Nikki Yanofsky is a special talent that has been singing professionally since she was twelve years old. She is the youngest singer to ever record for famed Jazz label, Verve Records. Nikki’s incredible voice and creativity has seen her working with some of musics top figures including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Wyclef Jean, and Quincy Jones.
In her new album ‘Black Sheep’ set to release on May 8th, Nikki took an approach different than anything she has ever worked on. Of this new project, Nikki said, “This is the first album where I’ve written lyrics that speak to my life experiences, and I’m not just trying to please everyone around me. It’s different than anything I’ve ever done before, but feels the most me. I feel evolved.”
In her impressive career, Nikki has made close mentor relationships with a lot of top industry talents. In our interview, she talks a little bit about what this album means to her. “This album sort of represents independence for me. It’s the product of the support of my mentors and applying everything I’ve learned from them in the past, but also just trusting my gut for the first time.”
The ten-track album will take you on a journey through the real-life experiences of Nikki Yanofsky. When you’re done listening, you will be grateful you were along for the sweet ride that ‘Black Sheep’ takes you on. Nikki’s album will give you your new confidence-boosting anthem, in the song for the haters ‘Forget.’ You’ll relate to the feelings, and emotions she sings about in the song ‘Black Sheep.’ Be ready to catch yourself singing along in the track ‘Bubbles,’ the last song Rod Temperton was working on before he passed.
Mark your calendar for May 8th, because Nikki Yanofsky’s ‘Black Sheep’ is an album you don’t want to miss.
Read my full interview with Nikki Yanofsky below. We talk more about her new ‘Black Sheep’ album, and using her own life experiences in the songwriting, and how that contributed to the prevailing lyrics you hear in ‘Forget.’ We talk about her biggest pinch-me moment in a long list of impressive accomplishments in her career, how special it is to have the last two songs Rod Temperton ever wrote on her album, and a fun story involving karaoke with Quincy Jones. Read all that and more in the transcript below.
Hi Nikki, How are you? I’m excited to talk to you. I’ve been listening to your upcoming album ‘Black Sheep’ for like two days straight now.
Nikki: Aw, thank you! That means a lot. Honestly, it’s just nice to have a fresh set of ears on it. I’ve been living with it for so long, and it’s always nice to hear a new take.
It’s so good, and I’m really excited about it. I read what you said about the lyrics in this album and how they are more from your real-life, and that it is different than what you’re used to, but that it feels the most you. What has that been like from a lyrical standpoint, and it being so real for you?
Nikki: It’s definitely scarier (laughs,) but it’s much more rewarding. I think also in the past every other project I worked on, I was really young when I was working on it. It’s not that I didn’t have enough life to write about, but I feel like maybe I wasn’t as honest with myself in the past? You know, I feel like you just get in touch with why you feel the way you feel. As you get older, you get to know yourself a little bit better. It’s just reflected much more in my music, and I feel like I want to share more.
I feel like it’s important to be honest with what you write. Because, if you don’t believe it, nobody will really. That’s kind of what it boils down to for me. I also think that it is important to show that I’m not just this happy go lucky young kid. I wanted to show that with my music. I’m really proud of this album. But like I said, it is definitely a scarier feeling. I feel like when you give more, you have more to lose, and that’s sort of where I’m at with this. So, that is why it is really comforting to hear from you a new set of ears that you like it, and that you’re into it. To be honest though, like it’s important for me to be proud of it, and I definitely am. So it’s good!
I love what you said. Because it is scary, the more personal it is the harder it can be to share. With that said, was there a song for this that was particularly hard to write during this process?
Nikki: Yeah! ‘Black Sheep’ is probably, definitely the hardest one to write. I also find that the ones that I wrote myself came from the most vulnerable place. I co-wrote a lot of the songs, but I also wrote some of them fully on my own, and then I brought a producer to them to bring the songs to life. So ‘Black Sheep’ was one of those songs that I wrote in the little office in my house. I just sat at the piano, and it just came out. Lyrically that song came from a really real place that really kind of vocalized something I had been struggling with. It’s crazy because it’s almost like you keep it pent up, you keep it pent up, and then it just forces its way out. Once it’s out, you feel like this huge relief. It’s really therapeutic, and I know that everybody kind of says that, but it is. It’s also interesting because I’m not where I’m at when I wrote it, well I still have my days where I feel that way. But I’m not really where I’m at when I wrote it, but when I play it, and when I sing it, it brings me back to exact feeling. It’s almost like lyrically and musically this time capsule of emotion. It’s really interesting you know to have that experience with music.
I really wanted to talk to you about your newest single ‘Forget.’ You called it a song for the haters. A song that is about prevailing after being underestimated, overlooked, or doubted. Does part of that prevailing feeling come from releasing stuff that you feel is so you and from your real experiences?
Nikki: Yeah, absolutely! I think that being able to let go, you almost make room for better things, and for things to happen for you in the future. I think sometimes when you hold onto things too hard, it puts up a wall that you can only go that far. ‘Forget’ was definitely one of those songs. I just felt really frustrated, and I let out all that emotion on the song, and then kind of made room for positive things to happen to me, and to stop getting in my own way and blaming the past or the people who had doubted me or overlooked me. It was kind of my way of saying, “You know what, I don’t really care about that stuff. I’m going to go ahead and see what I can do with what I have.” That was actually one of the last songs I wrote for the album. I call it a “buzzer-beater.” I was basically finished with the album, and then I co-wrote that one with Zach, Roger, and this guy named Remy. That one just really felt like it belonged because it almost felt like an exclamation point to what I had learned on the album in its own weird way.
I love that. You talked about stuff that you learned in the creation of this album, what are some of the other things you learned while you were making ‘Black Sheep?’
Nikki: Um, I think the biggest thing we kind of touched on for a second. The biggest thing was really just to be real in what I’m saying in my music. Because if I won’t believe it, then nobody else will. People are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and they see through a lot. So, if you don’t buy it, no one will. I think that’s definitely one of the biggest things. I’ve also learned a lot about trusting my own intuition with my music. I think starting out so young like I did that it’s hard not to let like your mentors or the people that have helped you along the way almost become like the final word on what you’re working on, and kind of like differ to them rather than trusting your own gut. Like you have to realize that if they are believing in you, it’s because they are seeing something in you that maybe you don’t have the ability to see in yourself yet. Then as you get older it’s your responsibility to try to understand what they saw in you and I guess just really work and trust that. That’s something with this record that I did. This album sort of represents independence for me. It’s the product of the support of my mentors and applying everything I’ve learned from them in the past, but also just trusting my gut for the first time. Rather than trusting my gut and then almost immediately sending whatever I was working on to Rod (Temperton) or Quincy (Jones) for their approval and guidance. It’s the first time I’ve ever created with my peers, I guess. So that’s something new.
That is seriously so incredible. The list of people you’ve worked with is very impressive. You mentioned two with Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones, and so I think it’s really cool as you talked about recognizing how these people saw something in you that it gave you faith in yourself.
Nikki: It definitely did! It was really interesting because on a recent trip that I had to L.A. I played most of the final product for Quincy when I saw him. I was so nervous because he hadn’t really been in the loop with like the progress of it. He knew I was making an album, but like I wanted to kind of play him this and was kind of testing myself in a way. He was jamming to everything he heard with a smile on his face, and he told me he really loved it. It was the most amazing feeling knowing that I’d been proud of this without needing to run like every note by him each step of the way. It was a really validating feeling. It was great.
So, we talked with ‘Forget’ about feeling overlooked, but you have worked with so many legends and have had a lot of amazing moments and that there is more prevailing to come as that record says. But with some of the incredible experiences you’ve had with music ,whether it be opening for Elton, being on Billboards 21 under 21, or just a time in music that you caught yourself saying, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here or doing this?”
Nikki: To be honest, I feel like I’m in a constant place where I’ve been so lucky and blessed enough to have been apart of whatever happens to me. I think I always kind of feel that. Whenever I’m in the room with anyone that I respect and admire, and it doesn’t matter how big or small. I just think that that’s what music is all about. It’s like understanding that you can learn something from everybody. Just keeping your ears open and being like a sponge and trying to absorb as much as you can from anyone that’s around.
But I think that it was definitely a pinch-me moment the top one was working with Rod and the whole experience and developing the friendship that we ended up having. I always say like if everything just goes to shit, pardon my language, I know that I had that. That to me, is like the most important thing that has come out of my career. That friendship and getting to know such an amazing guy and learning what I did from him. It makes everything worth it. Then working with Quincy as well obviously.
I think one of my favorite memories as well is performing with Stevie Wonder. Because that day was the most overwhelming. I always use this pun, and it’s so cringey, but I was overjoyed (laughs) I really was. It was really crazy, every time someone would ask me like how rehearsal went because we had soundcheck before the performance and he came out on stage, and that was the first time I saw him. He came out on stage with his harmonica in hand, and he was playing ‘Overjoyed,’ and I was just like, “Is this a dream?” I felt like I was split. Like half of my brain was like “Nikki, stay calm. You’re here for a reason. You have to be professional.” Then the other half of my brain was like, “Oh My Gosh!” It was really wild, and anytime anyone would ask how it went, I would just break down crying and say, “It was so good,” and they’d ask why I’m crying, and I wouldn’t know (laughs.)
That’s incredible. We talked about working with Rod Temperton and the special friendship you developed with him. What is it like knowing you have the two last songs he wrote on your album ‘Black Sheep?’
Nikki: It’s really something. I think that ‘Turn Down The Sound’ wasn’t the official last song he was working on, but ‘Bubbles’ was the last he was working on. That was such an emotional thing for me to learn. I was actually in the studio, and Kathy, his wife, was the one who got me the got me the songs to be able to stay true to what Rod had produced and written, but to make the songs to where the could fit in more cohesively with the rest of record. But, Kathy told me that when Rod’s engineer came over to send me the stems that they opened up Radar, which was like his mix program that he used. It’s kind of a funny one that he used. He used Radar, and ‘Bubbles’ was already loaded up on the system. They didn’t have to open it. It was truly the last song he was working on before he passed. When she told me that, I had to leave the room. I locked myself in the bathroom and started crying. That was such an emotional thing to learn, and I felt even more motivated to make sure that I did it justice. That was actually a song that he wrote for me specifically. He was working on kind of like a producer record for the first time, like a songwriter record. He had never done anything like that before, but he was going to do his own project with special guests, and he had asked me to be on it. So, he wrote that song for that project and I was able to have it for my record. He told me he wanted to write me a fun song. He always called me Wobbles. That was his nickname for me. So, I don’t think there is any coincidence that bubbles kind of sounds like wobble.
Then ‘Turn Down The Sound’ was one that we co-wrote, and that’s a song that I wrote with him. That was such an experience watching his process of writing. It’s something I’ll never forget! He would tell me to write random words that make absolutely no sense in a row, and he would be like “write this down,” and I remember one that he had me write down was like “greasy spider with a shot glass in his hand,” and I’m like “What?!” and he tells me to just write it and I write that down (laughs,) and we would continue talking and working on something else and he goes “alright now write – got a job description, he’s a mojo man.” and again I’m like “What?!” and he tells me “just write it, just write it” (laughs) and I didn’t ask any questions. Then at the end of the day, he said “alright, those two weird lines that I told you to write. Now you’ve got to find work that sound like that that actually make sense.” Like he was basically giving me words that would work well within the melody. It’s called Prosody. Prosody is a technique he used to write his lyrics where he explained that the lyrics would slow the melody perfectly so that no words were pronounced weird, and certain vowel sounds or consonants would work well with different rhythms and notes of the song. He always tried to find exact perfect fits. So, that is something he taught me to do, and I still do that mostly with more fast songs. It’s a funny exercise just to find words that sound good and make absolutely no sense and make almost like a puzzle piece out of it. It’s really fun! (laughs)
You talked about doing the songs justice for him, and I definitely think that you did. What are you most excited for people to hear on ‘Black Sheep?’
Nikki: I think that it’s just going to show a different side of me, and I’m really looking forward to showing that. Because, in the past, I felt like a lot of pressure to be a role model for younger girls or whatever it is and be like this perfect, flawless version of myself. I just don’t think that that is what people need to see. I think people need to see vulnerability or realness or being genuine. I learned that as I’ve gotten older because that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I connect to when I listen to music. So, I’m like, “why am I making music that I wouldn’t even listen to?” So I want to write something that I’m proud of. Something that if someone else that wasn’t me put it out that I would be like “whoa, what’s this?” that people would listen to and really feel connected to. I’m really excited for people to get to know me like for real, I think that that is something that I’ve never done before. It’s definitely terrifying, but I think that it will be worth it.
Okay, I have one more question, and it’s one I ask in every interview. I love karaoke, and I love hearing if these artists that have performed on stages all over like doing karaoke as much as me, and what their go-to karaoke song is if they do?
Nikki: (Laughs) It’s so funny. Because I do like karaoke, but I never go because nobody ever wants to go with me. My friends are always scared and I’m like “I don’t care. I don’t judge” then they go “Yeah, but if you get up then I wont want to get up after you.” But I do have a good karaoke story where I was actually in Japan with Quincy on like a summer tour with him. The entire crew went to karaoke with Quincy. So, at that point I went up there and put on ‘Thriller’ and went up to Quincy and was just singing ‘Thriller’ to Quincy, which was hysterical. So that (laughs) is my funny karaoke story.
See, that is why I never let this question go (laughs) that is amazing. So would ‘Thriller’ be what you call you go-to? Or was that just something that you did that night because you were with Quincy?
Nikki: It was just to be annoying to be honest (laughs) He was like sitting in a booth and I was being so obnoxious (laughs) Like I took the microphone and I was doing like all of the MJ sounds and everything.
I think that if I were to go karaoking now that I would do something that is all attitude. Because, like I guess because I do sing for a living, I would want to do something that I wouldn’t do in one of my shows. Maybe I would pick something like ‘Truth Hurts’ by Lizzo or ‘Perm’ by Bruno Mars. Something just fun. Maybe even a Marvin Gaye song.
Nikki, I seriously appreciate your time. I appreciated listening to your upcoming record. Thank you!
Nikki: Thank you so much. It really means a lot. I’m glad to have talked to you. Thanks for having me on here, and hopefully we can do it again sometime.