“NIKI is the artist you wanna keep to yourself but also the artist that is too good to not share with the world,” a YouTube user commented on her “Before” video. Honestly, exactly that.
Nicole Zefanya, now professionally known as NIKI, kickstarted their music career through YouTube, where she would share acoustic/stripped-back videos of her performing original songs as well as covers during her teenage years. Born in Indonesia, she opened for Taylor Swift on her “Red Tour” in her home city, Jakarta, at age 15 after winning a competition arranged by the singer. Around that time, NIKI’s YouTube channel would secure itself over 40,000 subscribers before signing a deal with American music label 88rising.
NIKI’s debut LP, 2020’s Moonchild, was a concept album that represented three lunar phases of self-exploration. “Diverse yet cohesive, sharp yet blunt, figurative yet honest,” NIKI described the project in an Instagram upload. The genre-bending record, however, was just one small dose of what the singer-songwriter had to offer the world. Staying true to her past statement, NIKI has made it clear that she will not be boxed into one genre and hopes to continue pushing the boundaries. The following year, she contributed to a number of the songs on the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soundtrack, one of which became one of her biggest hits– the romantic “Every Summertime.”
Nearly two years have passed since NIKI dropped Moonchild and she has spent some time re-evaluating what she wants for herself in life. After taking her early video recordings down, she expressed in a Twitter post that she felt that her high school self “deserved to have her songs published.” As a result, her sophomore record, simply titled Nicole, consists of new and archived songs that have remained unheard and her favorite originals that used to live on nzee24. “It’s where younger me and current me meet and hang and have a fucking blast together,” she added.
In an interview with one of music’s most exciting songwriters, EUPHORIA.’s Fabio Magnocavallo sat down with NIKI ahead of the release to discuss the process and inspiration behind Nicole, the runaway success of “Every Summertime,” her short film, and more.
Your sophomore album, Nicole, will be out in a few weeks. You’ve already expressed this is your favorite thing you’ve ever made as an artist. After keeping the record to yourself for some time, how are you feeling knowing it’s going to be out into the world?
I think it’s both exciting and nerve-wracking. I would say excitement is sort of overtaking every other emotion, which I don’t know if that was the case for any of my prior works, to be honest. I feel very optimistic and just truly very, very excited. I really believe in this album and I think the fans are gonna love it, honestly. I hope.
The first half of the album contains new and archived songs that you have chosen to re-imagine or re-record. How long had you been thinking of doing that? Was it purely the pandemic or had you thought of that idea prior?
I would say it was definitely the pandemic that sort of forced me to look inward and sort of evaluating my life in every way, music included. It’s funny as I didn’t even didn’t really have the thought of making all of my old songs into an album until much later. Even the day that I record rerecorded the vocals and the guitar, I sort of did it for fun.
It was a really fast-paced process. The album from start to finish was done in like eight months, which is record time for me. It was kind of like an organic thing where after recording a few songs, I was like, oh, maybe this could be an album and be more than just something that I do for fun.
The second half consists of your favorite originals that used to live online at the beginning of your career. How was choosing those songs? Was it an easy decision or were there a few that you wanted to make the album that didn’t make the cut?
Yeah, so the tracklist evolved a few times actually. Initially, it was going to be all of every single song that I ever put out on YouTube and that was going to be it, that was going to be the whole album, but then I kind of took a deep dive into all of these archives songs that were written about that era or during that era. I also just loved those songs so much that it basically just evolved into what it is today. But yeah, then choosing or sort of like whittling down to the final six with all the other ones was hard for sure.
I think a part of me wishes that like all of it could be on there but I think I love where it is today. There are definitely some that felt kind of like an outlier, I guess, you know, just sort of like thematically. It didn’t really match with the rest of the record and I kind of wanted there to be a level of cohesiveness thematically and lyrically. It was difficult but I’m happy with where it is today.
When talking to NME and promoting your debut album, Moonchild, in 2020, you mentioned that when creating it, you purposely abandoned any and all genres tethered to you and your identity. Did you approach this album in a similar way?
Yeah, I would say so. I still adhered to that sentiment, total creative liberation without trying to ace an assignment or without trying to play by the rules. The creative process was definitely still similar to Moonchild but I will say this record is different in that it sort of just naturally had this cohesiveness from the get-go. I wrote it when I was like 17 and I didn’t really know how to produce at that point, so it was just me and my guitar. I would say this is my most cohesive album thus far, musically and lyrically in every way. I think that’s also why I love it very much.
“Before” was chosen to be the lead single for the album. Why did you choose that song to kick off a new era?
That was actually the very first one that I finished for the album. I knew it was the one because I think like at that point, the album, I don’t want to say was in embryo stages, but it was definitely still kind of very early on in the process. I sort of had a vision of what it was all going to sound like. Everything had a skeleton sort of foundational base-like production from the get-go, so I sort of knew how everything was just going to evolve at the end.
“Before” felt like the perfect summation of the whole album. I would say that song kind of marks the end of the story and this album is structured in like reverse chronology. It starts with the ending and then it ends at the beginning of the story of the love story. I think there’s something fun about opening the era with the ending. I thought that was interesting and fun. It was very intentional that “Before” was the first one, definitely.
The era’s second offering, “Oceans & Engines,” was written when you were 17 and details a heartbreak. Was it hard revisiting the older songs about heartbreak, or are you able to look back at them as moments in time?
I think it’s more so the latter because I think it felt very energizing and liberating creatively to approach it retrospectively. There’s something really fun and nostalgic about that without it hurting so much anymore. I think many years have passed since and there’s this detached neutrality that I’ve formed. Looking back now, it’s coming from a place of everything just feels very fond. I feel very fondly towards everything versus kind of like hurt or sad anymore. Shooting a short film was definitely way more of an emotional whirlwind than making the actual music. Making the music was fun and then kind of like reliving myself as a high schooler while shooting the short film, that was definitely more painful.
Let’s talk about your latest single, “High School in Jakarta.” What inspired you to write that song? Listening to it, it’s almost like you are reminiscing over your high school days as opposed to one you’ve written during your high school days, if that makes sense.
Yes. that’s a great example of a song that I wrote retrospectively. I love that one because I think it’s a reflective take on my high school experience. It definitely kind of narrates Chronicles what happened in actuality, but also there’s this fondness to it. I don’t know how to explain it but I love that one very much.
It started as this idea that I wanted to have all of my best friend’s names in a song because I was listening to “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande once and I was like, ‘oh, she really like name-dropped all of her exes. I would love to do that with my friends.’ It started as sort of an idea where I wanted to do that. Naturally, it evolved into a song about high school and later I realized, oh my god, it’d be perfect for this album.
Along with the album, you are releasing a short film. What can you tell me about it? Are the videos we’ve seen so far going to be a part of it? Or is it completely different?
Great question. The individual music videos will be re-edited and exist as a short film where everything’s cohesive. They were made with the intention of it existing within a larger, longer piece later. The short film will sort of have longer scenes that are only short little tidbits in these music videos and you’ll hear the dialogue that you can’t really hear within these music videos.
If you had to pick one favorite song from the first half and then the favorite from the originals, what would you pick?
I think the one that is really very much a standout to me personally is “Backburner” from the first half. I love that one deeply. I find myself kind of listening to that one passively when I’m not thinking about anything, so I guess that means that I just really love it.
From the second half, I would say either “Oceans & Engines” or “On The Drive Home.” I think those two are my favorites.
Since you’re dropping music quite frequently at the moment, how often do you look at streaming platforms and observe how well your songs are doing? With songs like “lowkey” and “Every Summertime” having done huge numbers, you must be intrigued to see how the new stuff is performing.
I think it’s healthy and important for artists to see how fans are engaging with certain songs. I definitely take a general audit of what’s going on with my fans and what they’re listening to, but I also don’t really let it dictate my next move or anything like that. I definitely look at that to see what songs would they want to hear most likely live and stuff like that. I definitely look at it but it’s not a driving factor in my career.
I wonder how a show would go down if you picked the 10 least popular songs.
[laughs] I feel like that would be fun. And honestly, you’ve kind of inspired me and perhaps I’ll do that one day.
I touched upon “Every Summertime” being one of your most popular songs and wanted to know if that song was always supposed to be a part of the Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings soundtrack? And if so, were you given a heads up on what they wanted sonically and lyrically?
That was 100% written for the movie. I was honestly given quite little to work with to be honest because they were quite tight-lipped and very good about keeping the plot as much of a secret as possible. All I knew was, that Shang-Chi, the lead character, has a mom and dad who loved each other. That was basically all I had to work with. And so I kind of wrote that song in celebration of his parents, his love story, and our parents’ love story. It was just kind of like a throwback song inspired by generational kind of like meet cutes and love stories.
You contributed to a number of songs for the soundtrack but that one, in particular, blew up. Were you surprised about that?
Yeah, absolutely. It was so funny. It had a pretty steady growth there and then all of a sudden I hear from my 11-year-old little brother that my songs popping off on TikTok. I was like, what? And then that was kind of the first sort of like boost in streams and people just started sharing it everywhere. I was definitely shocked but it was a very pleasant surprise.
Lastly, when fans get to hear your new album, what are you hoping they will take away from it?
I think it’s important to me that my fans know that this record was very much a labor of love, personally. I wrote every single song on my own. I had a hand in the production of every single song as well. I think it’s important that they take away that this is very much like me in an album. All the collaborators that I’ve had on board helped bring this to life but it definitely just started with my thoughts and my ideas and my feelings. I think I just want them take away that this is me bearing it all essentially on my most vulnerable and personal album. I hope it strikes a nostalgic chord in everyone and I hope that they’re able to reconnect with their younger selves as well in a way. I hope it extends lots of empathy and love to their inner younger selves and that it’s an emotional experience for everyone.