SPEAK YA CLOUT: NI-KA

Speak ya clout is a series of heart to heart conversations, exclusively found at BSTN Chronicles. From insiders of the fashion business to blazers of new trails and creative forces from other industries, topics vary for each conversation. This time, we sat down with NI-KA, the up-and-coming singer fusing German Soul and R’n’B to mesmerizing tunes, straight from her homebase in Frankfurt am Main.


On first falling in love with music:

I must have been five, six years old. My father has always been listening to home-made German music. Oh God, there used to be an album by Barbara Schöneberger, that’s totally random (laughs), she made a jazz album and my dad listened to it while cleaning and I thought it was great. But my mom also listened to Max Mutzke, somehow. Also Santana and the likes. So that was always on a lot in our house. Annette Louisanne and stuff like that was also really big with me somehow (laughs). Aside from that: Joy Denalane, of course. Max Herre. Freundeskreis.

But German R’n’B and German soul music, that was actually brought in by my mom’s ex-boyfriend: he made music himself and that’s how I started learning the piano when I was five. He always burned me CDs. And there was a lot of German music on there, including Glashaus and Moses Pelham too, the classics. That’s when I discovered my love for music and that I could sing. And then at some point, I didn’t want to play the piano anymore. So I started taking singing lessons quite early on and focused on singing then.

All the stuff that inspires me now – D’Angelo, Music Soul Child, Erykah Badu – I only discovered that later on, actually, when I was about 16 years old. And I thought to myself “That’s so cool! What’s that sound?” And that it’s a shame that somehow none of this is around anymore here in Germany.

On her first steps as a solo artist:

I stood on stage even before I had my own songs. I was in a gospel choir for a long time in my early youth, when I was 15 or 16, and only moved to Frankfurt when I was 19 years old. So five years ago. In Frankfurt, I got to know people who made music themselves, all of them producers, and then I thought to myself “Hey, I have to do something with my voice.” But I never liked performing cover versions on stage, so I figured I needed to create something of my own.

Since music has always been my passion anyway and I wanted to focus on singing, I started to work with a producer. But that didn’t quite work out, until I met my current producer and best friend, with whom I’ve now also made my EP, and I dug deeper and deeper into making and writing music myself.

On discovering the ‘soul’ in Neo Soul for the first time:

What I love about Neo Soul is that it’s not something contrived and not always so over the top. So not always giving 110%, especially vocally, but rather looking for “what fits into this song?” What gives the whole thing that final polish? And every time you listen to the song, you somehow discover something new. And that, I’d say, is something I really appreciate about artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. That they just go by feel. Their voices are actually their own instruments. It’s like they’re playing percussion with their voice. And I love that very much.

I also love vocal queens and kings, of course. Just take an Aretha Franklin or the likes: of course, I get goosebumps. But for me, it’s just about that right feeling, what fits well into a song, the whole songwriting process. I feel it, whether it’s about love or whether it’s about summer weather… I actually dig everything in it, if it sounds good (laughs).

On choosing German language over English:

Even though singing in English would be the obvious choice for R’n’B and soul: I always knew that I wanted to make my own music. And I knew that I had to do it in German. I love the music that’s going on in America and the English-speaking artists. I love it a lot, but I still think it’s a great pity that it’s not around in Germany.

And it was a thing, it was really big in the early 2000s: Joy Denalane, Max Herre, Freundeskreis, Moses Pelham, all those big names – but somehow you can count them all on one hand. And for me, it was really important to bring that back in German and to prove “Hey, the German language can get it done too” and that it got more to offer than Schlager and pop music. I don’t want to devalue those genres, but yes, German soul and German R’n’B are also a thing. And it even got a new spin, other than the classic sounds that modern R’n’B brings: Oldschool soul is still a thing, with the saxophone solo or you can hear some percussion. And that was very, very important to me, to bring all of that back in Germany.

On the love she receives live on stage:

The thing with live gigs is, it’s exciting. And people keep on getting back to me, saying that they love the performances with my band. Not taking away anything from my songs, my voice, my lyrics and all that, of course. But I believe it’s the whole performance that makes my live gigs so special. Just because my band and I are best friends, we’re having fun on stage and all of it, I’d say, is super real.

My band’s name is Whodis, and it consists of four people plus me, so there are five of us. It’s quite a classic set-up: drums, bass, guitar, piano and me. Plus we sometimes bring in saxophonists or percussionists. And the emotions aren’t fake, they’re real and I think that’s what makes my live concerts so special. That we really live what we do on stage.

On the intimacy of her songs:

I definitely think it takes strength to open up in songs and make yourself vulnerable. Most lyrics from my debut EP are actually about love. They’re about pain, the pain of separation, the pain of love that I felt when I wrote the songs. And with some of those, it doesn’t matter how often I perform them: I just keep feeling them and I keep putting myself in the situation. With that, I think you’re definitely vulnerable on stage. And the smaller the audience, the more vulnerable you feel. But it’s beautiful too, because there’s acceptance for it.

And there are a lot of people looking for just that: for something real to happen on stage. And yes, I think that definitely takes courage. But it also needs an audience that simply allows you to put yourself in that position again and again, and that allows you to digress into these emotions. And that’s not something that can be taken for granted.

On the challenges of writing lyrics in German:

I would say it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship. So when I’m writing lyrics, I sometimes think to myself “Damn, why don’t I just sing in English?” (laughs). Because it’s just so much easier. Yes, of course, the English language often sounds way softer and you can paraphrase things much more beautifully and people often don’t really listen to the lyrics, you know? And the German language brings much more clarity somehow. You pay more attention to it, but it also has incredible potential: You can also paraphrase things in an incredibly beautiful way. We have a huge vocabulary at our hands. And I think if you’ve developed a feeling for it and maybe you’ve grown up with music like this, then it might take more time to write, but can sound really nice.

I think that the voice has a lot to do with it anyway: You can sing German lyrics super stocky and super hard, and it will sounds differently from when I sing it soulfully or classically. I mean, just take D’Angelo: Sometimes you don’t understand 90% of his lyrics, there even might be times when he almost mumbles, so his voice is more percussion than lyrics, right? (laughs) But it works! And I think it works in German too, if you do it right.

On going with the vibe in the studio:

So my producer and best friend, Nicolas ‘NB’ Stinson, is the creative producer, executive producer, however you want to call it, who takes care of everything in regard to the instrumental and the rough idea: he writes and produces and records instruments so that I can then write my lyrics on them. When it comes to the finer details, of course, that’s what happens when you have lyrics and a vocal recording. That means I come into the studio and I already know what we need for the album: what kind of vibe, what kind of song.

When we’re working on music, everything is very, very organic. What happens that day is written in the stars and that’s what we’re going with. Most of the songs we’ve done for my upcoming album were finished within a day. So ‘finished’ in the sense of: the instrumental was roughly drafted, the vocals plus lyrics are ready, and maybe something has already been recorded. But until the song is completely finished, so the finishing touches, that still takes a longer process. But it’s either we feel it straight away. Or we’ll just put it aside and that’s fine too.

On ‘live is life’:

Last summer I had, I think, the coolest gig with my band so far. It was at the Liebighaus in Frankfurt. That’s a museum and it’s right on the Main [river] and the place has a huge garden. There was a concert outside that went on for a couple of days and they had two bands on stage each evening. So one evening we performed there and it was wonderful. It was in summer; the giant garden, which is actually more of a park, was completely packed, the weather was great. It was at night, there were lanterns everywhere, and we got great feedback, people really went wild. So it was a very, very, very nice live gig outside, and we were really hyped.

And there was another one recently in Mainz. We played a show at “schon schön”, it was sold out, and it was also very, very cool and the people really celebrated with us. To be honest, every concert is fun, but there are always some that are even more fun and that was definitely one of them. That’s what I do it for! I don’t think I’d be happy if I was an artist who’s only present online and had, I don’t know, a million streams on Spotify and stuff, but who couldn’t play live. That’s the most important thing to me: that I can play concerts.

On balancing a nine-to-five and music:

I still got my regular job. So, it’s ups and downs. I’ve been working part-time since March, thank God, but I’ve always worked full-time for the last few years and that was very, very exhausting. Because, of course, you have to try to somehow separate work and music – otherwise you’ll go crazy, right? When you have to call promoters while you’re at work, or you have to call your boss when you’re at a concert you’re playing.

Having a job and making my music at the same time is very exhausting, but it’s important to me that I remain as independent as possible in my music and that I’m not dependent on gigs that I don’t want to do just to pay my bills. That’s why I’ve told myself that as long as I can’t make a living from music, I’ll work to pay my fixed costs. All of that sounds pretty German (laughs). But I want to be able to choose where I perform. I want to be able to choose where I spend my time, where I make my music and in front of which audience. And that’s why I think it’s worth the stress to work a certain amount of hours a week and use the rest of the time for music.

On what she hopes people can take away from her music:

I hope that people will take the time to listen to my music. And that they become aware again of how important it is that we listen to, appreciate and support good quality music. And of course, about my lyrics: I think it can be incredibly healing when you’re at a certain stage in your life and listen to songs that talk to you. Maybe they remind you of yourself. Maybe you shed a little tear to them, and it’s healing, and then that’s that.

On what the near future holds for her:

First of all, I’m really looking forward to my new album, which I’ll be releasing this summer in August. That will be a new level for me, because we’ve worked out how I produce my songs even better and we’ve recorded more real instruments for it. And because the lyrics tell much more about me and not just about my love life, but also about developments and everyday situations. I’m really looking forward to the feedback. And then I’m going on a double tour with my band and einsneunzig in November! The exact locations are yet to be announced. But it will definitely be all over Germany.

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