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Why Niia took a slow route to soul-music success

Why Niia took a slow route to soul-music success
The soul singer Niia will perform Thursday night at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Niia's music keeps attracting stylish admirers.

A few years ago, Tony Kaye — the Hollywood maverick responsible for "American History X" — directed a video for her song "Made for You." And Kylie Jenner recently used the Los Angeles-based soul singer's "Last Night in Los Feliz" to soundtrack a steamy short film.

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Yet Niia didn't always mix with an in-crowd. Growing up in suburban Boston, she recalled the other day, she felt scarcely connected to the popular girls at her Catholic high school.

"They'd all skip class to go tanning or get Coffee Coolattas at Dunkin' Donuts," the singer said with a laugh. "Meanwhile, there I was in the chapel playing Chopin by myself."

As fashionable as she's become, Niia — who's scheduled to perform Thursday night at the Hammer Museum in Westwood — still registers as something of a chic outsider on her debut album, "I." In an era defined by jumpy, quick-tempo club pop, her sensual songs move at a radically languid pace.

And rather than cull contributions from the small army of songwriters and producers behind today's Top 40 hits, she made "I" with just one principal collaborator: Robin Hannibal, the Danish studio whiz who's also lent his distinctive touch to acclaimed records by Quadron and Rhye.

"People have really short attention spans right now," Niia, 29, acknowledged in an interview at the sleek, uncluttered house she shares with Hannibal in the Hollywood Hills. In the living room, a piano sat beneath a classic film still of Frankenstein's monster; downstairs, Hannibal was tinkering behind a mixing board in the small home studio where the couple recorded much of "I."

"So not that many artists are doing this kind of thing," Niia continued. "But I hope that makes it almost more alluring."

She certainly draws the listener into songs like "Sideline," in which she airs her grievances with a distracted lover, and "Last Night in Los Feliz," a gorgeous, gradually building ballad about "all the ways you touch me." With its relaxed but purposeful grooves and its sumptuous instrumental textures — including earthy bass and lots of live strings — the music echoes stuff by earlier slow-jam specialists such as Sade, who Niia described as an idol.

Yet Niia situates the songs in the present even as she reaches for a classic vibe. "I know she's still the background on your phone," she sings in "Sideline" — a vivid image recognizable to any digital native. Later, in "California," she recounts her own move west with a knowing wistfulness: "Riding up the coastline, swimming in the moonlight / Nothing lasts forever / Yeah, even on the Westside."

Born Niia Bertino to a classical-pianist mother and a father who works in advertising, the singer came to L.A. after studying jazz at the New School in New York. As a teenager she'd been turned on to the great jazz vocalists when her mom gave her an album by Sarah Vaughan — "I couldn't even believe this was a woman singing," she said — but she found few career paths in the field.

"I realized very quickly, 'What am I going to do? Be a music teacher?'" she said, adding that she managed to scrape together work recording commercial jingles. L.A. seemed to offer broader possibilities, though she admitted she was surprised to discover how competitive the music industry is.

"I'm pretty introverted and shy — definitely not the type to jump on a table and be like, 'I'm a singer!'" she said. "But people do that here. I was like, 'Man, these girls will stab me to get this opportunity.'"

After signing to Atlantic Records, Niia worked on songs with a handful of writers and producers but didn't really click with anyone until she met Hannibal, who sympathized with her ambition to develop "a hybrid of new and old," as she described it.

That's more or less Hannibal's specialty, as he showed on a pair of excellent albums in 2013: "Avalanche" by Quadron, his sly R&B duo with the Danish singer Coco O, and "Woman" by Rhye, the willfully mysterious electro-soul outfit led by Michael Milosh. (Last week Rhye returned with a pair of new songs that Hannibal "was not involved with or aware of," according to the producer's representative.)

Niia said Hannibal "has that old Quincy Jones understanding of how sounds work with a voice," and that's easy to hear on "I," where his smooth yet intricate arrangements nestle snugly around Niia's vocals. Standing in his studio, Hannibal said hiring live players (as opposed to relying on synthesized tones) was crucial to the album's aesthetic, even if many listeners are unlikely to know that that's what they're responding to.

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"But they'll know it sounds different," he said with a smile.

Niia, who's as frank in conversation as her music is poised, said she fought hard to convince her label to let her and Hannibal make the entire album.

"Everybody wants you to go for these big radio songs, but it just wouldn't have made sense with what we were putting together," she said. "Sometimes singers shift their sound too soon, or they start working with too many people when what they were doing originally was working.

"I'm Italian, though, so I was like, 'Let's keep it in the family.'"

The couple's insistence on real players is one reason Niia is still figuring out how to support "I" on the road beyond a handful of one-off gigs like Thursday's Hammer show.

"I don't like having sounds you can't see onstage," she said. Yet string sections don't travel cheap.

In the meantime, she's concentrating on making more videos along the lines of the one with Jenner, which has been viewed online more than 7 million times. "We live in a visual age," she said. "That's one reason Lana Del Rey is so successful."

Putting herself in the clips, as she does in the video for her song "Hurt You First," has been harder. "This is more my natural habitat," she said as she opened the door to a darkened closet filled with microphones and notebooks. "I kind of need to be alone in the booth for 12 hours.

"But I love a challenge."

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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