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Interview: Nikki Yanofsky discusses her upcoming album, Black Sheep

Nikki Yanofsky is a Canadian singer/songwriter based in Montreal, Quebec. Nicknamed ‘big mouth’ in her formative years, her environment was characterized by the music of soul singers with fittingly big voices, notably Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. During the release of her 2013 debut album, Nikki, Yanofsky was taken in by late great Heatwave keyboardist Rod Temperton and industry giant Quincy Jones, both of whom would mentor her in developing her songwriting craft. A year later, her follow-up, Little Secret, signified a twofold milestone: the solidification of a polished, yet nuanced jazz and pop hybrid sound, and a genuine coming of age that would catalyze progress, maturity, and artistic growth in the coming years.

Now, Yanofsky is prepared to release her much-anticipated third album, Black Sheep, which is slated for May 8th. I caught up with her to discuss her musical upbringing, the genesis of her new album, as well as reflecting on what she has taken away from her experiences.

Growing up, you had soul music as part of your background – lots of Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah! I kind of grew up in a household that had music on 24/7. Both my parents and stepbrothers were big music fans, and my influences were based on the artists that I was exposed to when I was young – a lot of Motown and classic rock too. Jazz music also came through that, because I was brought up playing a lot of charity shows around my hometown. At one of the shows, the founder of the Montreal Jazz Festival heard me sing and asked me if I wanted to perform in it. I figured that if I’m performing in a jazz fest, I’d better learn some jazz, so I got into those artists that you had mentioned, and the rest is history. I’d say my roots are definitely in soul, R&B, and jazz.

When you came out with Nikki, you got acquainted with Rod Temperton from Heatwave. How did you guys meet?

Rob and I met through the same publisher; we were both working with the same publishing company. I don’t know what it was that he heard in my voice at the time, but he tends to go for voices with a cleaner tone. From his work with a lot of guys like MJ, Heatwave, and other artists through the years, he was able to hear something in my voice, and really teach me everything I now know about writing, and life in general. It was such an unbelievable experience and amazing friendship I got to have with him. I told myself that even if I fail, at least I have that to look back on.

He was crucial to bringing out the essence of your sound, right?

Yep, for sure!

I read that when you were initially working on Little Secret, despite having a solid team behind you, nothing really felt right. Was that a matter of your chemistry at the time, or were you in different directions creatively?

Actually, I don’t necessarily think that it didn’t feel right, because I’m extremely proud of that whole album. I guess it was just because I was younger. I was still figuring myself out. But that whole record was an amazing learning experience. Even co-writing the album, Rod helped with that, too. It’s different creatively than where I am today, because I recognize that I’ve grown up, learned more about myself, understood more of what I’ve wanted to say, and that I want to be more vulnerable. In the past, it was about attitude and wanting to make it fun, but Little Secret is a lot more honest. In a way, it bridges those two areas together – the fun stuff, and the ‘not so fun’ stuff, you know?

I understand. When it came to writing the song “Big Mouth,” off the new album, Black Sheep, you were inspired by a woman’s march that was taking place at the time. Since you’d given the song the name that it has, did that demonstration resonate with you in such a way?

Yeah, “Big Mouth” was a single that I felt was very topical. It’s my contribution to that movement, in a way – a song to give women confidence. In the context of the album, it’s kind of its own thing and is separate from the rest of it, but that’s the vibe for the single that I wanted.

Another person you worked with was Quincy Jones, who had taught you ideas related to stretching beyond the confines of a neat box. What could you say about working with him, as far as shaping the rest of Black Sheep?

Quincy has been in my corner from the beginning. He’s very supportive, and he always taught me to decategorize music, since that’s where the creativity lies, and you have to make it your own. He gave me the confidence to go and try that, encouraged me to tap into more funky R&B stuff, and that’s where I ended up taking this record. But it’s interesting, because you have someone like Quincy, who’s one of the greatest creative minds, period, and then you have the suits of the industry who feel compelled to put you in a box. They say, “This is what you sing, this is what you wear – fast, easy, done.” Then, when they present you with something you’ve never heard before, and have no control over, you’re kind of in a weird place where you end up scratching your head.

On one hand, you want your music to be heard, but you also want it to truly connect with people. I can say that Black Sheep is the record where I really showcase my independence, while acknowledging the support and all that I’ve learned from my mentors. It’s the first time that I’ve ignored those people telling me to do one thing. When you’re young, you’re impressionable. When I started, I was not only very young, but also very impressionable, and it really was hard to stand up to those types of people. But especially with the first single, it talks about the difference between the way that we’re seen, and the way we see ourselves. I’ve interpreted my voice as a part for someone else to play, but now, I’m taking that back. That’s why this record’s so important to me. I’m just really happy with the way it turned out, and with the people who supported the creative vision

In general, were you kind of taken aback at having had the opportunity to work actively with not only Rod, but Quincy, too?

I was! You know, it almost felt like at one point, I’d be exposed (laughs), and people would be like, “What is she doing here?” But I think that stems from being humbled by the experience. When you’re in that situation, it’s not that you’re on a lesser level than these people are, it’s just that you haven’t had the opportunity to do what they’ve done. The situation makes you wrap your head around it, but it also motivates you to reach that level. I try not to overthink the process. If I mess up, I try my best to avoid feeling like I’m inadequate or I don’t belong where I am. If they see something in me that I don’t see in myself at that moment, I trust their judgment because of their accolades and what they’ve achieved in their lives. It’s almost like you trust their gut before you trust your own, and then there comes a time for you to prove your potential. So that’s what I’ve done – just learn, and go at it as much as I could.

The album was produced by Zach & Roger. What could you assess about your chemistry as you were working together?

It was incredible! It’s amazing how things seemed to have happened the way they were supposed to, and when you look back, you’re just like, “Wow, all this had to have gone right to turn out the way it did.” It just all felt like it was meant to be. It’s strange to think about how I was working with people who were familiar with the scope of today’s music, but also had the mindset of thinking outside the box. They were my peers. Originally, I had a list of producers that I wanted to try out. When you’re first meeting each other, it seems like things are going well on paper, but when you actually start working together, it’s not always cake.

So, Zach & Roger were actually my first choice, and I had this weird gut feeling; I was that confident. I talked to my manager and said, “Alright, you can throw your list away,” and it felt great to make an album with my peers. They’re not only beat makers; they’re classically trained and understand the musical side of things. They’re open creatively, open to suggestions, and there were no egos. It was such a good experience, and I can’t wait to make many more albums with them.

Usually, when you hear of an artist expressing their influences on an album, they play it safe. But with you, and Black Sheep especially, you showcase all these sounds wholeheartedly. Do you tend to stick to certain musical moods, or do you just let it flow, without getting too caught up in the process?

(Laughs). I think it’s all about finding a balance. When you first go into it, it’s important to have some type of plan what you want the sound to be when you go into the studio, but also try to just let things flow. Also, when I write songs, they start out with just basic piano and voice. For example, “Black Sheep” was something I wrote on my piano at my house, and then Zach & Roger brought it to life. And it’s funny, because they took it to a place I wasn’t expecting – like a slow, moody-type ballad, and then they said “Now, we’re gonna put a bass line on it and make it funky,” and I was like “Alright!” It seemed like, more times than not, we’d just land on this funky vibe. I’d never considered that before, and mostly thought of my roots as being jazz-pop, but then, what does jazz-pop include? R&B (laughs)! And once I noticed that, I was like, “Wow, this is so right!”

I was interviewing another artist recently about the direction of pop music in 2020, and we both came to the conclusion that it tends to exercise more creative liberties than it did in the last decade. Where do you see pop in general going nowadays?

Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited! When Spotify became big, people were like, “Oh, no! How are we going to control what’s popular now?” It used to be that you had to have a hit on the radio to be successful, and now, that’s shifting. It’s now possible to never have a [conventional] radio hit, but have millions of streams on Spotify, and sustain that by touring. That’s something we never had before. I’m so excited because I don’t feel the pressure to make something insanely commercial. People used to chase hits, but I think they’re now gravitating more toward authenticity. There needed to be this shift, because when you eventually have too much of one thing, it can’t stay the same forever. But I’m excited! I’m discovering a lot of these new artists just through streaming services. I think it’s giving that creative control back to the artists.

Yup, and in a way, the Black Sheep album represents the new era – not only saying “This is me,” but also “I’m not afraid to be the underdog.”

It does, and it’s funny because the song “Black Sheep” could have so many different meanings on the album – being an outsider, or being the black sheep of jazz, or standing up for yourself in the face of danger. But the one you touched upon is the main one; that’s exactly it.

Up until this point, what have you learned about yourself, as a musician, and as a person?

I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this whole experience is to trust my gut, and to be real, you know? A lot of these songs on the album are, vulnerable, dark, and deep, but I also have songs that go back to that fun vibe. Back then, I felt like that was the only thing I was willing to show people, but these days, I’m showing many different sides of my character. You have to take that great a risk to earn an even greater reward.

Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans

I just want to thank everyone for being patient. I hope that they like Black Sheep once it comes out, and that it would be worth the wait!

Nikki Yanofsky Socials:

Official Website|Facebook|Twitter|Instagram

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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