Niia has a tattoo which reads: “time destroys everything.” A permanent marker of life’s impermanence. “I feel time has always been this weird clock ticking down. I’ve tried to embrace it,” confides the avant-pop singer-songwriter with a heavy sigh. “Time is inevitable─and we all have to make the best of it and figure out our own practices and what we want to do with the time we have left.”
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Time, as a modern construct with seconds, minutes, and hours, is surely man-made, but the seasons wax bright then brittle all the same. As a working musician, who first caught the attention of producers Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonder, leading to a feature on Wyclef’s 2007 single “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill),” Niia feels time crushing in on her like an unsolvable escape room. “The music industry unfortunately forces you to feel like time is so of the essence. You have to put out music all the time or you get forgotten,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call.
With her brand new single “Not Up for Discussion,” starring sly bass work from Khruangbin’s Laura Lee, she condenses her existentialism into a four-minute smolder. One of her favorite lyrics (Time is what we want, but what we use the worst) occupies the emotional battlefield across which all of us must eventually pass. “People really want the time, but they don’t always utilize it the correct way,” she says. “For me, time has been the enemy but also the savior in a sense.”
“Not Up for Discussion” is the anti-anthem, declaring that however one wants to use their time is fine by her, and arrives as the backbone to a new EP. If I Should Die, expected late May, veers away from her usual writing about “heartache and love,” engrained within her from her days singing jazz standards, into wholly personal territory.
“I felt like I needed to shift a little. It happened organically where I started to think about myself more honestly and focus on things I was feeling in the moment. Over the past year, things have obviously changed a lot,” she offers. In her deep contemplation about time, she began to consider “how much time I have left. I was feeling burnt out and stressed and trying to find a way to creatively express that in a way that’s not too depressing.”
“It’s more based on my truth, which is ironic because I don’t like the attention and exposing myself,” she adds. “But hey, you have to do it, and you have to be brave and talk about what you’re feeling.”
In the accompanying visual, Niia employs the tremendous disassociation she experienced when left locked away in her home the last 12 months. “I felt disconnected from myself. It makes sense. That’s how our body copes with stress and anxiety,” she reflects. “I really wanted to find a way to bring myself back to things that make me feel comfortable. The things that make me happy don’t anymore, and I had to find other ways to find myself and my reality.”
“Not Up for Discussion” shimmers with a creamy, warm color palette, an extravagance that seems to penetrate the camera. “My friends are all ignoring me, doing their own thing, and that would be my safe place in my real reality. Once you get to the end, I’m on a pillar alone in this abyss of the sea. It’s blurring the lines of where my safe place is and where I feel most comfortable.”
The EP firmly centers around themes of letting go, moving on, and understanding one’s own boundaries within human relationships. “We Were Never Friends” calls back to her early 20s when she landed in Los Angeles after buying a plane ticket from New York City ─and never returning. “I was only supposed to be here for a month,” she recalls. “Back then, I was… not green but a little naive about wanting to be friends with all these people who I thought could help me. I was really trying to establish all these relationships, and I realized they weren’t good for me.
“I didn’t need to be friends with people who weren’t bringing me joy or really looking out for my best interests,” she continues. “Even when you date someone, sometimes it doesn’t start as a friendship, and after you breakup, it’s like ‘well, we were never friends, so why are we talking anymore.’”
Niia, now 32, pauses. “I trusted a lot of people, probably more than I should have,” she continues, seeming to untangle some of those hard knocks lessons. “I’m a very gullible person. Learning the industry and learning that everybody has motives, I’m always one of those people who is just so grateful anyone wants to listen to my music or work with me. I’m starting to own my own confidence. I can work with myself and find the people who are genuine.”
“Reflecting back, there are a lot of things I should have left sooner or people I should have stopped working with that weren’t really helping me. Everyone’s 20s is a little shitshow,” she laughs.
Closing track “Ace Hotel” emerges as her most honest lyric and among her most ferocious and dynamic vocal performances. “It’s a true story. I definitely had an affair at the Ace Hotel,” she says, point blank. “What’s funny is I didn’t really want to write about it, but I also felt like this EP is about letting go of things. ‘Ace Hotel’ was my frustration with myself of why do I still bring myself to do things that I know aren’t good. I think it’s out of habit and out of fear. I wanted to write about letting it go, identifying the reasons why I did things, and making out of it.”
Across the six-track project, Niia enlists four collaborators, from Solo Woods appearing on “We Were Never Friends” to Girl Ultra’s bruised vocals haunting on the title track, a decision that erupts with unexpected creative energies. Since her early days in LA, Niia had turned to predominantly one producer for her work and found herself losing perspective. “You become dependent on people and convince yourself you can’t do anything with anyone else. As I got older, I started to realize, ‘I don’t know if I like working with these people anymore.’ The fear of finding people and making sure they get my vision felt very overwhelming. Once I started trying, I realized it was working.”
“I’m Italian, so I like to keep it in the family,” she quips. “I’ll keep the same couple of people, but branching out was a challenge. It’s really turned out to be a blessing. I’m always a big believer in bringing on other people for insight and perspective. You always get better results when you collaborate. I picked the artists I genuinely love.”
In conjunction with If I Should Die, Niia eyes a video for every single track. It makes sense. Growing up, she consumed plenty of Italian cinema, from the work of Frederico Fellini and Dario Argento to such landmark films as “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Godfather.” Her tastes quickly expanded throughout her teens and young adulthood, as she sought out Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, always with a hunger for films with “a slow pan. I love slow movies that really take time,” she offers.
Niia brings such a stylish, emotional intensity to much of her songwriting. “I’m very sensitive, but I’m also extremely dramatic. When I write my music, I’m very visual, so I sometimes see it a little before,” she says.
Over her career, from her 2017 debut record to the forthcoming EP, Niia is certainly far “less afraid” these days. “I’ve always been a true introvert. Writing music was always just for me. I would write the songs because I was having a bad day. I never got into music to share it. As I’ve grown and released more, I realized people like my music, and they can identify with it,” she says, tipping her hat to such influential figures as Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen.
“Eventually, I want to start writing about things for other people’s perspectives or nature. But I’m not there yet, as a writer. Writing is really rewriting. I learned that the hard way. I always thought I had to be a purist – just write a song and that’s what it is.”
Photo by Jade Mainade