Song Writing

Nikki Yanofsky

by Amanda Flinner

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The jazz-turned-pop singer on her album Black Sheep, and working with music veterans Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton.



It's all too easy to stick a label on Nikki Yanofsky. When the Canadian singer made her professional debut at the Montreal International Jazz Festival at age 12, she was the little girl with the big voice. By 2010, she was singing the chart-topping theme song to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver ("I Believe") and had critics raving about her vocal similarities to Ella Fitzgerald. Despite not wanting to be tagged with a singular genre, the attention put her on the fast track to a career as a jazz-pop singer.

Her list of collaborators reads like a Who's Who of industry veterans. Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Billy Joel) produced her self-titled studio debut in 2010, while Quincy Jones helmed her follow-up, Little Secret. She opened for Elton John, sang with Stevie Wonder, and worked with Wyclef Jean. She also joined will.i.am on Herbie Hancock's version of the swing standard "Stompin' At The Savoy." If that's not enough, she's counted Rod Temperton - a prolific songwriter who penned "Thriller" and "Rock With You" for Michael Jackson - as her mentor.

But among all of the voices, she's struggled to claim her own - until now. With her album, Black Sheep (set for release May 8, 2020), Nikki transcends her jazz-pop roots and explores other genres, including funky '80s pop and smooth '90s R&B. More importantly, she's leaving the labels behind.

"The goal of the album was to ignore all the labels that have been stuck on me and the boxes I've been put into to make something from the heart," she explains. "Sometimes all it takes for you to become the 'black sheep' is for people to believe that you are one, and once someone has their mind made up about you, whether it's merited or not, everything you do fuels that idea."

In our conversation with Nikki, she gave us the stories behind some of Black Sheep's key tracks, including the meme-inspired "Forget," "Throwing Stones," and "Bubbles" (the last song Temperton, who died of cancer in 2016, ever wrote).
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): Nearly every article about you mentions singers who inspired you to sing, but which songwriters inspired you to write?

Nikki Yanofsky: Rod Temperton was my mentor and inspired me to approach writing the way that I do today. He taught me about prosody (how the lyrics should clothe the melody like a tailored suit), that every instrument should have their own part that complements each other, and to have fun with my personality and lyrics.

Right now I am focusing heavily on my lyrics. I am in awe of Leonard Cohen. I can sit and read his songs like poems all day.

Songfacts: What is your songwriting process?

Nikki: It depends on the mood I'm in. I can be super up and happy and start with a catchy bass melody or a few chords and just write around that, let a melody just flow. I can have a title that I think is interesting.

But the most therapeutic process is when I am feeling completely stuck. I get in my own way and put up a wall. I open up "notes" on my computer and just write. I don't think. It's a stream of consciousness. I end up trying to tap into everything that's getting in my way. I let my guard down completely and every frustration, fear, idea, ends up on the page. It can take me a while to really understand the angle I want to take. I don't hold back and it can make me feel physically uncomfortable to even fathom turning half of what I write into a song... but I know that I have to. It's tough to change a conversational piece into poetry, but it is very rewarding when I land on a line that I feel captures a paragraph.

Songfacts: You've worked with iconic music veterans like Phil Ramone, Quincy Jones, and, of course, Rod Temperton. What is a key insight you learned from each of them?

Nikki: Phil was the first person to really believe in me, outside of my own family. He took a chance on me, producing my very first album when I was 14-15. His endorsement opened up a lot of doors for me. He gave me credibility at a young age. I learned a lot through Phil's way of being. He had no ego, he was always open to my ideas even though I had absolutely no experience and he really helped give me the confidence I needed to sustain a career in this field.

Q has taught me so much. He always encourages me to "decategorize music," which has really pushed me not to settle when the more business side of the music industry tried to put me in a box. He also always says that you have to have humility when you create and grace when you succeed. This is easy to preach but not easy to practice, especially when you have had as much success as Quincy. But he has practiced it to the point of mastering it and now leads by example.

Rod and I used to talk on the phone at least once a week for an hour or two. He was more than a mentor to me, he was one of my best friends. I don't even know where to begin in terms of trying to narrow down a key insight I learned from him, because his influence on me stretches far beyond my approach to music. He helped shape my character.

In the realm of music, he taught me to come at writing like a 9 to 5 job - although you decide on your own hours [laughs]. Every day you walk into your "office," close the door and see what you come up with without any distractions.

When I was in my teens, I was attached to my phone. He made a little sign for me on the table outside his studio with a small tray below it. It said "Wobbles, leave phone here." (He called me Wobbles because whenever I'd get a text, my head would sort of wobble with excitement.) To this day, I can't help but get annoyed when I'm in a session and someone can't put their phone down for more than five minutes. It makes a huge difference in the flow of a session.

Songfacts: You've talked about your new album, Black Sheep, being the project that's really helped you come into your own. Which song do you feel best represents who you are as an artist today?

Nikki: I think the album as a whole is a great representation of who I am as an artist today. It's hard to point to one song - it's truly the collection of them. They all work well together to tell a story and shape my sound.

Songfacts: How did you come up with the meme concept for the "Forget" video? Were there any memes you wanted to include but had to leave out?

Nikki: Throughout my career, I have faced people who didn't get me. I felt overlooked, and doubted. My voice was always an instrument for someone else to play. Telling me what I should look and sound like. That had me feeling like a caricature of myself. No matter how hard I tried to be seen, I couldn't get through. I came up with the concept to use memes as a parallel. Images of people we simply can't unsee, impressions of people we can't ignore.

I wanted to do the Side Eye Chloe meme but I felt like that would have been too hard to get across [laughs].

Songfacts: I love the lyric "Vampires will say anything just to step inside your door" from "Throwing Stones." What inspired that song?

Nikki: "Throwing Stones" is about a power dynamic shifting in a relationship. Someone's after my self worth and wants to destroy my confidence. They take from me what they don't have themselves, gain it for a short time, but ultimately can't sustain it, so the cycle repeats. Hence the vampire metaphor. That's my favorite line in that song too, thank you.

Songfacts: What song from Black Sheep are you most excited for fans to hear and why?

Nikki: Every song means something special to me. It's hard for me to pick just one.

I will say that I can't wait for people to hear "Bubbles" because Rod Temperton wrote that one for me, and it was the last song he was working on before he passed away. I just feel so blessed to have it on my album and can't wait to honor Rod by sharing it with the world.



Songfacts: With songs like "Big Mouth," you've championed the power of female voices. How have you seen the male-dominated music industry evolve in its attitude towards women over the past decade?

Nikki: I don't know that I have the authority to speak on the evolution of sexism in the industry over the past decade, because I was a kid 10 years ago. I can only speak about my own experience.

I will say you probably see more sexism on the business side of things. I am very lucky to have a team that I love... but generally speaking, it's no secret that "sex sells" is a phrase women hear more often than men do. I can also relate to this unspoken pressure for women to "make it" while they're still in their 20s. I can't imagine that men have that same stress.

Creatively, I've had experiences where I feel that a guy is reluctant to take my ideas seriously, or to let me drive the session. I've also reached out to someone I wanted to work with and they saw me as a groupie, not an artist. They ignored my initial message asking if they'd want to collaborate and hit me up at 1 a.m. after their show with a "Hey babe, what are you doing now" DM.

So, was it worse 10 years ago? I would imagine so, it wasn't as openly discussed. But just because people are talking about it doesn't mean that it goes away overnight.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts when you look back at "I Believe"?

Nikki: It's a song that really put me on the map in Canada. It was a very pure time in my life. It also shows me how far I've come and how much I've evolved as a person.

Songfacts: Finally, if you could talk to 12-year-old Nikki, what advice would you give her?

Nikki: Hold onto that confidence as long as you can. She'd probably nod her head sarcastically. I don't think she could even fathom losing it.

March 18, 2020
More at nikkiyanofsky.com. For more on working with Quincy Jones, check out our interview with Glen Ballard.
Photos: Royal Gilbert

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