Although Nikka Costa joined the music biz at the tender age of five, she has lost none of her passion and natural appeal. We caught up with the likeable talent to talk about her latest album, her YouTube channel and collaborations with other artists
Funny, down-to-earth and tres simpatico – or so Nikka Costa comes across the moment she launches into our phone interview. You don’t need to meet this 39-year-old whirlwind face-to-face to succumb to the US-American singer’s infectious charm – it is more than enough to hear her lively and engaging voice.
A voice with plenty of experience in the business. Aged five, Nikka recorded her first single, followed by a debut album – accompanied by her father on guitar – just four years down the line. After all, the entire Costa family lives and breathes music: While daddy Don took care of Frank Sinatra’s arrangements, Nikka’s mother writes her own songs, her brother plays the drums and her sister, too, stretches her vocal chords – so it seemed only natural for Nikka to pursue her own musical path:
I didn’t really chose it when I was little - I think it chose me! I was always singing and my dad was in the business, so I had some opportunities to sing in front of big audiences. And then, all of a sudden, I was making a record – and it got very big, we were touring. It just kind of drove itself. But it was not until I was graduating from high school that I made the actual conscious choice to continue.
Another conscious choice was the one made by professor Herbert Waltl as he chose one of the tracks on Nikka’s current album PRO*WOHA for a very special project. The selected hit, Chase The Thrill, made it onto the new Mercedes-Benz Signature Sound DVD, a medium mixed especially for the new SL Roadster’s compact space and bespoke sound system. Waltl – a two-times Grammy winner, surround sound expert and DVD production pioneer in his own right – booked into George Lucas’ Skywalker Studio to realise this tricky challenge with impressive results. Due to its multi-layered versatility Chase The Thrill proved to be perfect for the full-on sound exploration, states Waltl. Besides many international stars, the DVD (shipped with every new vehicle) also features a full hour of classical music, tweaked to match Waltl’s signature SL Roadster sound aesthetics. His reworked PRO*WOHA outtake certainly whet our cultural appetite for further examples of Nikka Costa’s genius. But, while we are on the topic – what does PRO*WOHA actually stand for?
It is a kind of slang and difficult to explain. PRO means professional and WOHA is just an expression like “Wow!”
“Wow!” pretty much hits the nail on the head when discussing Nikka Costa and her 34-years as a music pro. Sometime during the early 1990s, Costa not only decided to delve a little deeper into the world of soul and funk, but also married Justin Stanley, a fellow songwriter and music producer. When Like A Feather, a cooperation between her husband and future Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, was featured in a Tommy Hilfiger spot, Nikka’s career enjoyed a thorough boost, followed by two further albums and a prestigious new label deal. The seminal and recently revived Memphis soul label Stax picked up and licensed the record, originally scheduled for release on Nikka’s own Go Funk Yourself Records, straight away.
Concord, who own Stax, heard about my already finished and self-funded album through a mutual friend – and they loved it! They said that it would be great for Stax. I think on paper it is a perfect union of ideas: Stax is legendary, it is soul-based and it was also the gritty soul alternative to Motown – I really liked that!
The resulting 2008 masterpiece Pebble To A Pearl reveals Nikka Costa’s most soulful side, including a cover version by the original “gangster of love”, Johnny Guitar Watson, and the upbeat and bouncy Cry Baby, co-written by Motown legend Lamont Dozier and producer/soul musician James Poyser. And yet, the album also manages to throw up a lateral surprise or two, including a collaboration with Canadian singer and musician Mocky, otherwise known for his work with Jamie Lidell, Gonzales or Feist.
A mere two years later, however, she left the safe path of soul music to try her hand at a more modern and electronic slant with Ching Ching Ching, a song that takes a critical look at her own colleagues and the current state of the music business:
Ching Ching Ching came from an observation of society and how young people only care about being famous. They just want to be on a reality show and become a star.
At the same time, this change in direction also underscores Nikka Costa’s thoroughly open and curious approach to making music:
When I make a record I just go with the feeling I have at the time or maybe with what I am listening to at the time. I will always love funk and soul; they are my kind of backbone. Sometimes, it is fun to experiment with other sounds and other genres, to try different stuff. I like a lot of different kinds of music and because I listen to a lot of different genres I feel like trying to sing different kinds of music, too – to me, that is part of exploring.
Her current mini album PRO*WOHA represents a further foray into the realm of pop. Her contemporary sound, once again customised and tailored by Nikka’s husband, fits her silky and soulful voice like a glove. When asked about working with her own partner, she replies matter-of-factly:
We have been together for so long that we have just figured out how to do it. When we are working, we are working. And when we are not working, we are not working. We do not fight. In the end, we are very independent of each other and that, in a way, balances us out. We have been married for twenty years!
Two decades is a long time, but not nearly as long as Nikka Costa’s time in the music business, including constant spells of reinvention. Take projects like her video platform Nikka’s Box, an outlet for spontaneous live jams in front of the camera, on her own or with guest musicians, at her home studio.
Nikka’s Box came about because I was in-between projects. There is a lot of my personality that does not get explored on my records or live shows. I am kind of dorky and funny and I do not really get to show that when I am strutting around being a bad-ass (laughs out loud) … It is very casual and very silly sometimes. Other artists like to be part of it, too. There is so much pressure in what we do that, sometimes, it is really fun just to do something silly and show that side of ourselves.
Well, none of that pressure is apparent during our conversation. Nikka gets completely absorbed in music – no matter the genre:
I have always loved music from the 1970s and I think that the late 1960s and 1970s were such an amazing time on our planet for consciousness, change, artistry, discovery and exploration. It was very innocent and allowed artists to be very creative. But I also listen to a lot of new music like Radiohead, Jeff Buckley or MGMT; I really like Peter, Björn & John – or different sounds like Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire. Listen, there is so much music out there – obviously I do not know half of what is really going on. You really need to take your time to discover it … the radio is not going to cut it!
Time for one last question: Are there any famous, unforgettable words – quotes or lyrics – by another artist you cherish a lot?
This might not make any sense to you, but in the old days there was this actress called Bette Davis and someone once asked her: ‘What is your advice for a new actor coming to town?’ and she said: ‘Take Fountain!’ … Which is a (less congested) street that cuts all the way across Los Angeles. That was her advice – and I thought: This is so clever! (laughs).
In her life and career to date, Nikka Costa has never got stuck: She made sure to take her personal Fountain Avenue, made her way, carved her own niche – and managed to stay refreshingly laid-back and natural throughout it all.