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In her relatively young career, Nikki Y has worked with a stunning assortment of music legends—Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder. Though these collaborations come with bragging rights, Nikki instead talks about a lesser-known man who gave her a break. “My dad. He had this band called Past Their Prime Time Players,” says the Montreal native, raised on The Beatles and Motown. “It was basically a bunch of middle-aged men jamming, and I would sing songs with them.” The basement her stage, the 10-year-old would take on weighty classics such as Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”
After crushing it at a battle-of-the-bands, word got around about Nikki, and the founder of the respected Montreal jazz festival reached out. Suddenly, she was performing to a field of 125,000 people. “I wasn’t nervous,” she says. “I just felt, like, a sense of purpose and calm.” This, she knew, was her calling. “It was the summer of 2006. June 29. I’ll never forget that day.”
Since then, Nikki Y (née Yanofsky) has released two studio albums, 2014’s Little Secret (executive-produced by Quincy Jones) and four years earlier, her self-titled album (produced by the legendary Phil Ramone) which went platinum in Canada. But with her newest release, the Solid Gold EP, Nikki is finally getting personal. The album chronicles Nikki’s relationship with her longtime boyfriend, broaching the topic of love through a spectrum of themes and sounds, her emotions as in-the-moment as possible. “My goal was to have no goal,” she says. “Last record, I wanted to bridge pop and jazz. This time, I wanted to get introspective—however that came out. It’s more about voice and not about a genre.”
One of Solid Gold EP’s greatest achievements is its lightning-in-a-bottle ability to, at once, capture her technical prowess and vocal soulfulness. Much of that is a credit to her collaborator Wyclef Jean, who co-produced the album alongside Nikki. “The first time I worked with him, I was 13,” she says of Wyclef, whom she met at a charity event. (Nikki, who’s raised more than $10 million for charities, continues to devote herself to causes such as The Children’s Wish Foundation, The Montreal Children’s Hospital, and MusiCounts.) “He got me, not just my voice. After I worked on ‘Me, Myself, and I’ with him, I knew I had to do the whole album with him.”
There’s a reason why iconic, genre-shifting people have championed Nikki throughout the years; they know a prodigy when they hear one. (From a young age, she was an adept talent: Nikki could learn a song, word for word, in 10 minutes flat.) The singer is too modest drop the P word, but will offer this theory: “I was never introduced to people as a party trick. No matter what my age, I was seen as a credible singer.”
“I’ll never forget the first song I ever wrote,” Nikki says. She was just seven years old. “I asked my parents, ‘What did The Beatles write about?’ They said, ‘They wrote about what they feel and what they see.’” So she wrote a song about the fairies on her purple pajamas. “I always felt different when I was young. Kids my age were hanging out together. But I would listen to music in the kitchen and teach myself songs. I was connecting to these songs.” Throughout her career, Nikki has endeavored to create music that would have the same impact on others. “I always had a really old soul,” she says. “And now, I feel like I’m growing into it.”