Interview:Musician's Friend Artist Spotlight Exclusive Interview with Nikka Costa
Musically speaking, Nikka Costa has been blessed from the beginning. She was born in 1972 to one of the most prolific music producers of the era, Don Costa, with Frank Sinatra serving as her godfather. Growing up in a home that served as a waypoint for her dad's clients—Paul Anka, Sly Stone, Sammy Davis, Jr.—she was exposed very early to life in the music business. She performed live at five, cut her first record by seven, and a year later was performing live in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. Since her time singing standards as a child, she's grown up, developed her own style, and toured the world a couple of times. Her latest work
(can'tneverdidnothin') shows off a funky, musical, and fun-loving spirit that just wants you to get up and dance. Musician's Friend caught Nikka's show in Portland, Oregon, and got a chance to talk to her a few weeks later.
Musician's Friend: We just saw you play up in Portland, Oregon.
Nikka Costa: Oh, right on. My back was really messed up that tour.
MF: You sure bounced around.
NC: I know! Wow. The adrenaline makes you not feel any pain and then the next morning you're hurting. But I went to a million and one masseurs on that tour. I think I found one in every state.
MF: How was it touring with Lenny Kravitz?
NC: Oh, it's great. I've always wanted to tour with him 'cause I feel like musically we're a really good combination and I was really excited to have it work out. He was touring at a time when it made sense for me to go out with him. So, it was good.
MF: You're not touring with him right now, are you?
NC: No, not right now. But I'm going to be joining him in Europe.
MF: What are you doing in between tours? Just recuperating?
NC: We're doing some shows around L.A. and on the West Coast. And I'm doing some writing and just kind of letting the album marinate a little bit.
MF: You didn't start out as "Nikka Costa: Soul Sensation." You got your start doing a lot of popular material when you were very young and eventually you became who you are today.
NC: Don't we all? [general laughter]
MF: It's true. It has to happen for every musician whether they're playing with Lenny Kravitz or they're playing at Joe's Grill.
NC: I think that you, obviously, go through changes as a musician, but as a person, too. I mean I did my first record when I was eight so it's definitely different from what I'm doing now. There are definitely certain moments that bring it together. I mean, I had no intention of making records as a kid. That was a completely surreal fluke. It just happened one night with my dad [Don Costa] when he was doing a gig in Milan and I was there and he brought me up to sing at the last minute. From there it just snowballed into this thing where I made a record and it became huge and it was just... just this insane thing.
MF: The accidental record.
NC: It was. It was the accidental record [self-titled, released in 1981]. I was seven-and-a-half years old and it sold millions and millions of copies. So, somebody earned some money. [general laughter] I did two records like that, of standards with a full orchestra. And then my dad passed away and that was quite a pivotal moment. I decided I didn't really want to pursue singing at that moment. I just wanted to go to school and be normal and not travel. So I did that. And then I did a terrible European pop record as a teenager, which was pivotal also because it made me realize that I didn't want to do that. I just went back to school and I was getting ready to graduate. I knew I was going to have to propel this career on my own. So I started writing and I had to decide then and there what kind of artist I wanted to be. I just really love soul and funk and rock and so from that point that was what I was trying to do. As a kid you just go along with what's happening around you. But once you hit adulthood there are decisions to be made. In my case, it was whether I wanted to persevere with music or not.
MF: It sounds like writing your own material helped you to learn your real interest was rock, funk, and soul.
NC: Yeah, and just getting to know myself better. It's just growing up. As a musician you have a map of what you've done that you can look back on and say, "Oh that's where I was at that point and that's where I was at this point," 'cause you've left little drops, of yourself along the way. I mean, when I was a teenager I was really into Expose and Madonna but you just grow up, learn, and consider yourself better for it, you know?
MF: Do you utilize all the songs you write or do you write 50 and throw away 30?
NC: I definitely start with 50 and don't always finish them all. Yeah, you end up throwing a lot of crap out along the way. It's like, rough draft, rough draft, rough draft... [laughter]
MF: Is it a pretty fast process for you?
NC: Not often, no. I take a long time. I mean, everybody is asking me, "Why did it take you so long to do this record?" So, evidently I take a long time.
MF: Four years since your last record [Everybody Got Their Something, released on Virgin Records]?
NC: Yeah. Well, you know, I toured that record for two-and-a-half years.
NC: So I was definitely still going. And I like to marinate songs and ideas, you know, sometimes it just doesn't all pour out of you. Some people it does, you know. I don't know. For me...
MF: But the live performances pour out of you.
NC: Yeah, the live performances are my favorite part.
MF: You were in the zone in seconds at the Portland show—as soon as you hit the stage.
NC: Yeah, and that's the whole reason why I do this, you know? I mean making records can be fun, but also not fun. It can be a lot of stress and frustration. But performing is great 'cause you get to vibe off an audience and you get to dance around and scream at the top of your lungs. It's a great time.
And I like to learn. It's like a craft to me. There are people who are masters at entertaining an audience; and that really interests me. On the Lenny tour I learned for the first time, after doing this for thirty-two years, you can get people out of their seats just by telling them to get up! So, I started doing that halfway through the tour. It was the first time I've ever done that and it works every time! I was like "Awesome." [general laughter]
MF: There is a difference between musicianship and showmanship. Just because you can do one doesn't mean you can do the other...
NC: Oh yeah. It's a totally different thing. I mean, both are communicating, but sometimes just sitting and playing an instrument isn't enough, but sometimes it is. You have to learn the difference. They can go hand-in-hand, too. If you're a terrible musician it wouldn't matter how good a showman you are. [general laughter] You can only keep them engrossed for so long.
MF: I love the title of this record [can'tneverdidnothing]. It shows there's more to you than just a party. You're about hard work too.
MF: Co-producing the record had to have been a lot of hard work.
NC: Yeah, I don't just punch in on my timecard, sing the song that somebody handed me, and then leave. I'm really involved in everything from the artwork to auditioning my band and being at every rehearsal. I'm super hands-on because I care and I'm just not a mail-it-in kind of artist. There are a lot of those and that's fine, but I need to connect with every part of it. Otherwise, I'm just a marketing tool. With tool being the key word. [general laughter]
MF: Cool. Was the band on the CD the same as the one that's touring with you?
NC: Some. We used a lot of different musicians on the record, but the drummer and the guitarist and the bass player played on "Mosquito's Tweeter" and the guitarist played on "Sugar My Bowl." The bass player played on a lot of the songs on the record. When you're making a record you dream up who you want. So we got Lenny [Kravitz], we got Wendy Melvoin, Craig Robb played a bunch of stuff, Jon Brion, Abe Laboriel, Jr., who's an amazing drummer. You kind of nut off in the studio, you know? It's great to make a record with your band, which I'll probably do, but it's such a great opportunity to work with people you may not be able to afford on tour. I mean, Abe Laboriel, Jr.'s playing with Paul McCartney, so if I want to play with him I'd better get him into the studio and do a session. Because a tour ain't gonna happen. [laughing]
MF: How long have you been with the band you're touring with?
NC: Two of the guys are new and the other three guys were in my last band, when we toured a nine-piece band. We had horns and singers and all kinds of madness. We had a DJ, we had segues—it was a spectacle. This time I just wanted to do something different. I wanted it to be more of a tight unit, more of a rock band. I play a little guitar and a little keyboard. I mean, that's what I write on. I'm trying to learn the drums right now. [laughing] I'm not a great player by any means; I just get by.
MF: Sometimes it's hard for somebody who doesn't play to communicate a musical idea to a band.
NC: Yeah, it does definitely help. I could learn the lingo a little better, because I don't know anything about theory. So I'm like, "Just go into overdrive like Star Wars." [general laughter]
MF: Kick it up a notch!
NC: Yeah! They just laugh. But you develop a common language so people understand what you're talking about when you say, "Make it more crunchy. Make it more purple." [general laughter] You know? But it helps to earn the respect of the musicians if you've written the songs. If you go in and play them the song, they automatically listen to what you have to say.
MF: It seems like every single instrument on the record has a distinctive feel, and it sounds like you were pretty involved in getting those sounds.
NC: Yeah, I was there for every inch of the way and also [producer] Justin [Stanley] was obviously there even when I passed out on the couch. He's super. He plays everything and he's a sonic kind of guy. He'd bring out all his special toys and pedals and all kinds of stuff to try. Justin's family. We co-write most of the stuff together.
MF: That's really cool. You're not just working with some guy, some random producer. I mean, he's your bud, he's your compatriot.
NC: Yeah, he is. When I've worked with other people—and I'm totally open to working with other people—often I'll sing it once and they'll be like, "Wow, that was amazing! Cool, you've got it." And Justin is like, "Yeah, that was cool, but do it again." [general laughter] It's good because he pushes me and he doesn't settle, 'cause he knows me. He's seen me perform a million times and he pushes me to be better where a lot of people wouldn't because they don't know me. They don't know my capabilities and so they don't push me. I like that part of knowing someone really well.
MF: Where do you write? Do you have a little home studio or a portable recorder or something?
NC: Well, we have a studio in the house. We made a lot of the record in the house.
MF: Can you tell us a little bit about the equipment you use?
NC: Well, when I'm writing I use this Sony MiniDisc recorder, which is old. It's one of the first ones that came out, and I got it because I didn't want to have cassette tapes lying around. They take up so much room.
MF: And the fidelity's not as good on cassettes, either.
NC: That's right. And also you don't have to rewind to playback the song. You can just scroll, which is really handy when you want to get to an idea that's in the middle of the disk.
MF: Instant access. I love that.
NC: Yeah, but it broke, which sucks. So I want to get a new one, but now they're really, really complicated and so right now I don't really have anything. But then we also have a full studio with Pro Tools so I can always go in there.
MF: You're using a Pro Tools setup?
NC: Yeah, we use Pro Tools to get ideas down and do some stuff, running through a Neve console. We use a lot of old gear: tube amps and these really beautiful-sounding microphones, and when we go to a studio we opt to go to tape. We track drums and bass and often vocals to tape because of the warmth, and then we fly it back to Pro Tools. Then we can take it home.
MF: It's interesting you did some of the record at home, because one of the things that really struck me about the record is there's a lot of energy. Every single moment—whether it's a fast song or a slow song—has energy.
NC: Why, thank you.
MF: You're welcome. How did you do that? Was it something you set out to accomplish?
NC: One thing we definitely wanted to do was to try to have this record capture the rawness and the energy of the show. To not have it be this overproduced sample-and-DJ record; just a bit more in your face. As far as having the energy on tape you just have to get it from every player that comes in. You just have to get the right take.
MF: Do you work your band? Do you do things to deliberately get them up for the song?
NC: Justin's really good at communicating the vibe and the songs were really strong—like "Can'tneverdidnothing." There's no way that somebody could just mail that one in, you know? They had to really be present and bring it, starting from the drums. And luckily enough, we worked with great people that got it. They got what we were asking for and they could do it. Abe did that song in one take—he's an animal.
MF: He's a phenomenal drummer.
NC: Oh, he's amazing . . . and he's such a cool guy, too. So lovely and jolly and down—he was great. He just wanted to hang out. It was awesome.
MF: Is there anybody else on your wish list you haven't hooked up with yet?
NC: You know, I'd love to do something with Jimmy Page. I finally met him the other day and I just vomited. [laughing] I vomited admiration at him. [general laughter]
MF: How did he handle it?
NC: Oh, he was lovely. He was a full, proper English gentleman—very, very, very sweet.
MF: How'd you meet him?
NC: I met him at this Clive Davis party. He was at a table and I just went up to him and accosted him.
MF: Did he know who you were?
NC: I don't know. He probably thought I was some agent's wife or something. I was like, (in high, wavering voice) "Oh my God, you don't understand! I love you!" I don't think the fan in you ever really wears off. There are some people that I know every word to every record they ever did. So meeting those people is insane 'cause they're the soundtrack to your life.
MF: What about Stevie Wonder? Would you want to do something with him?
NC: Oh yeah, I would love to. I actually met him recently and it was really cool. The first time I had the opportunity to meet him was five years ago as he was walking down some stairs. We were at a party and my friend said, "Oh, you've got to go and say hi." And I froze—I couldn't do it. He walked right past me and all I could do was stick my hand out to touch him as he went by. [general laughter] But I finally met him just a few months ago. He was really sweet. It would be great to work with him.
MF: As your career's growing you're getting closer to working with your heroes.
NC: It's insane, you know? When I first met Justin, he asked me, "Who do you really want to work with?" I said, "I'd love to one day work with Prince, I'd love to one day work with Lenny Kravitz, and I'd love to one day work with Stevie Wonder." I've done two now! It's insane. So you have to dream big, because it can happen.
MF: So what do your big dreams look like? In an ideal world, what are you gonna do?
NC: In my ideal world, I would love for the power to be returned to the artists—as far as creativity. I think record companies are squashing creativity. Unfortunately it's difficult for people who are doing something a little bit different to be heard and I think it's a real shame. And also radio. I just think that it really needs to do an about face, 'cause I think we . . . you can still keep the crap but make some room for some real artistry. I think audiences want something else, they just don't know where to get it.
MF: I think the Internet and satellite radio are going to help.
NC: Yes, yes, it's definitely helping. But the industry is in a gray period right now. They're still doing it the old way, but there are all these new frontiers that haven't been tapped into.
MF: I heard you for the first time on Internet radio-WOXY.com
NC: How cool. We did a thing on World Cafe where we played a virtual gig in their studios and they shipped it off to 200 stations. Those kinds of things are great, and it'll just take time for everybody to get hip to it.
MF: Well, Nikka, it's been awesome talking with you, and it was great seeing you in Portland. Thanks a lot.
NC: Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.