I don’t have to face the truth here in this messy room, ruminates Niki DeMar through a vocoder effect. Her new song, “Messy Room,” finds the burgeoning artist reclaiming her mental health, addressing her life-long battle with depression and anxiety, and even confronting those who may have never taken it seriously.
“There was a group of people who didn’t understand us. When 2020 happened, a lot of those people started to understand where a lot of us anxious and depressed people were coming from,” DeMar tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “Those people were forced to live the life we naturally live. When you’re depressed, you don’t leave the house or the apartment. There’s a common understanding now. We didn’t have that prior to last year.”
DeMar paints with specific imagery, setting the scene for the listener to see the song right before their very eyes. Shame on me for the clothes on the floor / Empty bottles that I left everywhere, she sings. Last night’s jacket couldn’t keep me that warm / It’s lying there as lonely as I am.
Her loneliness spreads like wildfire, out of her own mind, as well as from relationships in her life. “I was given a lot of shit from relatives and people in my personal life. Oddly, at dinners and holidays, it would be brought up that ‘Niki is messy and disorganized,’” she explains. Even her fifth grade teacher once called her out as a “slob” in front of the whole class. Those kinds of words are like barbs to one’s psychological health, and it can take years to heal.
“As I started to grow older, instead of being embarrassed about it or shaming myself, I brought it up in therapy,” says DeMar, who was diagnosed with OCD in her junior year of high school. Such mental illness frequently shows up in forms of “obsessive thoughts,” and for DeMar, she often struggles with simple tasks, like what she’ll wear when she goes out. “It makes me change my outfit 500 times until the outfit feels right and safe. In my head, my thoughts would tell me bad things would happen if I would wear these outfits. I wouldn’t even have any energy to re-hang it.”
DeMar has struggled with depression her whole life but is now quite high-functioning. “What got me to that place is throwing myself into work and things I love. When I’m done after that, I don’t have energy to pick up,” she adds.
With the bridge, she draws further parallels between a messy mental state and a messy physical space, singing, These bad habits are ’cause of my mind / Something’s gotta give so I can unwind.
“The biggest symptom of depression is giving up on your life. And your apartment becomes a mess,” she says. “Just because you’re depressed, the world doesn’t stop.”
Written last November, at “the start of my seasonal depression,” her latest single takes control of the narrative. DeMar isn’t wallowing in her depression; rather, she finds acceptance as a way to a brighter and more healthy way of living and thinking. She still struggles, perhaps for the rest of her life, but she has identified her triggers and ways to cope throughout her daily routine.
“You have to find that one thing that gets you out of bed. I romanticize having my coffee. I take an hour out of my morning. I wake up early. I have my own little coffee station and espresso machine,” she reflects. “I’ll make coffee and watch YouTube on my computer. That first hour in the morning, if I skip that step, my day is not on the right foot. That’s what starts my day right.”
Through songwriting, and pouring her heart out three minutes at a time, DeMar tackles her mental health and past trauma in a way that has given her more agency. “What I have learned through songwriting, it’s that your brain is such an interesting thing and it’ll make you focus on fear when there’s a reason you’re so scared of this thing. It’s not that you’re scared of it actually happening. It’s because you still have healing to do. There’s trauma you didn’t face.”
She continues, “I used to have this fear of abandonment, and it used to trickle into my life. I was almost blaming so many things. Then, I realized it’s not [other people]. It’s me.”
DeMar first hit the scene as one-half of Niki & Gabi, a joint effort with her twin sister. They released their debut single in 2017 and an accompanying EP one year later. They are most famously known as YouTubers and social influencers, having founded their YouTuber channel in 2012—currently boasting nearly 10 million subscribers.
As the duo’s star rose, the more DeMar associated “success with being a twin. I kept getting further and further away from my solo dreams. During quarantine, I did have some space from Gabi. We weren’t able to see each other, and I had all the time in the world,” she says. “I’d only ever thought I could release music with Gabi. I didn’t think it was in the cards for me.”
When DeMar issued her first solo single last summer, a rhythmic slow-rider called “Alone in My Car,” it became clear she had tapped into something truly special. A follow-up titled “Bite of Me,” thematically similar to Britney Spears’ iconic “Piece of Me,” soon followed. “If I have a night off, I get so excited, because I know I’m going to sit at my computer, piece together my notes, and see if there are common themes,” she says, passion evident in her voice.
Isolation in quarantine has also given her plenty of time to discover artists, many of which have been quite influential in her own work. “I fell in love with Spotify, and I almost treated it like Instagram. I was trying to discover new artists instead of finding new influencers on Instagram.”
Artists like Fletcher, Carlie Hanson, Astrid S, and Conan Grey caught her attention. But another name, a prominent pop topliner named Sasha Sloan, left the biggest impact on her. “Sasha is the queen of the sad ones. I felt like she was reading my notes on my phone or something when I was listening to her. Her songs got me through quarantine.”
“Messy Room” possesses an immediate melody, one that’ll worm right into your head, and surprisingly, it has taken DeMar quite sometime to create such strong melodies. “That’s definitely something that came later in my songwriting growth. I used to just be a lyric bitch. I loved English growing up, so I’m a writer at heart,” she says. Producer Rob Grimaldi was of great encouragement, and soon enough, DeMar was “delivering him voice memos” with both lyrics and melody locked into place.
“It’s really important to find a producer who knows your sound and the vibe you want in your songs. There’s plenty of great producers out there, but there are very few who know you better than you know yourself and your tastes. Rob is incredible with melodies.”
With the release of “Messy Room,” DeMar has noticed something else emerging with her output so far. “Each song really goes well together. They’re all almost forming a quarantine album. That wasn’t the plan, but it’s kind of happening,” she says, with a laugh.
Plans for an album are still underway, but if songs like “Messy Room” are any indication, she is not going away anytime soon.