Niia used to have crippling stage fright, which is why she started putting her hair in a long, taught braid. It made her fidget less, and helped her feel more powerful and secure. "Also, Sade wears a braid, and she's my idol," the 28-year-old jazz singer said recently with a shy laugh the afternoon before her performance at Soho House in New York City.
When Niia took the stage that night, in addition to having her hair pulled back, she wore her now-signature all-black outfit, rivaling the microphone stand in height and slenderness. (When we met, she wore a black Balenciaga leather jacket over a black sleeveless turtleneck.)
But rather than hiding behind the look and her lyrics, now Niia owns them. When she opened her mouth to sing, "Hurt You First," one of the singles off her debut studio album, I, (May 5th), which is about real-life, post-breakup vengeance, the vulnerability of her subjectiveness translated as self-assured power.
Born Niia Bertino in a town outside of Boston, Niia grew up in a musical family, which made her fear of the stage feel even more alienating. Her mother was a classical pianist, her grandmother was an opera singer, and many of her family members are Juilliard-trained vocalists. Growing up, the piano was her inevitable, "little emo outlet," as she describes it.
"My friends would skip class to go to Dunkin’ Doughnuts, but I’d go play nocturnes in the chapel like a total nerd.”
For college, Niia left Boston to attend the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, but only for a "hot second” before dropping out to pursue a professional career. She was encouraged to do so by none other than Wyclef Jean, who met her in the studio one day and was won over by her low, not-raspy-but-whispery, smooth voice. He eventually asked her to perform on his single, "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)," which also featured Lil Wayne and Akon.
In 2013, after finally releasing her own single, Niia decided to do a TED Talk about her struggle with stage fright, describing the exact moment when she overcame it: “As I stood there amplified by my microphone, elevated, looking down at my audience," she recalled, "It hit me: I was afraid to connect.”
Today, Niia is signed with Atlantic Records and with the help of the Grammy-nominated producer Robin Hannibal, (Rhye, Kendrick Lamar, Chairlift, The Internet), is showing the world not only her vocal chops, but also what's going on inside her heart and head. Empathy, she now realizes, is what it's all about.
"I usually hide behind my lyrics a little; that's why I love jazz so much," said Niia of the album. "But this time it just kind of came out of me—all my feelings about falling in love."
In addition to "Hurt You First," which she also likes to perform stripped down, her other singles include, "Last Night In Los Feliz," a slow and sultry song about letting go under the California stars, as well as "Nobody," a more upbeat, pop-influenced track referencing pain, leather jackets, and flames.
"I went in being like: I want to write this really independent, strong woman!," said Niia of the process. "And it ended up just being about this crazy jealous girlfriend. But it's funny, because now when I look back at it, I'm like well, actually this is a strong vulnerable woman. In a way.“
Looking forward, Niia wants to keep writing songs, experimenting with the "sweet spot" between jazz and pop, and yes, performing for larger, and larger audiences around the world.
"It’s really just them listening to me vent," she said of how she feels about being on stage now. "I’m like, thanks for letting me get that off my chest!”
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