Nica Brooke is fast becoming the new kind of star, one who is completely outside the machinations of the record industry. She freelances as she sees fit, and works in both jazz and deep house circles with equal brilliance. What follows is a snapshot of a pure and self-determined artist on the brink of making it big.
The most fascinating thing about Nica Brooke is that she’s becoming a star outside of the usual channels. It is a process that is the opposite of everything we’ve come to expect from popular music and dance music. She is a former schoolteacher who has found stardom in club culture. She reworks such classics as ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ and ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ into contemporary jazz tracks that sizzle and sparkle. Her collaborations with Rithma, Georg Neufelde and Ollie Brooke showcase a talent whose voice can command a dancefloor. She has collaborated freely with a wide range of producers and musicians and is building her own momentum at an impressive rate.
It is the culture of the internet, of the Web 2.0 generation, that has made this story possible. The ‘Collaborations’ page on her website is testimony to this. Not tied to a tried-and-tested marketing formula, her development as an artist has been one that is more organic. It was Nica who found George Neufeld on MySpace, and it was Ollie Brooke who found her. To riot in stereotypes from the mainstream gay press, there are two polar opposites in music that appeal to gay men: club-tunes and show-tunes. Nica Brooke appeals to both. On one side is her covers, such as ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. Moving toward the centre is her first solo album, New Tricks, on which all the original tracks were written, performed, and produced by Nica. On the other side, the club-tunes side, is the collaborative work with Rithma, the DJs Ryralio and Ollie Brooke. What binds these tracks together is Nica’s vocals, which are are strong and dynamic. She exhibits a great working knowledge of blues structures, big-band era approach to harmonics, and an affinity for classic Rhythm & Blues. One only has to listen to her rendition of ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ to get a sense of how assured a performer she is, as well as to get a real thrill from the inventive arrangement. She stylizes elements of her delivery in what is becoming a signature sound. The track ‘Fireflies’, which is the most melodic crystallization of her approach, demonstrates this perfectly.
Tell me about your work with Rithma and how that came about.
I met him in 2000 at a party and we instantly hit it off. The moment I heard his music I knew there was something there that I HAD to learn from. I wasn’t into electronic music at all. In fact I was a bit turned off from it, having been a live performer all my life. But this was so artfully done, and it woke me up out of my prejudice and ignorance. He’s a tough cookie to get a hold of so I had to keep pestering him and offering vocals. Finally I told him I’d pay him $200 to produce a song of mine and he took me up on it.
Through that process we found out that we worked really well together and he called more and more often to record. In exchange for my vocals he was supposed to be producing songs for me for my demo, but that was too slow going. I realized that it would be a good idea for me to start dabbling in production. My boyfriend, Austin Storms, is a professional sound engineer and helped me set up my whole studio. Rithma gave me one lesson in Logic and I started playing around. As I fumbled through my first song, I realized that in working with Rithma for all those years I had picked up a lot of his “Why the f*ck not” attitude and style. He’s really rubbed off on me and I couldn’t be more grateful.
As an independent artist, how do you finance your projects?
I have my own studio, write, record, produce and engineer on my own, and so I don’t have any expenses unless I need a musician to play an instrument. Also, Austin is an incredible mixer/engineer and helps out with the mixing and mastering process when I need it for my own work. I had a full time job for 15 years teaching children drawing and painting at a private art school until only 2 years ago. Music needed more attention so I quit. The work has been growing steadily over the past year with a wonderful snowball effect after the hits with the Ryralio DJs.
Is your second solo album signed?
It is unsigned as of now – the tracks that are on MySpace are actually the demo. Don Mizell, who is producing it, has worked with Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and many others. He produced Ray Charles’s “Genius Loves Company” which won Album of the year and also won Don a Grammy. He has signed and worked with a lot of new, cutting edge artists over the years as a label executive and a producer. Don’s concept is an album of my songs that is woven as a sort of jazzy, rhythmic soundscape with danceable pop elements and a lyrical mosaic of dreamy images sprinkled organically throughout. I feel completely in awe to work with such a pro, but what’s even more important to me is that he’s completely behind an artist’s honesty and approaches the market in the right way, knowing how to sell material in this competitive atmosphere while retaining the artistic integrity.
How do you manage the publishing rights when you sell your tracks? My reason for asking is that you are an example to young artists trying to find the right paths to self-determination. For instance, a lot of DJs/writers/producers are able to secure a publishing contract first thing to finance the recordings and then pay the enlisted talent.
I usually call the shots when it comes to price. I tell them how much advance I want for doing the vocals, and then after the advance is met in sales, I usually get 50%. There’s a small music contract. The terms are not tricky to understand, so I’ve never had to call in a lawyer. A big downfall to this arrangement is that I don’t know how much the track is selling. It could be selling thousands of units (which I doubt) and they could tell me it’s not doing very well and not pay me the 50%. All I can do is work with people I get a good vibe about and hope for the best. The advance is great for the time I put in (it usually takes me 2 days to write and record everything) and even if I don’t see another cent, I feel compensated for the work. The publishing is in the contract and usually split evenly with everyone involved. I belong to ASCAP and have seen very small royalties come in from the UK (at least it’s something!) so I know they’re doing their job.
Tell me about your musical training.
I started vocal training at 14. I tried a couple of coaches until my boyfriend at the time, who was an absolutely amazing singer and piano player, referred me to his. I started with the husband of the vocal coaching team and eventually switched to his wife, the professional Diva, who was immensely better. I continued instruction with her for 14 years until she passed away unexpectedly from a brain tumour. I miss her dearly. I continue to warm up and coach myself as best as I can, but will eventually find another vocal instructor.
What is your vocal range?
I’m a soprano – I was trained for 14 years by a professional diva. I can squeak out 3 octaves, but I’d say I have a comfortable 2 octave range.
Your harmonies are multilayered in the recording process: typically how many “parts” do you work in?
I never have a set amount of layered vocals – I’ve had anywhere from 2 to 15 parts. I think writing harmonies is my favourite part of the recording process.
I hear a strong big band influence, why is that?
I don’t know why there’s a big band influence in my sound. I think I have a voice that has some of that quality, so I gravitate toward that style while I’m producing. Same with jazz. I always loved jazz and strongly resonated with it, but didn’t study it formally. What’s strange is that when I started writing music, it was on the guitar – my voice melded into a folk sound. Same with the piano. The first song I wrote with no accompaniment and straight out of my head was jazz. It was a very freeing experience and just made sense in my gut. As I began to produce the original jazzy melodies, I didn’t hear traditional orchestrations. I was drawn to give it a new world to live in and hopefully take the genre to a new place.
Still Waiting is an incredibly powerful song. I like the mix of gospel and rock and the electronic elements washing in the background.
Rithma really showed pure genius in that one. It’s remained one of my favourites. That one IS about Bush and waiting for him to leave office. That landed on OM’s 10th anniversary CD and has gotten a lot of wonderful feedback. That’s Rithma on the bass and guitar. What a talent!
You stand as example of an old-fashioned notion: talent and the work ethic and genuine co-operation with the artistic community and always keeping the music as the focus, even when working for hire. Can you give me some off-the-cuff thoughts on what you think your best decisions have been in pursuing your professional aspirations?
Best decisions in pursuing my professional aspirations? The first one would have to be when I was in high school. I can’t remember how I ended up in an audition for the producer of the ‘80s artist Tiffany, but I remember being in his office. I was 14 and completely terrified. He asked me to sing a cappella, so I belted out something from Little Shop of Horrors. I guess he liked me because he asked everyone else to go home and took me down to the studio on the bottom floor of the building. He sat me down and said, “So, who can you sound like?” I asked him why he wanted to know and he said it was because labels were only interested in signing acts that were doing similar things to what was already successful. I instantly cringed. I played along and sang a bit more for him, trying to imitate certain singers. But when he told me to talk to my Mom about being a star and to call him, I knew I wouldn’t and never did. It turned my stomach to think about living such a lie.
The next decision would have to be not going to college. Strangely enough, this allowed me to dive into the scene early on – but more importantly, it didn’t allow me a degree to fall back on. My voice coach said, “The moment you give yourself plan “B”, you instantly set yourself up for failure.”
Tell me about your lyrical process.
I used to try and force lyrics into a song, thinking that I wanted to write about this or that. Paul Simon has always been such an inspiration to me, and I happened to read something he wrote about how there was a precise group of sounds that was going to communicate the melody in the strongest way possible. After that, I’d be careful to listen to what the song was telling me and not the other way around. Words work their way out at me and depending on what’s going on in my life at the time, I get a certain perception of their meaning. I try and write what I’m feeling the strongest about so it has more of a chance of being raw and fresh. I also shy away from stating the obvious. I feel like that takes the fun out of creating a new way to express an old idea, even if it’s on the abstract side. I focus on writing in a peaceful, present moment state and hope that passes its way into the listener.
Any advice for those kids who know they have talent but can’t seem to get a break?
Advice? I think I could fill a book with it! From my experience, the thing that helped the most with learning how to create art from the soul was realizing deeply why I was creating. I think that any art made from a place beyond the mind and plucked out of that same universal energy pool of our origin will resonate deeply with others. I know this advice isn’t necessarily a “solid” plan of action, but I think it’s the only concrete way to make something that will really move others and be a lasting success. The moment I let go of the idea of “getting a break” or “getting somewhere”, things started happening. I really felt and feel successful already, just getting out of the way, letting the music in and being desperately honest. I know that the process has to be enough for me. If I’m desiring anything more then I know that’s a sign that I have ulterior motives. I started making money doing music only when I embraced this. Of course it’s not easy and I struggle with it, but I know it’s the only way to stop waiting for that break and enjoy creating.