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Nikki Yanofsky @ Living Arts Centre

  • 4141 Living Arts Drive Mississauga, ON, L5B 4B8 Canada (map)

Location: Hammerson Hall

Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00 (HST included, service fees extra)

In her relatively young career, Nikki Y has worked with a stunning assortment of music legends—Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder. Though these collaborations come with bragging rights, Nikki instead talks about a lesser-known man who gave her a break. “My dad. He had this band called Past Their Prime Time Players,” says the Montreal native, raised on The Beatles and Motown. “It was basically a bunch of middle-aged men jamming, and I would sing songs with them.” The basement her stage, the 10-year-old would take on weighty classics such as Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”

After crushing it at a battle-of-the-bands, word got around about Nikki, and the founder of the respected Montreal jazz festival reached out. Suddenly, she was performing to a field of 125,000 people. “I wasn’t nervous,” she says. “I just felt, like, a sense of purpose and calm.” This, she knew, was her calling. “It was the summer of 2006. June 29. I’ll never forget that day.”

Since then, Nikki Y (née Yanofsky) has released two studio albums, 2014’s Little Secret (executive-produced by Quincy Jones) and four years earlier, her self-titled album (produced by the legendary Phil Ramone) which went platinum in Canada. But with her newest release, Solid Gold, Nikki is finally getting personal. The album chronicles Nikki’s relationship with her longtime boyfriend, broaching the topic of love through a spectrum of themes and sounds, her emotions as in-the-moment as possible. “My goal was to have no goal,” she says. “Last record, I wanted to bridge pop and jazz. This time, I wanted to get introspective—however that came out. It’s more about voice and not about a genre.”

Each song on Solid Gold is imbued with its own personality. And “Me, Myself, and I” is Solid Gold’s mid-tempo, contemplative anchor. The first song she wrote for this album, the track is a snapshot of a moment, years ago, when Nikki confronted her fear of being alone. “I got teary-eyed when I wrote it,” she says. “That only happens when I feel connected to what I’m singing. With every song I write, I have to get that feeling.”

The album was recorded over the course of a year in Montreal and New York City. Sometimes, Nikki arrived with completed tracks, written on a piano; other times, as in the case of “Me, Myself, and I,” she would write and record at the same time. “That vocal was recorded at two in the morning. It was a demo vocal, exactly what I felt in the moment,” she says. “So I decided I wasn’t going to redo it—I didn’t think I could capture that again.”

One of Solid Gold’s greatest achievements is its lightning-in-a-bottle ability to, at once, capture her technical prowess and vocal soulfulness. Much of that is a credit to her collaborator Wyclef Jean, who co-produced the album alongside Nikki. “The first time I worked with him, I was 13,” she says of Wyclef, whom she met at a charity event. (Nikki, who’s raised more than $10 million for charities, continues to devote herself to causes such as The Children’s Wish Foundation, The Montreal Children’s Hospital, and MusiCounts.) “He got me, not just my voice. After I worked on ‘Me, Myself, and I’ with him, I knew I had to do the whole album with him.”

There’s a reason why iconic, genre-shifting people have championed Nikki throughout the years; they know a prodigy when they hear one. (From a young age, she was an adept talent: Nikki could learn a song, word for word, in 10 minutes flat.) The singer is too modest drop the P word, but will offer this theory: “I was never introduced to people as a party trick. No matter what my age, I was seen as a credible singer.”

Phil Ramone became a fan when he heard her perform Ella Fitzgerald’s “Airmail Special” (which essentially involves four challenging minutes of scat) at the Montreal jazz festival. A mutual industry friend introduced her, at age 14, to Quincy Jones. “I went to his house, and he walked into the room, like, ‘Alright, what are you gonna sing for me?’” she recalls, laughing. “I belted out ‘Lullaby of Birdland,’ and we ended up hanging out, talking about old jazz records.” Herbie Hancock greeted her when Quincy literally pushed her onto the stage while he was performing “Watermelon Man.” A true professional, she simply scatted along. “I ended up improvising back and forth with him a bit,” she says. “I think that got Herbie’s respect.”

She met and sang with Stevie Wonder at a birthday gala honoring Quincy. “Stevie pulled out his harmonica, and I just started to tear up. On stage. Crying. Half my brain was freaking-out, the other side was telling me to stay professional,” she says. “He lived up to everything I wanted him to be: the nicest, sweetest guy. That was probably the best day of my life, let alone my career.”

Nikki learned from her idols that the most transcendent songs are often the simplest. For Solid Gold’s closer, “I Owe It All to You,” she found inspiration in Carole King. “‘Natural Woman’ always astonishes me: It’s simply put, but there’s huge complexity to it,” she says. “There’s this line: ‘I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for / Because if I make you happy, I don’t need to do more.’ That’s one of my favorite lyrics. I remember thinking, that is exactly how I feel.” So she wrote “I Owe It All to You,” a quiet, piano-based paean to love being life’s silver-lining.

Even tracks boasting sonic sprawls began in humble places. “I think much more melodically, and Wyclef thinks more rhythmically,” she says. “The combination was really cool.” Co-written with songwriters Lisa Scinta and xSDTRK (J-Lo, Rob Thomas, Jessie J), “I Know Sorry” began as a languid lament before becoming an emotional banger. “Wyclef sped it up, made it this old-soul kind of thing,” she says. “We wanted the energy of Otis Redding, where he’s begging and vulnerable, but more contemporary.” In a similar vein, the R&B singalong “Young Love” was fleshed out with instrumentation, says Nikki, “to match that dramatic feeling at the beginning of our relationship—us against the world.”

Still, Solid Gold is not all despair. “When I’m Drunk”—a cheeky track about the couple’s brief breakup—is propelled by a swinging beat and charming, dizzying lyrics such as, “I only call you when I’m wasted.” In fact, at one point, says Nikki, “I went into the recording sessions and thought, ‘I don’t want to write another song about love.’” That’s when she penned the brightly grooved “Too Many Songs (About Love),” co-authored with Oscar-nominated songwriter Danielle Brisbois (Kelly Clarkson, Kylie Minogue, Adam Levine) and Chris Braide (Sia, Beyoncé, Selena Gomez). It’s basically about how she’s guilty as charged. “I mean, you can’t help yourself because you feel so good, and you want to scream it from the rooftops…”

“I’ll never forget the first song I ever wrote,” Nikki says. She was just seven years old. “I asked my parents, ‘What did The Beatles write about?’ They said, ‘They wrote about what they feel and what they see.’” So she wrote a song about the fairies on her purple pajamas. “I always felt different when I was young. Kids my age were hanging out together. But I would listen to music in the kitchen and teach myself songs. I was connecting to these songs.” Throughout her career, Nikki has endeavored to create music that would have the same impact on others. “I always had a really old soul,” she says. “And now, I feel like I’m growing into it.”

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