Meet Niia, the Wyclef Jean Protégée Bringing Classical Music to a Modern Sound

Meet Niia, the Wyclef Jean Protégée Bringing Classical Music to a Modern Sound

Meet the singer that Kylie Jenner introduced to the mainstream.

Meet the singer that Kylie Jenner introduced to the mainstream.

Text: Ilana Kaplan

Since she was a child, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Niia Bertino knew she was meant to be a musician. Music was always around her thanks to having a classical pianist as a mother and a family full of talented performers. After dabbling in classical piano playing, Niia branched out into singing. Her love of classical music, jazz musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and depressing, yet dramatic songs fueled her own songwriting.

A self-proclaimed “sensitive soul,” the 28-year-old’s songs are unabashedly honest and candid. From singing about being a “crazy girlfriend” to one night stands, Niia isn’t afraid to be herself. And while her music doesn’t exactly fall into a genre, it’s kind of on purpose: jazz, pop, R&B, and string arrangements. It even got a boost thanks to Kylie Jenner, who shared her single “Last Night In Los Feliz” in her short film with Tyga.

Out May 5, Niia will release her debut LP, I. Before it drops, we caught up with her about having her song appear in Kylie Jenner’s short film, singing about one night stands and her mentor Wyclef Jean.

How did you first get into making music?

I come from a family of a bunch of musicians. My mother is a classical pianist, her mom was an opera singer and my uncles and cousins are singers. I’m just one of many in my family. Christmas Eve at my house is like Star Search—everyone gets up and does a song. It felt pretty natural. I kept doing it, and my mom was like, “you’re actually pretty good at this. Let’s put you in some other classes.” Then I stopped doing everything else and started doing music. I did some theater, but it was predominantly only piano and voice. I was always a musician, and I kept evolving. I wanted to go to a conservatory to get really good, and then I dropped out and tried to make it in the music industry.

When Kylie Jenner used your track “Last Night In Los Feliz” in her Christmas Day short film with Tyga, was that a surprise to you?

It was, and it wasn’t. I knew that it was gonna happen because Sasha Samsanova, who shot it, was one of my good friends. She showed me the video in a bathroom because she could turn the lights off. We were sitting on this gross bathroom floor watching Kylie Jenner’s sexy video. I was like, “this is surreal—this is never gonna happen.” It was supposed to come out before Christmas, and it never did. I kind of let go of it. Then I woke up [on Christmas] and my dad was like, “Kylie Jenner is singing.” All of Christmas I had to go around explaining to my grandparents about who Kylie Jenner is. I think the video is really cool, and I’m really glad she liked my song. It fits really well with the video.

Did you ever talk directly to Kylie about it directly?

Not really. What’s funny is we both know about each other because we’re both close with Sasha. I feel like I know her, and she feels like she knows me. So, we’re hopefully going to meet at some point. I have some other ideas that I want to involve her on because I think she’s such an interesting and creative person, and I love that she takes risks. She has such a strong brand, but you do see her taking some risks.

What was it like working with Robin Hannibal [of Rhye]?

I met him probably five years ago and stuck to him like bubblegum. He’s the best. He’s one of my favorite producers out there. He has that old school Quincy Jones sense about production, but manages to keep it sounding fresh, timeless, and very modern. It’s a little challenging because he’s Danish, and I’m Italian, so our personalities are very different. But I also think that’s why we make good music together.

What were you listening to when you made your debut record?

Always jazz. I listen to a lot of old music. I was getting into a lot of old Carly Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Sade. They’re always coursing through me. With Robin’s production and my style, it catered to mellowy, jazzy '90s vibes, which I wanted to keep exploring. I play classical piano every now and then, so there are some very pretty string arrangements.  I love all of the James Bond music, so there’s a little bit of that there too.

What’s your single “Nobody” about? I can’t get it out of my head.

It’s really funny, but everybody really wants to know about this song. It’s really just about a one-night stand, straight-up. When Robin played it for me, it was so sexy, I was embarrassed about it, but I was like, “I have this experience.” It’s really about someone you don’t really know, but no one has done it better. I got some great songwriters to help, which was really fun. It’s pretty cheeky.

So Wyclef Jean took you under his wing. How did that happen?

It’s like one of those “right place, right time” stories that you hear about all the time. I was in New York moonlighting making money on commercials for jingles, and one of the sessions was booked at his studio. The guy who I was supposed to work with blew me off. So, I was just lingering in the studio. He was basically like, “who are you? What are you doing here?” Long story short, he became my mentor, took me on tour with him and I got to moonlight this wild tour. I really got to learn the secrets of the trade. I got to learn so much from him. It was very overwhelming, but it was awesome to get some inner perspective to learn from an artist. Hip-hop and jazz are pretty close, so it was a no-brainer in a way. We were funny friends.

What’s the theme of the record?

Initially, I went in just to see what happens, but I wanted to have this strong, female voice. It pretty much ended up as me being this crazy girlfriend, but falling in love and not knowing how to deal with that. It ironically ended up becoming this strong female voice. It ended up where I wanted it to be, but in a very different context. It’s pretty much about me moving to California, falling head over heels for that person and not knowing what to do, dealing with jealousy and dealing with fear and trust issues, which was a whole new experience to me. It wasn’t meant to be a concept album, but when I listened to all of the demos I was like, “I am a crazy person.” It’s definitely about a crazy girlfriend in love in California.

Credits: Banner Image Photography Fahim Kassam

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