Introducing Niia, a talent as unique and mysterious as her name. Niia’s music has been described as horror soul, dream pop and future jazz. It’s a bit like an amalgam of Carly Simon, Massive Attack, and Sadé. She has a sultry R&B trip-hop vibe, underlain with shadowy synth progressions that evoke Kid A-era Radiohead. “I sometimes feel I’m a jazz singer in a spaceship,” Niia says. She has a chilling presence; her songs stay with you, haunt you even.
Niia Bertino, pronounced “Nye-a” is twenty-five. She has the carriage of a Bertolucci ingénue and the shyness of a schoolgirl. Her Italian-born mother is a classical pianist and from a very young age, Niia has been too. Her aesthetic also comes from a childhood steeped in the cinema of her motherland, from Argento to Scorsese to The Sopranos. “I love a good, bloody film,” she says and its heroines, “Strong, beautiful women who embraced emotion… femmes fatales with secrets.” At her Catholic girls’ school near Boston, she was a “total music nerd,” cutting math to hide out in the chapel and play Debussy and Rachmaninoff. By the age of thirteen, she was fronting an off-campus jazz trio. She applied and was accepted to several top conservatories yet instead Niia followed in misfit footsteps and moved to New York City.
Between jazz vocal classes while enrolled at the New School, teenage Niia toured a recording studio and happened to meet its owner, Wyclef Jean. As soon as he heard her sing, Clef took her under his wing. Guest spots on his world tour and hit single “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)” followed. Although A&R execs took notice the 19-year-old aspiring singer refused the interest of major-label CEOs looking to create the next Avril or Christina. Niia didn’t want to be the next anything. Her heroes, Nina Simone, Björk and Fiona Apple create sensitive, complicated music. Niia’s sound and image couldn’t be manufactured. “Just had to come from me,” she says. “People thought I was crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
She decided instead to take some time off to focus on writing, to experience life and love in New York. The city grew to love her as Niia has become something of a downtown cult hero; singing as a special guest at the underground theatre sensation Sleep No More and hosting a recurring night of James Bond theme-song covers. It’s an evening complete with a 14-piece backing orchestra, black-tie dress code and girls in gold serving martinis.
Coincidently Niia has been recording her debut LP in Los Angeles. Where she’s not sure she could live since “nobody there wears black” she says. Her debut will be released later this year. Niia is recording in the studio of a kindred spirit, the equally mysterious Robin Hannibal of Rhye and Quadron. “I want you to feel like you’re in another place. The play on what’s real and what’s not real is interesting to me,” she says. Her writing is as influenced by visuals as it is by music keeping cinema in mind with her writing.
“I’m really afraid to be in the music industry, deep down,” she says. “I was thinking about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse… my fear is giving in too much, losing myself and falling apart like some of my vocal idols. Some artists change so drastically to be famous.” Recently Niia discussed her own personal struggle with stage fright and the intimate connection made between an artist and audience in her Ted Talk “Beauty Overcomes Fear”. In a time where we are accustomed to knowing everything about an artist, she asks for listeners to “respect that connection”. For Niia “the most important and private connection made between an artist and audience is through their music.” Over the course of an evolutionary process she has overcome her fear. Niia is ready to launch her career on her own terms. While simultaneously, accept the chaos of imminent fame.
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