If Nikki Jean were any more upbeat, any fizzier, she’d have to be reclassified as an energy drink. If you’d just finished an album (in this case, her star-studded debut Pennies In A Jar) where you co-wrote with some of the premiere songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you’d be bouncing off the walls as well.
“My childhood, musically, was a bit different than a lot of my contemporaries,” says Jean, whose exuberance is matched only by how conversant she is with 20th Century Popular Music. “I listened to Jerome Kern. I listened to Irving Berlin. I wasn’t that into rock stars. Songwriters were my rock stars.”
She graduated from college in 2005 and ultimately found musical success. Just not in her chosen genre. “I sang with a bunch of people, including Nouveau Riche,” she says. “Then I hit the jackpot doing the hook for Lupe Fiasco’s, ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life.’ I should’ve been happy, but it just wasn’t my thing musically. I wanted to make a singer-songwriter album. One that was conceptually unified and had a real ebb and flow to it. Like Tapestry, by Carole King. It’s my favorite.”
Enter Jean’s lawyer, who knew just how to make her retro recording dreams come true. And, with luck, would produce an album redolent of embroidered jeans, bare feet, weed, and songs about moving along the highway. The attorney put Jean together with writer-producer Sam Hollander. Who, in turn, called in some heavy songwriting favors.
“I just went on this odyssey,” says neo-hippie Jean. “From coast-to-coast, visiting and writing with some of my biggest heroes: Carly Simon, Burt Bacharach, Lamont Dozier. We were all nervous, but it went pretty smoothly.”
The three-year gamble has paid off handsomely. Nikki Jean’s forays with Bob Dylan and Simon are lovely, but it’s her co-writes with R&B legends Lamont Dozier and Thom Bell (the MIA genius behind The Spinners), that make this album groove so effortlessly, and restores these men to the forefront of the music genres they helped to midwife.
Bell’s “How To Unring A Bell” has all the winsome melodic-leaning of his Spinners and Stylistics work. Dozier’s tune, “My Love,” has the same hooks-au-go-go feel of his best work at Motown. Remarkably, Jean’s clever wordplay and sweet, unforced voice matches the masters. No ridiculous melismas that make hash of the melody. No overwrought Mariah-style emotion here.
And you have to admire this young woman’s pluck. Every house she wandered into was a church, presided over by a High Priest of rock, soul, or pop.
“I mean, you go into Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s house and they have one wall that is covered with Gold and Platinum albums,” says Jean, savoring the upcoming punchline. “And Cynthia says, ‘Oh, those are just Barry’s. Mine are in another room entirely.”
Jean’s producer, the estimable Sam Hollander, feels the same, although he did have his reservations about the project at first.
“I had recently produced a single for Gym Classes Heroes, “Cupid’s Chokehold/Breakfast In America,” says Hollander. “And when I heard about Nikki, from her lawyer, and I knew she had been involved with Lupe Fiasco, I thought, ‘Oh great. I’m being pigeonholed as the Alternative Hip Hop guy.’ But, I was being as narrow-minded about Nikki’s interests, as I was worried people might be about mine.”
Not that Hollander didn’t have other doubts.
“When I met Nikki, the first thing she said to me was, ‘I adore ‘Tapestry.’ I want to make my own version of it.’ Inside, I sort of groaned. I know and have worked with Carole. Everyone wants to remake ‘Tapestry’! But nobody even comes close.”
Still, the writer-producer had the next best idea.
“I thought Nikki sang great and was clearly talented,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Suppose I hook her up with some of America’s greatest songwriters. They’ve got the track record and the cachet, Nikki has the youth and enthusiasm. So, I started getting in touch with people I’ve worked with, like Paul Williams, and just began asking around. Most people said yes. And we were off.”
Ultimately, this new-school/ old-guard chautauqua seems to be paying off: in buzz. Both Leno and Letterman are interested in having Jean on their shows to pitch Pennies.
“I think everybody is really going to like it,” says the budding superstar, Nikki Jean. “We only really had one big problem with the album. And that was which songs to keep and which ones didn’t make the cut. But when it comes to problems,” says the giggly enthusiast, “Well, you know? That’s not exactly the worst one you can have.”