The interiors of the Hudson Hotel in New York are warm, elegant, and punctuated by oversized planters that look like large metal watering cans. It's a perfect setting to meet Niia Bertino, a woman who favors what she calls a "timeless" style while retaining an innate understanding of the contemporary. Niia, the Massachusetts-born pop star who recently released her debut album, I (the Roman numeral, not the first-person pronoun), is sitting next to an arcade-style basketball hoop when I meet her at the hotel's beer hall on a Friday morning in May.
Classically trained as a child, Niia first gained visibility in the public eye as a featured vocalist on Wyclef Jean's 2007 hit "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)." She also toured the world as part of his band, leaving her studies at the School of Jazz at the New School in New York to focus on her music career full time. Eventually, she released two EPs: 2014's Generation Blue, and 2015's Breaking, which featured the Range, the Brooklyn-based producer whose real name is James Hinton. Now, with the release of her debut album, Niia is able to showcase her graceful, restrained control as a songwriter and vocalist. The album is an atmospheric hybrid of genres, with songs about being in love and the growing pains of sharing space.
Niia is amused at reviews that reference the chemistry between her and producer Robin Hannibal. "We fell in love really fast, it just kind of happened," she says. We talked about what it's like to work creatively with your partner ("I probably shouldn't have written a whole album about how annoying he is!"), not being in competition with other girls, and growing out of glamorizing sadness.
Thora Siemsen: Your song "Last Night in Los Feliz" is set in a place that abuts Hollywood and features the lines "I got those green green eyes / For blue nights." How does writing help you hold a memory of a place?
Niia Bertino: I never really used to write about places, or nature. I usually write about love or heartache. It was the first song where, when I started writing it, I felt really sad about moving. It was just an instinct that happened. It became a song that everyone really loved. Now it's this real nostalgic thing. Part of me is nervous to try to write another song about a place, because that one happened so organically. It's still bittersweet, but now that I have the song, I have something special about my old house in Los Feliz.
TS: You come from a line of female musicians and vocalists. Your mother trained you in piano and voice — did her mother [an opera performer from Italy] also train her?
NB: My mom was my first piano teacher. My grandma could sing, my mom is tone-deaf, and then I can sing. I don't think my grandma taught my mom, but she was the one that encouraged her to take piano, because she didn't know what else she was going to do with her life. It became my mom's escape. My mom forced us all to take piano. It ended up being my escape.
TS: How do your ideas of home and music overlap?
NB: [They're] evolving. I think living in New York for so long, I kind of glamorized being masochistic, always feeling hungover, sad all the time. I kind of associated that with my writing. When I moved to LA, it took me a minute to transition how to write, because the sun was shining. It was such a positive, happy environment. I was actually building a home for the first time, maturing into feeling healthy in an environment. I feel much more clear-headed and in a better space to even write a song about something sad. There's just more clarity. I think that's why California meant so much to me, because it kind of changed my process of feeling grounded.
TS: The visual cues in your songs, like the piano ballad "All I Need" fading into the instrumental "Mulholland," are very cinematic. What are some films that you revisit?
NB: I love old Italian films –– any Fellini film is my go-to –– [or] French films like Irréversible.Some really dark stuff. Maybe it's because my mom is from Italy, but I love a slow foreign film. When things take their time, it caters to a more cinematic environment. It's the same with music, to have these more-drawn-out string arrangements.
TS: You and Jazmine Sullivan sound so great together on "Sideline," the album's only feature. How did you two link up?
NB: I was listening to the final mix of "Sideline" and was just like, "There's another female in this song. Who is the best singer in the world?" It's Jazmine Sullivan. Her voice is unbelievable. She's beautiful and strong. The whole point of this feature isn't for us to battle each other; we're not in competition. I wanted to also show two women doing their thing and not being upset about [each other]. I think we're going to try to keep the narrative going. Maybe every couple years, we're going to do another duet to keep this story going.
TS: Robin Hannibal's production has been described as minimal, and it foregrounds your vocals. How do the two of you approach making a song together?
NB: We share a lot of similar music influences. Figuring out how to [make music] together took a minute, because I'm very emotional and explosive, and he's much more calm and reasonable. I think it was really interesting, because he knew how to challenge me and exactly what kind of production could work with my voice. I always struggled with finding sounds that could work with my voice that wouldn't just feel retro. I didn't want to make a retro album.
Robin has that duality of the old-school Quincy Jones amazing production but also knows what's happening now. We started dating before we worked together. There's definitely ups and downs to writing a whole album about someone while also working with them. [It] was a little embarrassing. I was like, "I'm the one who is mad about the girl that's in your phone." That's a lyric! It's such a funny relationship.
This interview has been condensed and edited.