For NIKI, solitude has become her cathartic escape.
In a continually hyperconnected world, being signed to a label boasting numerous at-the-ready collaborators and under the microscope of her growing audience, it’s difficult to imagine NIKI truly, if ever, alone. In the present day, the reality of being left up to your own devices has become an exhausting feat — terrifying even, though it’s a familiar concept for the singer. It’s one she relishes in, cuts her music-making teeth with and even welcomes with open arms as of late.
And she’s seemingly gone through the motions of life in this state of mind. In her late teens, NIKI, born Nicole Zefanya, moved to the United States from Indonesia all by herself for college, promptly leaving the school six months later to pursue music.
Her life now in Los Angeles is just a smidgen different than it was in Indonesia: She traded in traditional Indonesian gamelan music for LA’s noisy traffic. There isn’t the scent of banana fritters wafting in the air, nor is there the Indonesian fig tree, a reminder of home covertly snuck into the music video (she assures that it’s fine if nobody’s caught the reference) for her song “Switchblade” off of her newly released album, Moonchild.
“Moonchild is very figurative and metaphorical,” NIKI said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s, you know, very much rooted in themes of self, discovery, growth, acceptance — whatever it is. … Where my prior works were very much about youth and like love, (Moonchild) is very rooted in the real world and reality.”
Her album details two years of being a “fake adult” in the making, a musical memoir of the moving parts and experiences that culminated in her growing up. Basically, this is NIKI played out “in 10 songs.”
Before this release, fans experienced her EPs and the ephemeral moments of pop and R&B fun contained on the tracks of each work. While in the early drafts of Moonchild, however, her mom passed away, and she found herself just wanting to escape over a “chaotic, disorderly time.”
“It felt too dark honestly, too heavy,” NIKI said. “And so I kind of, like, shifted gears.”
NIKI elected to release Wanna Take This Downtown? instead — an easy, lighthearted salve to reality’s wounds. Moonchild became possible due to NIKI spending the last few years learning resilience in the face of uncertainty.
“I’ve had a lot of time within the two years to just reflect upon myself and like my life and grow within myself and into my own skin,” NIKI said. “My past two projects have been very about, you know, kind of looking outward and the external things in life versus this. It is very internal.”
There are less songs about love and youth rooted in her present reality. She shaped her debut album into a metaphorical fantasy with odes to celestial higher beings, catapulting listeners into the cosmos while still rooted in vulnerability.
In what she calls the “biggest undertaking” of her career, she’s had to approve everything that went into the album. There were days filled with Zoom sessions and months in a rented studio, where the creative process had her strumming up beats and freestyling songs until the witching hour. Emails back and forth saying yes or no, and listening to each song approximately “1,000 times,” she found herself questioning the minute details.
“There were so many times where I was like, ‘Am I tripping? Is this good? Is it bad? Is this too weird? Is it too safe? I don’t know anymore,’ ” she said.
This album was much more of a studio-based “creative playground.” For hours, NIKI and her team would build entire songs off a simple chord, or the beat of a drum.
NIKI admits, though, that she still prefers creating alone.
Emotions are easier to tap into in this state, and she’s used to it. Her song “Lose” was recorded in one take, away from the chatter of the studio’s control room. She’s convinced there’s beauty in privacy, magic even.
“I feel a lot more liberated when I’m alone,” she said. “Because you know, you’re just alone with your thoughts. There’s no judgment, there’s nobody else to say, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ … You know what I mean? It’s just kind of, you.”
There’s the version of NIKI that exudes confidence and is proudly yelling out to a crowd of thousands of fans. And then there’s a quieter version: one that came in contact with scrutiny, which she spent much of her later teen years closely analyzing.
“I’ve been trying to unlearn like, you know, my need to just be accepted by everybody because it’s — it’s impossible. It’s impossible in this life,” NIKI said. “It just taught me to, you know, find value within myself outside of other people’s opinions of me.”
At the end of the day, while Moonchild was undoubtedly her exhaustive journey to take, NIKI says that listening to the album doesn’t require you to know the details of her story. “Well, what’s your story?” she asks, encouraging fans to personalize their own truths with her music.
Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].