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What made you choose to go with Nas and Mass Appeal Records—how do you think that decision has changed your trajectory?
100 percent. I feel like Nas is definitely one of the greatest, if not The Greatest—one of the legends, one of the icons and one of the people that I have always looked up to. I just felt like the connection was ill, ‘cause we’re from the same hood basically. I was in Queensbridge everyday. I could walk to his building where I was from, and me and his brother was super tight, so it was beyond just getting a deal with somebody or somebody just saying, “Yo wanna sign?” It was a really dope connection, man. Even when we first met we had so much in common and so much to talk about—just blocks, people, stuff that I know we can’t do with the average audience you sign. So as dope as it was that it was with Nas, it was a lot deeper than the music.
You’ve recently announced your debut album Survival. What can we expect?
Classic, in my opinion. I feel like I got something for everybody. The production is elite. The topics of discussion are worldly and something that anybody can relate to. I kind of experienced it from just talking about where I am from, the blocks and stuff like that to make it more relatable.
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Right - Jacket + pants by Off-white
With survival comes success. What does success look like to you?
Success to me looks like no stress as far as your family goes. For a person to get successful, it comes with stress, but my thing with success is that my mom is good and doesn’t have to worry about nothing. That’s success to me. And also being able to sit back and watch the seed I planted. Not really sit back, ‘cause I’ve been working the whole time, but I’ve seen the work I put in from the older and the younger people around me. I want to continue that.
How is this one different than any other you’ve recorded?
I feel like Survival is my most detailed body of work. Probably my most—I wouldn't say passionate, but there’s a lot of pain just because of the things that were happening while I was recording this project. Like through my last two to three projects, somebody died in the making of them, and I mean that didn’t happen this time, besides Nipsy and my boy Cliff; they got killed. At the time when that happened back in March, I was active, so I was kind of off the rack for awhile. I wasn’t even in my own thoughts for days. I got back to that maybe around August. So this is also the most time I’ve spent on a project—going back and tweaking it and letting people hear it. All my closest people that either inspired me or that I inspired gave me feedback. So I’ve paid the most attention to this project. It’s my baby. It’s gonna mean something forever, ‘cause it’s my debut album on Def Jam, and from where I’m from, that don’t happen everyday.
Coat by Heron Preston, sweater by Moncler x Palm Angles, pants by Gucci
You’re a gemini, notoriously known for having two contrasting, yet equal sides. What would you say are your two personalities?
God and The Devil. Straight like that. I feel like I have a great heart. I’ll let you sleep on my bed, and I’ll sleep on the floor—I got a heart like that. But don’t cross me. Don’t try to play with me or think I’m dumb. I can be a whole other person. That did happen with a few people in my life. They’d meet one day, and they ended up knowing. I gotta say that as I have gotten older, my geminism cooled out. It used to be hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, all the time. I truly believe that shit is real, ‘cause me and my father are both geminis. I’m June 3, and he’s June 8—and I wouldn’t call it bipolar, but it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shit, you know? He was cool in the morning, and then at night, he is speaking to you like, “Fuck outta here!”
I want to also talk about your role as Method Man on Wu-Tang. What was the process like getting into that character?
It was a challenge, but I was relieved when I got the lead as Meth. I went into the audition two times, and then I got the role. Maybe a week or two went by before I actually chopped it up with Meth, so I was panicking for a little bit. Then I went on set with him, chopped it up, got the vibe with him and really did my research on him as a person. I talked to people that know him and stuff like that. It made it a lot smoother for me. I couldn’t get out of his character; I’d be leaving the set and still be Shotgun, and it was dope, ‘cause I always wondered what it was like for actors to become their character. You know they say like Heath Ledger (RIP), when he played the Joker, he locked himself in a room and turned into the Joker. So it wasn’t that extreme, but I was definitely on some Wu-Tang shit. I was listening to all of the interviews, watching all of the videos—I was just totally consumed with Wu-Tang.
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If you could go back and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would you say?
Relax. Think about the consequences of your actions, and know that shit will get better. I had a mental block up until a certain age. I didn’t know where I was going. I was watching a lot of people pass, go to jail, and shit like that around me at a young age. So it kind of had me thinking, “Well this is life. This is what it is.” And Nas changed that for me, to be honest. He moved me out of the projects. He showed me a different outlook on life and what I was capable of becoming. He gave me a different outlook on life that I was able to show others. You know, it’s a chain reaction. So, I would definitely have told my younger self to calm down. I mean it ain’t that serious—focus on your craft a little harder. There’s things I wish I could delete. It’s helped make me the man I am today, but there’s stuff I’m not proud of. But I had to do all of that to get right.
One last question, how many times have you watched Belly?
Seven billion, man.
But once in the dress, the woman who, five minutes ago, you would imagine to be too self-conscious to pose becomes someone too self-aware to not know all her best angles. Burch takes a seat on the couch, tilts her chin this way, crosses her ankles just so and waits quietly for the next shot. Everything is effortless—Molly Burch is a natural.
A natural-born singer, she would agree, and there are some incredibly cute videos floating around of young Burch warbling in her little toddler voice. But she explains that her ability to perform in front of the camera or on stage is something she’s acquired much more recently.
“Basically until I was in college, I was fighting stage fright and performance anxiety—knowing that I wanted to pursue music and singing, but not feeling confident enough to actually do it,” she says. “It took me a really long time to commit to that as my identity and pursue it as a job.”
In college at Asheville, North Carolina, Burch formed a band that she says helped ease her into performing and songwriting. The band was also responsible for throwing the jazzy Christmas parties that became the spark for her newest EP, The Molly Burch Christmas Album, dropping November 15.
For a singer equally steeped in jazz and pop who offers aching vocals and heartbreak ballads, a Christmas album is the holy grail. Growing up, Burch idolized Billie Holiday and Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Nina Simone. “I would memorize—I would try to sing exactly like all of those people, like, do invocations of them almost,” she says. “I feel like that’s how I taught myself to sing.”
And Burch has always been a singer first, above a performer and a writer, both of which don’t come as easy to her. The Christmas album may be her third EP, but it’s the first time Burch feels she’s been able to experiment so freely. “There’s something about when you’re recording your own songs––there’s a lot of insecurity. You’re in your own head,” she says. “With covers, you’re like, ‘OK, well I don’t have to worry, I didn’t write this song, I’m just interpreting it.’”
Burch did write two new songs for the album, Holiday Dreaming and New Year Love. But the covers gave her a chance to play around too, as is evident in her reworking of the classic Last Christmas, where she welcomes on comedian friends John Early and Kate Berlant.
“This project was so great because I always wanted to do something with them, I always wanted to have our cat be apart of something, and I didn’t know what that was going to be,” Burch says of having her and her guitarist boyfriend’s cat, Mr. President, featured on the cover art. “But this is definitely not a flippant project. I put my heart and soul into it. I mean, I’ve been listening to Christmas music since last Christmas.”
Burch says the focus on vocals gave her a chance to get excited to write her next album, a process that she treats “like homework.” It’s a surprising revelation, coming from an artist whose songwriting consistently proves touching, poetic. Burch’s tender lyrics act as the thread that runs through her other two albums. On the most recent, First Flower, Burch delivers quiet but bold folky numbers, while on Please Be Mine she rendered the raw feelings from her move to Austin with a folky, throbbing nostalgia.
It was the Austin move that helped her to start seriously songwriting. She broke up with her Asheville boyfriend Dailey Toliver, and the resulting time spent on her own in Austin led to the beginnings of Please Be Mine.
“Graduating college is such a dramatic crisis, depending on what you want to do,” she says. “For me, I was lost in that way, so I just focused on my writing. The band that I played Christmas songs with—we would write together, and it was very baby steps for me into songwriting. But when I started writing my own songs it was basically out of necessity. I moved here by myself, and it was hard to find friends, so it was out of loneliness. I was like, if I really want to pursue this as a career, I need to really push myself to write.”
In that year spent alone, she sent the occasional song back to Toliver, her guitarist, for his review. It’s the same process they use today—Burch composes a rough draft of a song and brings it to Toliver to flesh out. After a year apart, Toliver moved to Austin, and the two established themselves in the music scene there. “Us getting back together, that helped in a lot of ways,” she says. “Because it was almost like this rebirth for me here, because it was like ok, now we’re a couple, and we’re meeting other people.”
Burch is no longer the Loneliest Heart she was on her first album. These days she’s performing with Dailey and a rotating band across the country, across the world. It’s a creative partnership that’s weathered the test of time and touring.
“At first it was hard, because touring can be really stressful, so we would fight a lot and take it out on each other,” Burch says. “And it’s through experience and practice now that we’re at this point where we’re this well-oiled machine on tour. We do not fight, everything professional, and we know how to do it. But I feel like the next step is also finding balance in our relationship and putting our relationship first sometimes.”
When she’s not on tour, she’s at home in Hyde Park with Mr. President, probably watching The Bachelor. They’re both homebodies. “I read this interview on InStyle the other day about Michelle Pfiffer, and I loved it so much, because I related to it a lot. She was like, ‘I just live in extremes, either I’m like the busiest ever or the laziest ever,’ and that’s just how I am. It’s how I’ve always been, but now because we tour a lot, and it’s so taxing, when I’m home, I’m such a homebody, and I’ve been trying to accept that. And not feel like shit.”
Austin hits a sweet spot between tours, not too peaceful and not too fast-paced, either. It’s a good place to relax for an extremist, as long as periods of relaxation—and writing—are broken up by the whirlwind thrill of touring.
But maybe Burch isn’t so much of an extremist as a paradox. Like the Mamas and Papas song she covers on the Christmas Album, Burch is the true Snowqueen of Texas, resisting any easy categorizations, striking the delicate balance between folk and pop, glamor and vulnerability. “I'm not what you want me to be and I never will,” as she sings on To the Boys.“I hope you're listening still.”
But in that process, NIKI found a voice that stood out from the rest. In 2017, she sent an independently produced demo to Sean Miyashiro of 88Rising—a media company and label representing such Asian stars as fellow Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, Chinese rap group Higher Brothers, and Japanese-Australian singer Joji. That demo would become her debut single, “See U Never,” a glistening, nostalgic RnB breakup anthem that put the songstress into the mainstream spotlight. Today, she’s 88Rising’s first and most prominent female face, a fact NIKI doesn’t take for granted, especially after receiving hundreds of messages from the young female and Asian fans she’s inspired.
“To my female fans specifically—my Asian female fans—I say, ‘Girl, don’t feel like you need to adhere to conform to any stereotype,’” NIKI says. “Sometimes, societal expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, and you start trying to fit a mold. I get DM’s from people saying ‘I’ve taken piano lessons for 10 years and was super close to abandoning it until I saw you out here doing your thing.’ This is why I do what I do.”
For NIKI, the ongoing journey to finding her own sense of self has been paved with the usual struggles of young adult life. It was perhaps in her debut EP, Zephyr (2018), that NIKI fully synthesized themes of flirtation, love, and heartache with the trademark old-school RnB sound she says was inspired partly by the Boyz 2 Men, Aaliyah, and Destiny’s Child albums she grew up listening to.
“I'm dancing with the devil with my high heels onnnn,” she croons longingly on her bad-girl slow jam “Dancing With The Devil.” “Unapologetic 'bout it, cause the lovin' so good.” The glossy album swings from such misguided pursuits of attraction to the temptation of returning to the familiarity old flings (“Vintage”) and wistful goodbyes to extinguished flames (“Around”)—a rollercoaster of romantic phases and stages.
It’s unsurprising that these lyrics, conveyed through NIKI’s dreamlike, crystalline falsetto, represent her own real-life experiences. She describes her creative process as “super organic,” which has allowed her to remain nimble and continue developing her sound with each new project. Though somewhat private about her personal life, NIKI reveals that her latest EP this year, wanna take this downtown? (2019), emerged from “super dark, hard time at the beginning of the year.”
“The EP was born out of the need for me to write something ironically very light and happy and poppy,” NIKI explains. “I was listening to a lot of pop music at the time, but I also gained a strong appreciation for underground artists with their structured, witty lyricism. It started as a form of therapy, really.” She cites among her current influences British songwriter Maisie Peters, who collaborated on the EP’s first single “lowkey,” a song that NIKI had written alone a year prior and shelved, before reimagining it with Peters’ help. “We were friends online for four years, but never met. She’s honestly one of the best songwriters I know. Finding ‘lowkey’ again and rewriting it was a milestone for me.”
NIKI's freewheeling spirit of experimentation translated from the EP’s tracks to the colorful and conceptual “visualizer” that accompanied “lowkey.” In the richly-textured yellow-and-blue video, NIKI’s seen wearing thigh-high blue velvet boots, sipping tea, and running her freshly painted nails across jiggly blue jello. “It’s like the synesthesia people experience when they hear chords or notes and immediately associate them with seeing colors,” she explains of the concept. “When I listen to something, I get an immediate mood or vibe. I write down words like ‘futuristic’ or ‘vintage’ and that becomes the skeleton of what the video will look like.”
Just a few months after wanna take this downtown? was released, the seemingly unstoppable artist appeared on 88rising’s compilation album Head in the Clouds II—this time, with the first single off the album, “Indigo.” Her versatility takes center stage here as she sheds some of her nostalgic, 90s-filtered persona for a dance-y pop anthem that fuses airy, Ariana Grande-like vocals with a powerfully feminine swagger.
“First to one-up your last—she can stay in your past, honey,” she raps in the first verse, asserting herself as a hot commodity before breaking into a high-pitched chorus that climaxes in a challenge to her lover to leave his “inhibitions behind” and “test the borderlines.” “It’s hard being a girl in the industry sometimes—sometimes I need a reminder, like, ‘Bitch, you are that bitch!’” she told Genius of the song, which has racked up more than 6.5 million views on Youtube.
And for all her bops ostensibly about love found and lost, NIKI is a serious, versatile artist with a message for young girls, Asians and Asian-Americans, and creatives all over the world. She says her proudest moment thus far was stepping on stage for 88Rising’s inaugural Head in the Clouds festival—the first-ever music festival dedicated to Asian and Asian-American artists. “Everything’s been a stepping stone towards growth and progress, but the festival is when it really hit me that we had a following and people fucked with our music. I saw the movement then.” And through her work with 88Rising, NIKI says she’s been able to discover her own identity and the higher purpose that comes along with it: “Being a part of 88 has made me see the social responsibility of our work. Before this, I never thought much about Asian-ness or what it meant. I was a cultural mutt with an identity crisis. But after seeing what we were doing with [Rich] Brian, Joji, Higher Brothers—I realize, ‘Holy fuck, I’m Asian.’ And now I want to put us on the map, put Asia on the map, put my people on the map.”
NIKI's new Acoustic Sessions: Head In The Clouds II is streaming now.