When Nicole Zefanya was 15 years old, a Taylor Swift concert changed her life. The 2014 gig, she says, was “the catalyst for my YouTube channel” – in turn “the pathway to me learning how to produce” – ultimately leading to the release of the DIY R&B artist’s glittering debut EP ‘Zephyr’ last week (May 23). She didn’t just go to Taylor Swift’s Jakarta show in 2014, though. NIKI was Taylor’s opening act.
“It sounds like a movie plot,” she laughs. “I literally don’t know how I got to do it.”
Months earlier, Nicole had entered a competition arranged by Swift and the ice-cream brand Walls, called Ride to Fame. “I almost did it as a joke,” she says of the video she uploaded to enter. “My mom sent me the flyer and I was like: ‘This is totally a hoax, Taylor would never do this.'” But it wasn’t a hoax – Nicole made the top 10, then the top five, and ultimately won the competition, performing a set to more than 15,000 Swifties – including an X Factor-style winner’s song in Indonesian that she was required to perform.
Did she like the song? “Uh… not really. But I was just grateful,” she says. The performance itself was enough to make her forget any reservations: “I thought I didn’t like performing,” she says, “I was a really shy kid – but then I got off stage and was like: ‘You know what? That was actually super fucking fun!’ That’s when I discovered that if I could make this a career, that’d be great.”
Four years on, having signed to shit-hot label 88rising, she is. The NYC-based company is known for backing the best Asian talent (its 18-year-old signing Rich Brian became the first Asian artist to top the iTunes hip-hop chart with his January release ‘Amen’) and it’s “the most nurturing family,” says Nicole – one that’s championing her gorgeous, throwback R&B. “People actually really give a shit about each other,” she goes on. “We give each other feedback and there are personal friendships, which I think is really scarce in the industry. We’re all a gigantic family.”
Born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nicole got her love of music from her parents – especially singing at church with her mum – and was given a piano for her fifth birthday. Aged 13, and starting to write her own tunes, Nicole took up guitar and simultaneously started to produce – by accident. “I originally got GarageBand to record my voice and guitar,” she explains, “but one day I discovered a miracle called the GarageBand library. It was a total accident – I clicked this button and it showed this entire library of sounds. I was like: ‘Oh my god, where have you been all my life?'”
Soon she was building tracks with drums, bass, and synth – and three years later she moved onto Logic Pro. “GarageBand is the baby,” she explains, “Logic Pro’s kinda like the teen – and then Pro Tools is the adult. But Logic Pro is great.” It’s on this software that – now 19 and going by the moniker NIKI – she’s produced tracks including labelmate Rich Brian’s ‘Little Prince’ (“not a lot of people know that”) and, of course, her perfect new summer jam ‘Vintage’.
With its chiming intro and ‘ah‘-ing vocal hook, there’s something of Nelly and Kelly’s ‘Dilemma’ to it, but the vibe Nicole really wanted to capture was that of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, “a really effervescent, bouncy throwback bop”. Melodically, too, she drew on The Ghost Town DJs’ ‘My Boo’: “The chord progression is exactly the same,” she explains.
Despite the yearning love-story at the centre of the song’s whip-smart lyrics, she wanted an ultra-summery aspect to its ’90s-style video, which was shot at a motel in North Hollywood. “It’s obviously a love song,” she says, but I knew I didn’t want to ruin the vibe by having a narrative video and having a boy in it. I just wanted it to be as fun and colourful as possible.”
Growing up in Jakarta, NIKI listened to Aaliyah, Boyz 2 Men, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and Destiny’s Child – and a ton of other ’90s and ’00s R&B that she says is exceptionally popular in Indonesia. “Culturally, Indonesians love R&B,” she says. “Smooth-sounding neo-soul chords. For some reason nationally we have this really deep-rooted appreciation for that.”
As a result, there’s a big R&B scene there, she says – but Nicole’s managed to create her own USP. “I don’t want to sound like I started anything – locally there were a lot of artists in Jakarta, who definitely have always had this R&B sound – but for the music industry in Indonesia, everyone sings in Indonesian. I’d say I’m probably the first Indonesian to sing R&B in English. Indonesians going international,” she continues, “that’s pretty new.”
With the release of ‘Zephyr’, NIKI now has tunes aplenty and a forthcoming Asian arena tour in support of Halsey – so she’s facing the very real prospect of international stardom. Whose career does she look up to? “My sources of inspiration are endless,” she says, “But in terms of who do I wanna be like? I don’t want to be like anyone. I want to be me. I’ve taken on almost this responsibility to set up a platform for Asian females, because we’re very underrepresented racially, in the media and in pop culture.
“Name one Asian artist that’s popping right now,” she goes on, “other than, like, [Rich] Brian. It’s just not a thing. And I want to be the girl that sets that up. The one that changes the game. And I’d love to spearhead change in that way.”
She pauses. “I guess it’s an easy question to answer. I don’t want to be like anyone, but I’m very inspired by a lot of people. I just don’t want to copy anyone.” What level would she be happy with, then? By the end of the year, she’ll have had two experiences of arena-tour lifestyle – does she eventually want an arena tour of her own?
“Dude,” she says emphatically. “The dream is to sell out arenas. That’s the ultimate dream.”
‘Zephyr’ is out now.