NIKI’s favorite lyric from “Switchblade,” her new single released on April 2, comes in the song’s final seconds: “Lining’s silver. Grass is greener. I’m not afraid.” In the music video, NIKI sings the lyric as she free falls past a cliff into the ocean at midnight. What happens next? The music video ends before we find out. But if there’s anything to take away from the lyric, it’s that NIKI (and the rest of us) will be OK.
“It elegantly encapsulates what the song means, which is this courageous attitude toward a journey ahead and a total belief in that things will be OK,” NIKI says.
Raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, NIKI, whose full name is Nicole Zefanaya, fell in love with music through her mom, a church singer, who would play ‘90s R&B, such as Mariah Carey, Boys II Men and TLC, around the house. After she learned how to play the guitar, NIKI started to write her own music, which led her to post her original songs on YouTube, where she was discovered by Rich Brian, an Indonesian artist and record producer, who connected her with her current manager.
The rest is history. NIKI, who’s been deemed the “internet’s favorite R&B princess,” went on to move to the United States, release two EPs and open for superstars like Taylor Swift and Halsey—all before she entered her 20s. Now, at 21, NIKI is ready for the next phase of her career: her first full-length album, Moonchild, a 10-track LP, which will be released in phases based on phases of the moon. “Switchblade” is the first phase, the crescent moon, while the final phase is expected in June.
Ahead, NIKI talked to StyleCaster about the inspiration behind “Switchblade and Moonchild, what she learned from opening up for Taylor Swift and Halsey and a possible collaboration with her “homie,” Lisa from BLACKPINK.
On the meaning behind “Switchblade”
“‘Switchblade’ means this iron-clad attitude and outlook toward conquering whatever is in your way. You have this switchblade faith. I speak metaphorically throughout this whole album. But I also drew from reality. When I moved to the U.S., from Indonesia, I was very green. I was excited and down to explore this next adventure. That’s where I drew inspiration from.”
On the difference between “Switchblade” and her previous music
“I think everybody expects me to constantly put out R&B music. But with this whole album and this song as well, I realized I like being versatile, I like enjoying a bunch of different genres. Honestly, the vibe I get from ‘Switchblade’ is more Phil Collinsy. The Tarzan soundtrack, but more modern with a dystopian twist.”
On the inspiration behind Moonchild
“The inspiration came sometime in 2018. I literally was up at 3 a.m., writing a song, and I realized I do this every night. I feel like I’m the moonchild. That’s when I came up with this whole ‘moonchild’ concept. On top of that, I always loved fairy tales and poetry growing up. So dreaming up this whole universe has been super stimulating for me, and it was a creative playground. I let go of the real world a little bit and escaped into this fantastical, mystical universe. That’s the music video. It’s very Alice in Wonderland. Very Narnia. But also modern.”
On why she decided to release Moonchild in phases
“We felt like, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to structure the rollout and the album in a unique way?’ I am super perfectionistic and I really like when something structurally makes sense. I think it would do the album a disservice to put it all out at once without establishing the phases in the beginning because it tells a linear story arc. It’s a storybook, and this is chapter 1.”
On how she chose her artist name NIKI
“I was Nikki with two Ks for my whole life. Actually, it’s funny, because in college, I was super excited to be Nicole again, so I introduced myself to everybody as Nicole. And then lo and behold, we’re NIKI again. But I just took out one K because I was like, ‘This is cute and symmetrical.’ Four letters. All caps. It looked neat. I was like, ‘Let’s go with that.’”
On what it was like to open for Taylor Swift on her Red Tour in 2014
“She had put up this contest online to be her opening act, and I submitted a video. Did not think anything of it. I somehow won the whole thing. I was 16. I was a baby. I sang three songs. I honestly don’t remember much of being on stage. I blinked and I got off. That experience solidified my idea of, ‘OK. I could keep doing this. If this were my career, someday, I would be cool with it.’”
On the first time she met Taylor Swift
“The backstage area of the venue was pretty small and old, so they literally just sectioned off a corner of the hallway with curtains because they didn’t have enough rooms for all of us. I was just sitting there, and then literally, a very elegant arm just pierces through the curtain and sweeps it to one side and she’s like, ‘Hi. I’m Taylor.’ I literally had an aneurysm because I was like, ‘You don’t look real.’ But she was super sweet and humble and was like, ‘Girl, you’re going to kill it. Thank you so much for doing this.’ That just hit me like, ‘OK, she’s a real person.’”
On what it was like to open for Halsey on her Hopeless Fountain Kingdom Tour in 2018
I was 18 or 19, and I met her randomly at a breakfast in one of the cities, and I, like, tapped her on the shoulder and was like, ‘Hi. Really nervous to do this. But hey, I’m NIKI.’ And she was like, ‘Oh my God. Hey! What’s up?’ We talked while we scooped food on our plate. I gained a lot of respect for her as a performer. That motivated me to perform better after watching her.
It’s extremely empowering to be around other empowered women. It’s great that the two biggest artists that I’ve ever opened for happen to be women. That was the greatest motivator for me as an Asian female. They’ve paved the way for women in general. Just hanging out with them and listening to their music motivates me to be better in every way that I can.”
On the artists she would love to collaborate with
“I love BLACKPINK. I love Lisa. She’s my homie. So maybe, one day. We’re friends and we could rep the Southeast region. She’s amazing, but also, it’s her birthday today. A song with her would be great. A song with Daniel Caesar, Emily King. There are a lot of people that I would love to work with. I’d rather not shortlist that because I listen to so many people.”
On how she wants to be a role model for other Asian artists
“I would love to continue the sphere for Asians everywhere because I think representation really matters in this day and age, especially in light of recent circumstances and what’s been going on against Asians. I really want to be a beacon for people and be like. ‘It’s all good. There’s still music, and you can still pursue your dreams.’”