Back in 2014, a 14-year-old Nicole Zefanya half-jokingly sent in a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Stay Stay Stay” to a contest application. She won, and it turned into an opening slot for her idol when Swift’s Red Tour rolled through her hometown of Jakarta, Indonesia. It was an obvious sign to begin taking music more seriously, and so Zefanya began posting acoustic originals to a quickly growing YouTube channel. While many of her most loyal fans were disappointed when the older material vanished in the wake of her newfound fame as NIKI with all-Asian label 88Rising, the vault is now being reopened through another act of divine Swiftian intervention.
Zefanya’s 2020 debut album, Moonchild, saw her dialling up the production value on her combination of folksy bedroom pop and soulful R&B vocal stylings, while embodying a character through a lyrically and thematically dense narrative about self-discovery. On the contrary, her latest project, titled Nicole, is about as personal as it gets. Inspired by T Swift’s recent re-recorded albums, her songwriter brain was fired up as soon as she heard the 10-minute version of Swift’s “All Too Well” and spontaneously booked a studio session to revisit her older material.
The resulting album is split into two halves, one side featuring new versions of Zefanya’s biggest YouTube hits, and the other with previously unheard tracks – some from the YouTube era, and some featuring Zefanya trying to reconnect with her high school roots years later. The sixth track, “Facebook Friends,” is right on the borderline. “It was the very last video I had uploaded on my YouTube channel before I debuted as NIKI, it had a thumbnail and all the hashtags, and I just never hit publish because I went out to a dinner,” she says. “So now it’s on the record instead.”
The whole project wrings the drama out of the tumultuous ending of her first real relationship with vivid lyrical specificity. One track, “High School In Jakarta,” compares the gossip-fraught hallways to a Spartan battlefield. On another, she sings “The Goo Goo Dolls are dead to me, the way you should be too.” Truthfully, while the band’s karaoke classic, “Iris,” was the doomed couple’s “song,” it was also a big inspiration for the burgeoning songwriter. “The Goo Goo Dolls are never dead to me!” Zefanya laughs. “That was just a very spiteful, vindictive line that I don’t actually mean, obviously. I was really drawn to lyricism, so my formative experience was listening to bands like The Paper Kites, Goo Goo Dolls — all of these singer-songwriter guys.”
“The Goo Goo Dolls are never dead to me!”
Zefanya grew up in a musical family and was introduced to a love of 90s R&B by her mother, who sang in a church gospel choir. Her family has told her that she found it easiest to doze off to the sound of Whitney Houston’s voice as a baby. Writing her own songs since her early teenage days, that sound combined with her own interest in folk and indie-pop. She points to hearing the bridge of The Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” as the biggest inspiration for her lyrically focused approach.
NIKI ultimately got involved with the 88Rising crew after connecting with future labelmate and fellow Indonesian artist Rich Brian over social media. Seen as a groundbreaking movement when it comes to representing Asian voices in popular music, the label’s profile has only grown since its inception in 2015, now with a roster including Jackson Wang, Joji, Keith Ape and Guapdad4000.
Recently, 88Rising was tapped to curate a soundtrack for Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, containing NIKI’s most viral song yet in “Every Summertime.” The label also put on its own showcase at Coachella 2022 with special guests CL and Hikaru Utada, royalty in their respective K-pop and J-pop worlds. “Putting that show together felt like summer camp,” Zefanya says. “When we were rehearsing, everybody performed their individual sets in front of everyone else, and it was really intimidating performing in front of all these other very respected artists. But it made me feel so connected to my identity, and I’ve been so grateful to have met everybody that I’ve met.”
As the original label thrives, NIKI has been encouraged to see other creative and refreshing stars like Rina Sawayama, beabadoobee and Japanese Breakfast rise to the top on their own. “The energy feels very electric right now,” she says. “I’m stoked for everybody, and I’m everyone’s cheerleader. We’re just going to keep going at it and keep shattering ceilings, hopefully. I just think that it’s so important for the younger generation to see themselves somewhere.”
“I just think that it’s so important for the younger generation to see themselves somewhere.”
As an artist with a rapidly growing profile, taking things back to the past instead of moving forward with new material seems like a bold move. Interestingly, it’s a different trait of her younger self that Zefanya is trying to leave behind in her music as she revisits both the music she fell in love with and the formative events that shaped her as a writer. “I was such an overachiever in school, and this was not a pressure that was put on me by anyone but myself, but I feel like everything prior to this felt like I was trying to ace an assignment,” she says. “I call these my heart songs, because I feel like this is where my heart is at as a creator. I had so much fun just writing to write, and I feel more self-assured in saying that this definitely feels like my sound.”
Zefanya has been candid over the course of her career about struggling with a fear of rejection and a need for validation when it comes to putting her art out into the world. Now, with a note about the album pinned to the top of her Twitter profile, Zefanya backs up her change in approach with a simple “Some of you won’t like it – I understand!” Rediscovering the music that really gets her excited is just another way she’s moving forward by looking back. “Starting my music career, it was so important if people understood, and that was the hurdle I ran into with Moonchild,” she says. “It was so important to me to over-explain every little part of the symbolism that the fun got lost. I’m at a point where I don’t need people to understand anymore, because I love it. Other people will too, and some won’t. That’s just the name of the game.”
Zefanya tried to recapture the sense of writing songs with a guitar in her bedroom by getting back to her roots of being hands-on with the production, after recruiting a bigger team for the first time while conceptualizing her debut. Before sending her latest tracks off to other producers for finishing touches, she made sure the basic elements of the instrumental were in place, as well as claiming the sole writing credit on each.
At a time when songs like Olivia Rodrigo’s“drivers license,” or GAYLE’s “abcdefu” have taken residence at the top of the charts, it also feels like genuine, emotional reflections on teen romance have been newly connecting to all age groups, becoming legitimized instead of being viewed as melodramatic and trivial. Something about a well-written song about a first heartbreak is uniquely gut-wrenching, capable of bringing anyone back to that time in their life.“I love writing about my past experiences because I almost feel like they were more dramatic, and more worthy of having a song written about them,” she says. “Those are very real developmental feelings that often get scoffed at, but the pain was real, man! I don’t know about you, but it hurt.”
All the same, despite the torrent of memes launched towards Taylor Swift’s ex-lovers every time she drops a hyper-specific track about their time together, Zefanya isn’t too concerned about the reaction to old feelings bubbling to the surface so many years later. “If you’re talking about the specific person that these songs are about? Honestly, I don’t find myself all that curious about his thoughts. I mean that in the most neutral way. I wish him nothing but the best and hope he’s happy, maybe even flattered, however fractionally,” she says. “But you should have probably known, getting involved with a writer.”