Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Star Down the Hall: In Conversation with Niya Wells

This afternoon I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and artist, Niya Wells. She’s making a name for herself in the world of music with her unique R&B voice and international collaborations. Two years ago we lived on the same floor as freshmen at UNCG. She was known for always singing in the halls, but no one seemed to mind. We sat down at Coffeeology in Greensboro to catch up and talk about music.

Hit Play on some of Niya's tracks while reading!

IMANI: I’ve gotta ask. Have you heard Pillowtalk by Zayn?
NIYA: Pillowtalk by who?

Zayn? From One Direction?
Zayn? No no. I’m gonna have to look it up. Let me see. I screenshotted this picture of a guy I think his name was Zayn.
*shows me a photo on her phone*

Yeah that’s him! I think he has different hair though.
Yeah I heard this song, and I was like “Oh my god! Who is this guy?” It was a remix of You & I. I’ll have to send it to you.

Who is your dream collaboration?
Frank Ocean. Frank Ocean is my dream.

Oh my god. You’re gonna have to find him first.
Right? I love that he’s building the anticipation, though. He’s like steadying his audience.

What’s your favorite collab that you’ve done so far?
I have two. My favorite, because it was great and it’s the biggest, is one that I did with Jarreau Vandal with Selections & Brasstracks. I loved that collaboration because I was the underdog, and they’re pretty big people, and I don’t know how they found me. Another is with Ace Henderson. He’s a Raleigh-based rapper, and I collaborated with visuals & musical forms.

Did they just hit up your email inbox one day?
The guy (Jarreau Vandal)’s manager, his name is Em, he lives in London and he said “I’ve been stalking your SoundCloud for years.” He sent me some house tracks & I did some of those, and he said “Oh this is great. Let me see you on this other track.” And out of all the tracks that I did, he loved that one. He was like “This is gonna be big! I’m sitting with him now and we’re amped about this.” At first I was like “Uh. He’s probably selling wolf tickets”. I’ve never seen his face. We always talk on the phone.

That’s a catfish situation. You might have to call MTV. 
Right? Like I love having this Charlie’s Angels type guy.

Was that Pure Bliss?
No Pure Bliss with Ralphy London. I did that one in like high school.

I liked that one. Sorry, I was on your YouTube.
Yeah? Thanks! 

I loved that one line “I’m digging your vibe/ I’m giving you all my time”
Yes! You know the words! 

I was fangirling. I was like “I know her!” 
That makes me so happy. 

How would you describe your music?
My voice is R&B-ish, but I love all genres so I say alternative R&B. Heavy emphasis on “alternative”.

Who are your musical influences?
Kimbra, definitely, Kid Cudi, and Pharrell. Especially his N.E.R.D. days.

When did you realize that music was something you wanted to pursue?
When I turned 19. I feel like that was the transition year. I was like “this is the year to find out what I’m gonna do. If I’m gonna stick with school and be very blue-collared, I need to stick with that. Or if I’m gonna be artsy, or you know, pursue my music career, I need to start now. This is the age.” And then around like 19, that’s when my grandmother started to pass, and she was my musical influence. She pushed me. So 19 was when I really felt like it was what I needed to do.

Are you working on anything now?
Yes, I’m working on a project. I initially planned to name it Canvas, but I’m not sure I want to keep it that just because I chose that name a year & a half ago. But yeah, I’m working on that, and I’m just doing a lot of collaborations with other deejays internationally. Those should be coming in soon.

Are you working with anyone in Greensboro? Other than Leo?
Ace Henderson, I’m still working with him. There’s another guy, his name is Unique, and he’s a producer so he’s been sending me a couple of tracks. 

How does that process work?
They just email. Social media is very good for like marketing yourself, and they just find & email you and are like “Hey, like this beat?” and I’m like “Yes, I love it.” And I’ll record a rough draft and send them the idea, and if they like it, I’ll go further. 

So do you have equipment in your room?
I have a USB mic and I just purchased some more equipment. An amp, just a regular mic, and a program that I use to do reverbs. I use VoiceLive. It’s made by TC Helicon. It allows you to do looping and pedaling and stuff. 

What are your social media sites?
I have an Instagram, SoundCloud, Facebook, and Twitter. My site is being built right now. It’s in the process, but SoundCloud is the main one. All of it is @niyawells

When is your drop date, if you have one?
That is so hard. Okay so, I know the collaboration tracks, I have to send them in soon, like early February. Just because it’s for a deadline, they wanna start getting headlines out. My release date? I’m not completely sure because every time you add songs, you take away songs, I didn’t realize how much of a process it actually is, and I’m a perfectionist. I want to make sure it shows me completely. 

Don’t pull a Frank Ocean. We have to hear from you.
Hopefully by the end of the summer. Like I’ll at least have some kind of demo rough tape that I can send.

What’s your favorite track that you’ve done so far? That could be solo or collaborations.
Solo work, I can say is this one song called The One. I did it with a guy named Tom Buchanan and he literally produced the whole track. He got on the grand piano, guitar, and just constructed the whole track. And it’s my favorite track because I wrote from the heart. I was upset, I was listening to this guy talk about this girl he’s madly in love with. So I wrote about it, and I’ve never been that honest. In collaboration, I’d say it’s with Ace. It’s this song called Cali USA, and I’m excited for him to drop that. It’s a fun song.

What’s one place you’d want to hear your music? 
I was a B5 stan for awhile and they did this interview where they were asked what their ultimate goal was for their music. Bryan said to perform at an award show, which I found odd because usually everyone’s like “I wanna be top of the charts” “I wanna play MSG” but he’s content with just an award show and I dig that. 

At first I thought it was just, you know, get on a radio station, international. But that happened, and it’s still spinning on BBC1 Extra. So I think I really just want to be able to perform in front of a crowd that just knows the words to my songs, and they like actually support me so much that if I were to mess up, they’re there all the way. It doesn’t feel like a trial because right now I feel like it’s a trial & error period. I have to like show them that I’m worthy whereas when people support you, they just want to see you create.

Have you heard of Halsey?
Who? No. 

She built her fanbase on Tumblr. She got signed like last summer and her album got to #2.
It’s crazy! People do that. I wish I was introduced to Tumblr & stuff like that at a young age because I feel like that’s what I would’ve been drawn to. I felt like an outsider as a kid, but I didn’t have access to all that stuff until later on. I missed the wave and now I kind of have to catch up.

What’s your creative process?
I cannot be angry. Or really down. I can’t be at a low point. I just don’t feel very creative. I was going to say worthless, but that sounds really bad. I just don’t like being in low points, so I like lighting, colored light bulbs, rhythm, and just a bomb ass beat. And that kinda gets me going.

Do you find that that effects what you write about in your music?
Yes. I feel like the beat is the foundation of the song. It gives you the mood. It can be somber. I’m not really a theory-head, but theory plays a lot in how a song sounds. Like if it’s in A minor or something like that, it kind of gives a somber feel. And movies! I like to have movies on mute playing on the screen. 

What’s your favorite movie to watch?
Wild starring Reese Witherspoon.

How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t deal with it well. If I have writer’s block, I’m just like “I’m the worst person! I’m not supposed to have writer’s block. I’m not meant to be an artist. I’m gonna get a regular job.” I’ll feel so bad, then I’ll just stop for a minute. I watched this interview with Erykah Badu and she was basically saying “If you can’t write, it means it’s not time for it to come out yet”. You’ve just gotta let it keep brewing. It’s not done. That’s it, so don’t try to force it. So I took it as that. I mean, I’m not gonna sit down and come up with a new song every day. 

I follow Tavi Gevinson on Instagram, and I remember she had this one post that said to be patient with your work. Even if it blows up, take time off. You don’t have to constantly have these big blowouts. 

Yeah, exactly. And sometimes you have the pressure to come up with things every day because you see other people dropping things consistently, but that honestly only comes when they hold all their ideas together and then drop it at that one time.

How do you balance school and your music?
I try to keep them separate. I feel like music is my escape from school. School is so structured, every day is the same and it drives me insane. So I try to find my time where I can just breathe. Like today is the day that I can just lay back, watch a movie, and come up with ideas.

Do you play any instruments?
I don’t, unfortunately. 

How did you & Leo get together? That’s something I’ve been wondering for a while.
I try to like spot out all the musicians. I remember I saw him and I was like “He looks like he’s 12, but he has a tattoo which is cool”. I befriended his roommate, Jacob, and then he found out I sang and we just kind of played and that’s it. We really got close over summer 2015. That’s when we went to New York together, and we all just kind of stayed there and lived in the city.

What were you guys doing in New York?
Just seeing if we liked it. We tried to find some spots where we could perform, and just get a feel.

Did you like it there?
Yeah, I loved it. I feel like I would get tired of it but if you wanted to get some things done, every day there’s something to do. 

Well, it is the city that never sleeps. So what’s a city you’d move to?
I think I’d be more of a west coast person. Just because it’s just so laidback and they support you regardless of where you come from. As long as your good, that’s it. And they have a lot of deejays & producers. I love it.

What’s the coolest audience you’ve played for?
Honestly, I’d say NYP. It was fun. They knew the words to the songs I was singing. Like when I do urban songs, hip-hop- based crowds, they don’t really know about Lykke Li or Jesse Boykins III or Frank Ocean songs from before channel ORANGE. They don’t know too much about that. So NYP loved it. I was excited. I was like “This is nice”. 

What’s your favorite venue?
I haven’t really been doing many venues. I’ve just been trying to see which ones were good. I’ve been to Raleigh and I’d love to perform at Kings. In Greensboro, we don’t do too many shows, but I will be at The Blind Tiger on the 20th so we’ll see how that turns out. That might be one of my favorite venues. I’ve seen videos and the lighting is really nice.

Is that solo or with Leo?
It’s going to be a festival. Black2HipHop. 

Are you & Leo going to have an EP?
We’re working on it, yes! We had to take a little hiatus because I was working on stuff before we decided to do the EP, and I was investing in my project so I didn’t want to throw that to the side. 

What’s an artist, album, or track you’ve got on repeat right now?
Well Rihanna’s album just dropped. I didn’t listen to the whole album but I do listen to Consideration with SZA. I think it’s the first track, but it is great. I think SZA just made the track. I feel like they should just do a whole collaboration EP. Rihanna came in and enunciated, her tone, she just went up & down, her riffs. This song is great, so I’ve had it on repeat. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Kilo Kish. She doesn’t do much singing, she’s like talking. 

Cool, I’ll check her out. Thank you for the interview!

Photos by: Tristan Pelletier

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