The voice of Nia Andrews is as mesmerizing as they come. Honeyed and whimsical, the Inglewood, California bred singer-songwriter showcases a play on words and lyrical delivery that is unerring, furnishing the ideal platform for a daydream.
Since a tender age, Andrews has always had an unconditional adoration for music. Although fresh to her solo career, Andrews’ silky voice has always been there, tucked between the creative crevices of other artists that we’ve grown to admire just the same. After debuting her stellar debut album, ‘Colours’, back in 2013, Andrews is returning alongside producer and friend Mocky to introduce us to her forthcoming project, ‘From Here’. The spellbinding “Inside Your Head” serves as the project’s leading single with Andrews stimulating assorted metaphorical feelings that are all too relatable. Much like her vocals, her personality was just as warm, sweet and humbling during our recent conversation.
Read how it all transpired below, listen to “Inside Your Head,” exclusively with Saint Heron, and be sure to pre-order ‘From Here’ – slated for release on August 26th.
Asia Burris: While you’re relatively fresh to your solo career, you’re not new to the music industry whatsoever. I’ve read that your father was a music educator, so I wanted to know, was the love for music embedded in you from an early age? Was it something that’s always been there for you?
Nia Andrews: I think it has always been a part of me. My family has a video of me banging on a piano when I was 1 or 2 years old. I don’t have any memory before music. It was just always something that I’ve loved. It’s part of me. My son is really similar too. He’s so musical. I think it’s just a deep love that’s always been there.
How has being born and raised in Los Angeles played a part in your continued passion for music? Has it been an influence at all?
I think so. I mean, it is home, for one. I came up with a lot of musicians around L.A. Growing up, jazz and hip-hop were the two traditions that influenced me at first. L.A. has such a rich history for both that I was really entrenched in. But it seemed to be an underdog city for a long time. You know, New York is the city that is touted for its history with this particular music, and we would always big-up New York. But L.A., at least when I was younger, seemed to get kind of bashed as if our contributions weren’t as valid. That seems to be changing now. There’s a spirit of freedom that is part of the culture of L.A. I find that a lot of L.A. artists can be pretty experimental. It’s very “anything goes” here. I mean, you could make something up right now like, “I make new-wave-daydream-synth-pop-jazz,” and people would be like, “Yeah?! Ok!., Where are you playing?!” That spirit is finally taking on and there’s just been this huge exodus to L.A. So many people are moving here. They’ll say it’s for the weather, and that’s at least part of it, but what I think people are really drawn to is that spirit of openness and freedom. You can do and be whatever you want in L.A. For me to find my path as an artist in such a weird way and kind of late, L.A. gives me that sense of permission…this is just what it is and that’s alright.
I understand you’ve sung backup and worked collaboratively with Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, Common, and a few others early on in your career. Out of those experiences, what has been or what was the most beneficial thing that you’ve learned within that time?
The Lauryn Hill one was really big because I would say that was the experience where I kind of learned what I was working with. My audition with her was the first time I tried certain things with my voice because at the time I just wasn’t sure if I could be a “singer.” I was like, “Oh, I’m finding this kind of late and I’m more of a writer.” Quite honestly, I was so used to being behind the scenes that I just felt like, “Well, we don’t need another singer.” I was making so many excuses as to why I wasn’t an artist when I’ve always been that. It’s kind of silly in hindsight. I’d been the person supporting a lot of artists and giving a lot of ideas to other artists in my work as a ghostwriter, but totally not seeing that I could actually use my talents for myself. So to sit in a room with someone like Lauryn Hill, who I look up to so hard and who is just the epitome of everything vocal-wise…I love her style and her tone and register. I like singers with deeper voices, so I’ve always liked her sound. So to sit in a room and be able to sing with her…I didn’t know that I could do some of the things I was able to do because I frankly hadn’t tried. It was weird. It was the beginning of me saying, “Oh wait, I can do this.” And that tour was also where I learned – and this is such common sense – but I learned more about my instrument. How to sing under stress or what does my body need when it’s tired? Or, if I have a bad morning and I still have to show up, what do I need? You know, when you’re a singer, your body is your instrument. It’s not this inanimate object that you bring to life with your hands. If I’m tired, if I’m hungry, if I’m sad, or mad, or happy, that’s all going to affect how my voice sounds. Learning how to navigate that has been very significant for me.
Outside of your own music, you work closely with your longtime collaborator and husband, Mark. The two of you have this way of weaving together these great tracks. I was listening to “Hollow,” and it’s really drenched in loneliness and despair with the lyrics, but then you have this dreamy voice and Mark’s production is just so groovy. It makes it seem like I’m listening to this feel-good track but the lyricism tells the opposite. Can you touch on the creative processes when the two of you come together? Are you writing out the lyrics first and then the production comes afterwards or vice-versa?
With my work, I usually write from scratch with whomever I’m collaborating with. But with Mark, he usually composes the music first and he’ll be like, “Do you hear anything over this?” And then I’ll write to it. That’s kind of how I started as songwriter – writing to beats – so my approach with Mark is kind of like that. Sometimes he’ll say, “I hear you on this section.” So for “Hollow,” he really wanted me to write over the groove on the end where there are no vocals, and I was like, “I see why you want vocals there but I really want to put vocals on the top.” So sometimes, I have to campaign for what I want because what I hear is so in contrast to what he’s hearing and that’s why that marriage is really funny. It’s cool because now we understand each other more from working together. We have a song called “Hooligan” and when I finished he was like, “Are you sure you want to sing these lyrics?” I’m like, “Yes, that’s why I wrote them.” I’m like, “This is what I want to say.” The melody is really unusual, but that is what came out [laughs] I personally enjoy it. I think it’s very funny because it just goes to show how much of what I bring to the table challenges what he’s used to hearing, and then at the end those will often be his favorite songs.
I also listened to the “More Than a Woman” re-work. As a fan of Aaliyah, I absolutely loved it. You created this seamless, jazz inspired song with solid chemistry, so I wonder, could we ever expect a full-length project from the two of you?
I don’t know! That’s my favorite Aaliyah song. At the time, Mark and I had been collaborating for a couple of years. He had just started his live music experiment that we named Church, and that was straight-ahead jazz at the start. So I thought, let’s do a jazz version of that song so that I could sing it at Church. I performed it and he actually proposed to me at Church after I sang it.
I don’t know if we’re going to do a full project. We’ve flirted with the idea of it, but we both get so busy doing our individual thing. I’m just happy that we’re able to do some things. Like, he puts out a project and I may be on a song or two. Although…he’s not on mine [laughs] We haven’t done that yet.
My favorite song from you is “The Lovers.” I find myself really lost in it. I really don’t know when the song ends because I have it on loop each time that I listen. Do you recall where you were when you wrote that track and what was the main inspiration?
I was just starting to date Mark [laughs]. I’m very visual, so the people I was working with on that project, whom I love to death (Deron Johnson and Andrea Remanda), we had so much fun writing together. I felt like they really understood my strange way of communicating in the writing room to set up a song. I’d be like, “Okay, you’re in a cabin. It’s the ‘70s. It’s remote. Imagine you’re in a Terrence Malik film. I’m wearing a white dress…” It was all of that in writing “The Lovers,” and that’s why it’s so descriptive. It’s me painting this dreamy world, and that’s so not how Mark is. But that’s the feeling that I had writing it, inspired by our new relationship. I’m like, “Look, I wrote a song for you!,” and when he first heard it he was like, “Oh ok,” because he’s one of the architects of broken beat and here is this romantic song with no bass, no hump [laughs]. It had to grow on him, but I’m glad you like it!
I’ve noticed that you’re an avid storyteller within your music. It’s really metaphorical at times, and I personally appreciate that. So, even with your new single, “Inside Your Head,” to me, it’s like you’re taking us through this tale of drifting your lover out of the misery of his cares and you, in essence, are the brighter side of the bad energy. Is this true? Can you tell us how you developed the song?
This song is the first song I wrote with Mocky, who I collaborated with on this project. He is so great and just so easy to write with because he’s got this very special spirit of play. It’s like being five-years-old again and having a play date with your best friend. It will be like, “Now we’re gonna do THIS!,” and they’re like, “Okay!” So free! As an artist, that’s such a huge gift. So with my very first try at writing with Mocky, we wrote this song. Most of the time when we write together, he’ll fumble around with some chords, I’ll start singing something that will lead to other chords and I just kind of freestyle a bit. He’s the one who actually came up with the lead line for the chorus, and I think for him it’s kind of a love song. But to me, it’s kind of like what I’m saying to myself. A lot of my songs sound like love songs that are not love songs. This song in particular I hear it like a pep talk to myself. I look at people as split into all of these parts. The quietest part is your soul that knows everything, that knows your destiny, and that is just here to support you as you traverse this life making mistakes, learning about yourself, and unpacking all the stories so that you can be free to be who you really are. So it’s that part of me that’s saying, “I can get inside your head…,” the soul part that knows everything that quells all insecurity like, “No no no. None of that stuff matters, just settle into the truest part of you and relax.”
Do you read a lot? For some reason, I feel like you do.
I do! I’m really nerdy.
Is there a book that has ever contributed to your songwriting?
There’s this book I read when I was coming of age called Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd. It’s a biography of Zora Neale Hurston and reading about her in this context, something clicked in me. I was just so blown away. It gives a really good picture of the Harlem Renaissance and Black people coming together, creating, writing, making music, and saying something about the condition of the Black person in America. While she was an anthropologist and writer, what I loved about her is that some artists at the time felt like they had to assimilate into whiteness, culturally, to be deemed as valid, and she was like, “No, f that. This is how my people talk. In Florida, we talk like this. This is a dialect. This is something that I’m studying as an anthropologist and as a writer. I will write in this dialect.” Some people were like, “That sets us back as a people. It makes it seem like we can’t speak.” But she took the stance of “No, no, no, this is culture, and this is significant.” I respect how the book shows how Black people were coming together to create a lot of intellectual, cultural communities, and how Zora was like, “I’m down with this but what I’m not down for is packaging who I am and what I do within the lens of whiteness. Who we are as people is a significant culture too and I want to give voice to that.” Her story inspired me to constantly be in my friends’ ears at the time, quoting Zora like, “We need to get together. Zora said…” It really made me want to start a new Renaissance, and it has taken a lot of time for that to take shape! But I think the internet has helped a lot of us find each other – meaning a lot of Black artists – which is dope. But yeah, I do read a lot. I’m kind of nerdy.
Because you are so musically driven by jazz, soul, and R&B, who are some of your musical influences of all time?
I have a few categories. I’m really drawn to an archetype of Black woman who is very womanly in her femininity. It’s not sexual. It’s more quiet power and femininity. Think Clair Huxtable. It’s like, she’s sexy, but you wouldn’t describe her as that first. It’s elegance and class and like, “I will cut you with a look that is razor sharp without having to say anything and my head is up very high.” I’m into that. I love that coupled with sweetness and softness. That combination, to me, exists in artists like Minnie Riperton. She is everything. She is that to me. And Nancy Wilson, who is so that. She was actually on The Cosby Show as one of Clair Huxtable’s friends. I was in a wedding once; was Nancy Wilson’s sister’s wedding, and I didn’t know that they were related. I’m maybe seven-years-old and one of the flower girls. Nancy is the matron of honor, and I swear I was probably the only kid who knew she was. I was just fanning out like, “Oh My God, it’s Nancy Wilson!”
So, Minnie and Nancy Wilson! Ella Fitzgerald has that sweet, powerful, womanly thing to me too. Then when it comes to writing, Joni Mitchell is the bar to me because she never says anything in a common way, yet it’s super simple and she doesn’t sound like she’s trying too hard. I like Prince for that as well, who also really looked up to Joni. Stevie Wonder’s writing too because it’s hopeful. I like how he writes about seasons and time a lot, which I think is really cute.
When it comes to arrangements, I’m really obsessed with Charles Stepney. He did an album with Minnie Riperton called Come to My Garden, and it’s one of my ‘If I was stuck on an island’ albums. I can go on and on. Missy Elliott and her vocal arrangements – she just makes you feel like she’s one of your homegirls that you just want to take a ride with. Her writing is so sick. I’ve been a fan of hers since Jodeci’s Diary of a Mad Band, which is my favorite Jodeci album.
I’m really excited about your new project! Like you said, you’re working with Mocky on this one. With this being your second EP, could you give us some insight on if it will be a different side of you that we’ll hear compared to Colours? Or would it be just an extension and reflection of your growth?
I think it’s a reflection of my growth for sure. It’s deepening some of the things I was starting to explore on Colours by being simpler and more settled into itself. With Colours I had a lot of ideas. It was complicated, which I love. This project is quieter and maybe a little brooding at times, which is very, very telling of how I am. And, it’s a lead-in to my album which I’m really looking forward to releasing. So, it’s just a little taste of where I’ve been and things to come.
Photography: Marselle Washington