When NISHA logged on to google hangouts, their cozy beanie and broad smile would make anyone feel comfortable. Even though chatting with NISHA felt just like facetiming a good friend, we could still feel the same spirit radiating from them as we can feel in all their glam photoshoots, dance sequences, and dazzling vocal tracks.
We sat down with NISHA on Thursday to discuss their new EP “Paris”, which was a global collaboration project with artists from all over the world. Consisting of three songs woven together in a loop format, the EP takes us on a reflective, empowering journey of love, loss and liberation, reminding us of our most intense love affairs and warning us of the dangers of falling back into a cycle of attraction and addiction. With their music, NISHA hopes to be a force of love, and to “express thoughts and ideas that might not be possible in real life, or might be really confrontational or have consequences in real life” on behalf of their listeners (see below interview). Because of this, “Paris” is conceptualized as a love letter to their audience as well as themselves – it is also a declaration of independence from the binary world.
From their unconventional “third-culture” upbringing in Lagos, Nigeria to South Asian parents, to comparing the songwriting process to meditation, Nisha offered us a refreshing take on what it means to be an artist. Overall, their goal is to empower people to embrace their worthiness, and fight for their happiness. This message is echoed by self-reflexivity – NISHA’s music perfectly exemplifies what they want for their audience. By celebrating their past cultural influences, present inspirations, and future journeys, and part of what makes NISHA’s music so beautiful is how they embrace their worthiness, and strive toward happiness. Their music is a synthesis of their worldly experiences and their outpouring of love for what connects us, inspired by Bollywood classics, Indian Bhajans, West African lullabies, American pop, or the R&B and Hip-Hop. NISHA’s impressive background includes Opera conservatory training, songwriting for Universal Music Publishing, recording a series of singles, performing with dancers in digital music festivals, to now releasing an EP and musical short film.
Tell me about who you are to yourself, first as a human being and then as an artist.
As a human being I think I’m just like everyone else. I just want love, and connection, to do fulfilling work, and be part of the community I’m in in a meaningful way. And to have some fun! So I definitely relate to myself as a very normal person.
And then as an artist, I think where the distinction comes is that I feel compelled to make choices that embody a sense of freedom. Because I think art is a place where you can take certain risks and even express thoughts and ideas that might not be possible in real life, or might be really confrontational or have consequences in real life. Art is this beautiful testing ground that ends up translating into reality. And I do feel like because you have the unique opportunity to have other people listen to you and trust in what you say, it’s important to embody what you want to leave behind. As an artist, the difference is in being more open about that process. You have to go through the judgement that people have, and that’s challenging. But as a self, as a person, I try to relate to myself as the feeling of love in a space of love. But other than that, just normal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner kind of person.
What music did you grow up around, both in your household and through peers?
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and my parents are Indian. I grew up around a lot of spiritual music that way, and the Afrobeat stuff from living in Nigeria was what you’d hear going out.
When you’re a third culture kid or you’re an immigrant, you have one foot in each world and feel all of them authentically. It’s a part of who you are, so I think it’s about having the freedom to speak and embody them.
My dad was obsessed with the Beatles, and when we moved to the States my brother got really into hip hop and it was Tupac, for hours. I had those influences from them, and my sister was really into indie rock, and I loved and listened to Mariah Carey constantly. There were a lot of super varied influences sonically, and they’ve influenced my writing in that at the core, I look at myself as an emotional storyteller. And that is where my heart is, in storytelling that has all those flavors and colors. Continuing to integrate and draw from all those influences has been complicated. I love each genre so much, that sometimes I end up writing an entirely country-sounding song, or one that’s purely hip-hop. It’s hard to choose one when you’re obsessed with music like that. So I do identify as a songwriter and I let go of trying to write any one genre, and just tell a story.
What are some more recent things you’ve learned/discovered that contribute to your music?
The two things I’ve learned recently are more mood things. It’s stillness – I spend a lot of time in the studio writing, and over this period of time, we’re all had a lot more time to ourselves than we were expecting. The next album that’s coming out, a few of the songs I just started from a metronome. Starting from a blank slate, just writing from emptiness and discovering what was there, has been a huge influence. As for artists, I’m a huge Frank Ocean fan. I think he’s someone who integrates all of those things incredibly. I always kind of go back to Nina Simone – she’s just kind of a staple in my life.
It sounds like you’ve always been very musically minded. What made you first start pursuing songwriting and recording.
It was definitely a series of things! I used to write songs when I was a kid, my first song was called Mr. Blue and I was eight. It was always kind of in me, and I just loved it. When I was 15 or 16 is when I started performing. If I had to choose a defining moment it would be when I was 15 and started at a new school. I sang in choir and there were auditions for The Lion King, and I grabbed two of my friends because I was too scared to go out by myself. The woman running the production caught wind that I could sing, and asked me to audition by myself, but I was too scared and called my mom to pick me up. In that moment, I realized if I followed the fear I might miss my chance. So I went back up and auditioned, and that was my first time singing out loud in front of a lot of people – I went from never performing to performing in front of 50,000 people when we won the state competition. After that, I couldn’t turn back because I knew it was in me.
I went to a music conservatory and studied opera, but I didn’t have the confidence. There was this cafe I went to open mic nights at in New York, and I wanted to play a show there, but the owner said they only took original songwriters. So I was like, ‘yeah, I do that, of course!’ and I booked a show in March, and wrote 7 songs to perform by May. It was like my survival instinct kicked in. That’s how I started songwriting, and I was hooked. I loved that you could really tell your truth, and people would understand it because of the way music carries emotion and cuts through everything – that was a power to me.
What’s your creative process like?
Well, I always keep my voice memo around for practical reasons, and record ideas or anything else that I want to keep in my head. But I do believe there’s a process for every person to access their own creativity. There’s like an immersion process, similar to how it takes 20 minutes to fall asleep. You need 20 minutes to move through all the BS that’s in your head to get to the space where you can work without obstruction. I think music is a translation of your emotional state and your spiritual state, so you have to get past the surface thoughts. It’s like journaling, or meditation, or anything like that. Stillness helps, setting aside two or three hours helps, turning my phone off helps, and so do lots of candles. Then during that time, no one can reach me and I have the chance to listen until I hear something that really strikes.
You said making Paris was different from your previous singles. How would you describe that difference?
One of the most special things was that I met this group of five producers in LA, and they are from France and go by Le Side. Most of them are of African descent and they have recently kind of done a pop takeover of French music. I met them for a session, and on the very first day we made “Sunbutter” (one of the tracks on Paris). It was so effortless: someone jumped on the piano, someone jumped on the computer, someone jumped on the bass, and the synergy was just there. So I called my publisher and was like, I’m going to go to Paris. I just felt a really strong attraction to these guys and felt like I needed to be there. I showed up, and it was like living in the studio to make this record. All my previous work was a more formal setting, but this EP was like living in the world of the new music we were creating. It was so special to not just create music, but to be with a music family of mine.
Did you have any previous French music influences or was this your first experience with it?
Well, that leads to why this record is called “Paris”. If you’re been there, it’s a real place people have opinions and thoughts about, but if you haven’t been there it’s an idea. It’s an idea or romance, and the origin of the word romance is in the word adventure. And with the notions of romance, love, freedom, adventure, luxury, class, and taste, Paris becomes this beautiful idea and I wanted to draw from that. So many artists I admire had a relationship with Paris because that’s where they felt heard and understood. Nina Simone spent a good portion of her life there, and I love that she didn’t care what anyone thought. She would cover Bob Dylan and then go cover Opera, and people would say she sounded like a guy, and she wouldn’t care. I always say Nina Simone set me free.
At 19, I dropped out of school for 6 months and went to Paris, where I did my first solo show, sang jazz. I think I was feeling like I was getting into a rut in LA, and then I met these guys and it was the same kind of karmic interlude in my life, so that’s what Paris represents to me.
Why did you go with the loop format for your EP?
When I put everything together, it was 11 minutes and 11 seconds. I felt like that was auspicious, and it’s kind of like a cycle of relationship. When love is present, that’s what we really fight for and sacrifice for in life. The EP is edited together in a loop because of this idea that the memory can pull you in – it starts with reminiscing about what happened and you go through the journey of the relationship. Then you end up back where you started with a choice: Do I do this again? Or do I walk away? Even though you go through a period where you’ve walked away, a period you’ve completed. It’s just about the power of connection and how those things, they don’t go away. Like when you’ve loved someone, even if you hate them, there’s still a connection there. And it’s a little bit of a warning tale about, you know, if you spend too much time thinking about something, whether you say it’s over or not, it’s still happening.
We’re really excited about the musical short film you’re releasing with Paris. Can you talk a bit on that?
Visually, we did the story based on the two metaphors of thunder and lightning, which is something I really identify with artistically. Lightning is a bridge between the heavens and the earths, and it diffuses negative and positive energy and releases it into the air. I see that as my role as an artist – to bring things together that normally wouldn’t be, and to build a bridge in that way. The other metaphor we use is the Monarch butterfly. If you look into the migration patterns of the Monarch, and where they end up existing, it’s kind of like the diaspora. So reflecting on that journey or being in all these different places and love being the through-lines of connection, it’s not where you live or what you do, it’s the love that defines you.
What are your future plans, and what message would you like your audience to get from your music?
I’m working on a full length album, which is a hip hop RNB album. It’s been written and we’re in the editing process. There’s some dance music on there, and I’m really excited to share it. The message for the album is to choose yourself and love yourself, which leads me to my overall message. If my audience can walk away from my music with one thing, it’s to choose yourself no matter what’s happening. Just to have that feeling of, “I choose myself.”
“Paris” is available on all streaming platforms as of December 17th, 2020. A musical short film will follow shortly.