“R&B princess.” “First Lady of 88rising.” “Indonesia’s rising star.” Ever since Niki Zefanya signed to Sean Miyashiro’s upstart record label in 2017, the labels – some innocuously coined, others weighted with breathless expectation – have come fast and furious.
Not that the poised 21-year-old can’t handle the boxes that her fans, the media and industry at large have tried to put her in. “I feel a general sense of pressure just being a public figure, period,” the artist better known by her mononym NIKI tells NME. “You’re constantly putting yourself under a lot of scrutiny, and people have a lot of opinions, especially people that don’t know you.” She makes room for her own humanity, she says, by trying to be herself as much as possible: “I value authenticity over anything else.”
As for being a young, Indonesian singer pursuing her dreams in the United States and repping for youth back home and elsewhere in Asia, NIKI’s more than happy to assume that mantle. “I wear Indonesia on my sleeve everywhere I go,” she says. Representing her country, she says, is an “honour” and “a responsibility I love”; in August, she posted a moving rendition of the patriotic song ‘Satu Nusa Satu Bangsa’ (Bahasa Indonesia for ‘One Native Land One Nation’) to mark Indonesia’s Independence Day.
But there’s just one title that NIKI is truly invested in living up to. ‘Moonchild’, which dropped September 10, is not just her debut studio album. It’s also a body of work that signals her arrival: as neither the new pop girl on the block nor the next Asian sensation, but as an artist dedicated to her craft.
“With this album, I decided very early on that I was gonna abandon any and all genres tethered to me and my identity,” she says. “Genre completely just defeats the purpose of calling yourself an artist.”
She smoothly lays out the logic: “You’re supposed to make art, art is supposed to push the boundaries, art doesn’t need to make sense all the time because it mirrors life, and life doesn’t make sense most of the time.”
It’s a chain of revelation that’s taken her years to connect. Before she was NIKI, she was a teenager recording acoustic covers in her bedroom and uploading them to YouTube. Shortly after launching her music career, she deleted all those old videos. “In the beginning I was so obsessed with being this ‘R&B princess’. That was bestowed upon me immediately,” NIKI explains. “I worried that if people heard anything else, they’d be like, what?”
Fans have since taken it upon themselves to reupload her old covers, and NIKI doesn’t mind. She’s far more secure in her multitudes now, and ready to break free of expectations. “I was very much intentional in that I did not want to just make an airy R&B record. That’s not what I wanted to do.”
“Genre completely just defeats the purpose of calling yourself an artist”
When NIKI first began to write what would become ‘Moonchild’, she says she lost sleep fretting over what it would sound like. “At one point I was like, ‘You know what? It can be whatever I want it to be, because I am an artist.’”
‘Moonchild’ is a statement fans and stans have been awaiting from NIKI for some time. She spent her first year as an 88rising artist dropping singles, and then followed up with two EPs, ‘Zephyr’ in 2018 and ‘wanna take this downtown?’ in 2019. On the other hand, ‘Moonchild’ is a concept album on which NIKI plays with persona, like pop auteurs have throughout history.
But rather than indulge in the loose maximalism the phrase ‘concept album’ can connote, NIKI adheres almost rigorously to a tightly plotted form. She gives voice to the titular Moonchild – a creation of The Moon – who goes through the emotionally distinct lunar phases that give the record its tripartite structure: the crescent, eclipse and full moon.
NIKI grandly raises the curtain on ‘Moonchild’ with ‘Wide Open’, also dubbed the foreword. Its lyrics are gleefully ornate: NIKI warns of backstabbers with “rhinestone-covered sheaths” and a “goddamn cornucopia of your serpents and your scorpions”. But one image stands out amid all this playful theatricality, set apart by NIKI’s bitterly knowing delivery: “So girl, don’t you give in / To all of the voices around you saying you can spread your wings / Only if you spread those legs first / That’s the bread and butter of this place.”
“It’s no secret that in every industry, women are objectified and there are double standards everywhere,” NIKI says. “That’s not any less true in the music industry. As a female artist, you just face different challenges than when you’re a male artist.”
Those lines in ‘Wide Open’, though, were inspired by stories NIKI heard from her female peers. “Even though I’m in a mainly male collective,” she says, referencing 88rising, “I have just been surrounded by the best males. They’re very respectful and I haven’t experienced anything insanely sinister.” Still, she “wanted to make an outrightly feminist statement there, but in a really sardonic manner”.
The world of ‘Moonchild’ isn’t entirely grim: ‘Wide Open’ kicks straight into first, poppy single ‘Switchblade’, and the album’s third section opens with ‘Plot Twist’, a floaty, radio-friendly ode to self-discovery. But it’s the record’s darker moments that feel most like artistic breakthroughs. The old-timey opening of ‘Nightcrawlers’ leads you into a whimsical soundscape that wouldn’t sound out of place on Ariana Grande’s ‘sweetener’, but the clouds clear, the hard-edged beat comes through, and NIKI begins to rap.
In ‘Lose’, NIKI has what feels like a career landmark. An achingly honest piano ballad, it evokes Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ in its heart-rending simplicity. (It’s the album’s most-streamed single so far, its popularity no doubt boosted by the TikTok challenge where users harmonise with NIKI using the app’s duet function.)
And the mood feels as heavy as lead on ‘Pandemonium’, the mid-point of ‘Moonchild’ where NIKI listlessly sings, “’Cause everybody here is dying / Dying in slow-motion / And everybody here is lying, lying / Silently detonating emotions.” It’s a song, NIKI tells NME, about mental health.
“A lot of the younger generation now, everybody’s kind of just sad,” she observes. “I know that’s kind of a depressing thing to say, but I think given the circumstances, everybody’s just living in a haze… Maybe that’s just who I’m around and the climate of the world right now, within my periphery.”
Does she consider herself an optimistic person?
“No,” NIKI says after a pause, sighing over the Zoom call. “In all candour, no. I think I’m working on it. I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic, but I guess that’s what all pessimists say.”
Instead, she’d call herself realistic: “When I see patterns, it’s very hard for me to not expect that pattern to continue to happen… I just draw on history and what’s happened before and what I’ve experienced, and what’s the best way to go about it.”
“But!” she quickly qualifies, “I am learning to unlearn that way of thinking. It’s taking a lot of work. In a way, quarantine has been a blessing in disguise because I feel like everyone has to sit with themselves and ruminate over themselves.”
“A lot of the younger generation now, everybody’s kind of just sad… Everybody’s just living in a haze”
The making of ‘Moonchild’ spanned two years, by NIKI’s reckoning. It was a creative period that overlapped with the one and a half years her mother was battling cancer. “Watching her fight it was a process towards acceptance,” she says. “It also motivated me to work really, really hard.”
NIKI’s mother died in February 2019. Three months later, NIKI released the peppy pop project ‘wanna take this downtown?’ – because, she says, she couldn’t bring herself to add to the darkness of that period by working on ‘Moonchild’. “I think that really helped me,” she says. “When I returned to ‘Moonchild’, there was more that I could draw from, emotionally and mentally.”
A gospel singer, NIKI’s mother had been instrumental to her musical upbringing; in her household, NIKI grew up on a diet of ’90s R&B and hip-hop. “My mum was my very first advocate,” she says. “She was an advocate for: pursue what you’re passionate about, pursue what makes you happy. Because at the end of the day, if you’re unhappy with what you do, you’re just not gonna do a good job of it and you’re gonna live a very empty life.”
Did she get to hear any of the songs on ‘Moonchild’ before she passed? “No, she didn’t,” NIKI says. “But I’m sure she’s hearing them now.” She perks up a little: “My dad, though – he’s also my biggest cheerleader, and he is so stoked about this album. It’s really heartwarming to hear from him what he thinks. At least I got dad’s opinion!”
NIKI’s ‘Moonchild’ is out now