out everywhere and the ones that are the most unique are the ones doing the best right now. It’s interesting how molding artists to be like other artists is kind of the lost thing. If you see another fake Adele, the public knows.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What are you working on right now?
NIIA BERTINO: I just finished an amazing music video with Tony Kaye, who is the director of American History X. I’m unbelievably grateful that he wanted to be a part of that and we are going to release that in a couple of weeks. I have some new songs that I’m working on with a few producers and will probably release a little EP and then hopeful an album in spring or summer. I finally have music that I love. I’m really happy about releasing the video, but it’s a little shocking. I feel like I need to remind people who I am. It’s funny that people know me from years ago with Wyclef and other people know me from when I was a special guest at Sleep No More. Being able to hybrid all my influences is something that I’ve been trying to craft and really hone in on – showing my different styles – where before I thought that was a negative thing. Sometimes I’ll sing a jazz song, sometimes I’ll sing an indie Fiona Apple song and sometimes I’ll sing a James Bond song. Now I realize I can make these all work and show who I am. Which is cool because there are people at my shows who are there for maybe just jazz or maybe just Bond songs or maybe some of my original music. They get to listen to other styles. I think the best thing to do is to encourage people to listen to music they wouldn’t normally listen to.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I think the integration of all three of those styles is fantastic! You’re coming from a classical background and you have the jazz and the originals… The world is certainly open to appreciate these qualities. But not entirely, you are still battling the unreality of reality TV, but as you said, the public has an education now. There is sensitivity to authenticity that may not have been present before. Someone was talking about Obama the other day on NPR and the concept of mindfulness and they were saying that he’s probably the most mindful president we’ve ever had and how that reflects onto the rest of the world. This mindfulness is necessary for the American government to finally step up to the plate and put creativity back into our public educational process. FLATT’s mission is centered on how necessary it is for all human beings to be able to tap into their creative sides. Do you feel that it’s your time right now because of this greater awareness?
NIIA BERTINO: Yes, I do. I think that you are totally correct in saying mindfulness is coming back around in that sense, and I find it always really exciting when artists or actors, or things that come out of the arts, slow people down and people actually take the time to read, view, or listen to them. The internet is great because now everyone can get their music out, but at the same time there is so much more music to filter through… so how do you stand out? How do you have any longevity? Sometimes I think kids forget that and focus on uploading photos. Instead, they should probably think, ‘how can I make something out of this great opportunity?’ They should use the internet to create and sustain some long-term goals and be more mindful of what it means to be who they are and what they reveal to other people, because you can get other people’s attention quick but keeping it is hard. You have to think that way now to make money – to make a career. You have to be mindful because even if you have the best new song today, someone else is going to have it tomorrow. People have to think a lot harder now to make their art sustainable.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Absolutely! The intellectual process has to come into play.
NIIA BERTINO: Which has been difficult for me, because coming up with a brand and how that works is so bizarre to me. I’ve respected so many artists that come up with stage names and stuff like that. I could never do that because it would just be so weird.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s not you. Your brand is about the purity of the product. Not to say that the business of art is not a creative process in itself, but you are definitely less about the end result.
NIIA BERTINO: Which is ironic because I’m totally shy and introverted but can’t be anyone else. Which is why my product has stalled a bit. I’m a little nervous to expose myself, but now I feel ready to do that because I know who I am. I think it’s important to show other people that being yourself is just as cool as making up other virtual, social, characters. I hope to make creative arts camps one day. It’s been my goal since I was little. I would definitely not be the weird music nerd I am now if I didn’t go to creative art camps and wasn’t fostered by foundations that are available. I won the National Foundation for the Arts for jazz in high school and the experience of going was so exciting because they picked 10 students in each discipline in the arts… It was amazing! The people that won got money and the year I won Baryshnikov was there, talking about the beauty of virtuosity and thoughtfulness in discipline. That’s what makes kids want to work harder, because they are rewarded and they think it’s cool. It’s cool to work hard.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Being an artist is a great responsibility.
NIIA BERTINO: And my choice is not just for me anymore. It’s for others. It’s incredible to be in a position where you can change people’s lives with what you do onstage. One of the weirdest things to realize is when I’m on stage singing (and I just love to sing and have my eyes closed for the majority of the time) people are watching me and I am being elevated and amplified by my performance. Looking down at people from a position of so much power… that’s never why I did it. Some people love performing, I love to sing and perform but I never wanted that power, and it’s so interesting to actually have it.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s such a powerful thing and it’s not something we teach. We need to. Art is as important as politics. You can manipulate an entire generation for better or worse through it’s cultural influences.
NIIA BERTINO: Totally. Art goes hand in hand with politics.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s the synthesis of your emotional connection to theirs. That’s why as an artist you need to be really careful not to put angry motifs into the world without a purpose.
NIIA BERTINO: I just think there is a lack of intelligent self-expression. Everyone can write about what they want once they reach a certain level of popularity, but if you are in such a high position of visibility and you know people are going to listen to your music, at least make it personal. I write about things that really have a lot of meaning for me or a lot of meaning to a group of people. I wrote a song called “Generation Blue” that’s about how I feel my generation is completely desensitized to actual emotion. We’re Generation Blue and we go to these raves – they are huge right now, they are the biggest party arena right now with huge DJs – I’ve been to them and they are really fun, but it’s eerie to catch a glance at everyone feeling something so much, but also being completely disconnected from each another. We all are a unit but there is something missing. I just wanted to write about it. It’s weird to me. I’m trying to figure out why that is.
CHRISTINA LESSA: One of the things that we preach about constantly at FLATT is arts patronage, and how we can’t rely on the government. There’s enough private wealth and public interest in America to pick up the slack. Even if it’s in a micro giving or volunteer capacity. These little pockets of interesting culture are popping up all across the country now. Yet, it’s not accessible in our public schools. We need to create a movement, a community, to bring it back on a social level.
NIIA BERTINO: It’s something I definitely want to be a part of. Back in the 80s, everyone knew each other in the genre. For a while, post social-media development, everyone became really isolated – living behind the screen instead of participating hands-on in the change in the world. I’m slowly starting to see it come together again. That’s really important for different artists in different forms. That’s why I really wanted to work with Tony Kaye, to collaborate on hybrid forms. I agree with you, community is what it’s all about. I think one of my biggest highlights ever as a musician, or as a woman, was that I got to perform for Gloria Steinem, Bjork and Patti Smith and a bunch of other unbelievable women. Gloria Steinem runs this women’s retreat and they asked me to be the performer. It was great to meet people who were educated and older but still wanted to hear what I had to say. Being a girl is such an amazing thing right now, but many role models today in music are not embracing what it could mean to be a positive influence. I think more women have to really step up to the plate to show young girls the right way to find themselves and make the right choices. I see that you’re featuring Janelle Monae, Janelle is definitely a female artist that is paving a new direction of integrity for girls to follow. That’s really cool.