Gen Z are known to be fiercely independent and remarkably entrepreneurial. They also relish a fairer and more open world—and are determined to tread an alternate path in order to get there. “I don’t know if I can speak for all of Gen Z—I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that—but I’m really impressed by their focus to oppose tradition, shatter ceilings and push the limits on things,” NIKI says over our 45-minute chat over Zoom in early March.
Knowingly or not, the prodigious singer-songwriter is veritably all of that, and more, I discover as we navigate the peak and troughs of her life thus far. Dressed in an oversized camel-brown jacket, gold hoops on her ears, and hair pulled back into an offhand bun, she pops up with a cheery hello from her recording studio in Los Angeles, which has just recently been renovated. It is a mellow day, she informs us, as it has been raining. NIKI has a poised and unruffled air about her, and speaks eloquently with a great amount of thought and wisdom in her answers. It surprises me that she’s only 24—but perhaps I shouldn’t be, given the amount of change she’s dealt with thus far.
Born Nicole Zefanya in Jakarta, Indonesia, she packed her bags at the age of 18 to study music at Lipscomb University, a Christian liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee. She had loved music with a passion since she was a little girl, teaching herself to play the guitar when she was nine, and growing up to ’90s music, R&B and hip-hop, alongside a mother who sang gospel in church. Her ‘nzee24’ YouTube account was an active collection of homespun songs accompanied by a volume of emotion—about poignant dreams, love and growing up. While music was a part of herself that was core to her being, it was never meant to override college and the prospect of a ‘real job’. NIKI’s path had seemed set, until she realised it wasn’t—and that music needed to be a more integral part of her life. She made that dreaded phone call to her father after two semesters at college, to tell him she was dropping out to sign with 88rising—a record label and hybrid management company making waves for its largely Asian roster.
“The trajectory of my life completely pivoted at that point. There was always a little voice in my head telling me I should pursue music, but growing up in Asia with Asian parents is just not as cut and dry as just being able to do that,” NIKI says with a wry grin. “It took a lot of conversations with my dad, but now he is very proud and fully supportive.”
NIKI beams as she talks about her family—which includes her two little brothers—who are still based in Jakarta. She last saw them over Christmas when she flew home for six weeks, but states that it’s a constant challenge living apart from them as she misses them dearly. Her eyes light up when we move on to discuss the food she eats whenever she’s back in Jakarta. “When I land, I immediately ask for pisang goreng—it’s my comfort food. I want that or Indomie. It’s always centred around food. Growing up in Asia in general, there is this emphasis on food and so much of our culture is rooted in that.”
“Being a public figure can be difficult if you don’t love the limelight, especially when you’re under it all the time. I don’t think it’s singular to me—I think a lot of artists feel that way—but I wrestle with that a lot”
Whenever she misses home or craves food that is familiar to her, NIKI—who freely describes herself as domesticated, and whose favourite pastimes are gardening and cooking—shies away from her usual salmon and chicken staples and whips up an Indonesian dish. She recently made opor ayam, a flavour-packed braised chicken dish cooked in coconut milk and turmeric, galangal and lemongrass, among other ingredients. I ask if it turned out how she wanted it to and she nods solemnly. “Actually, yeah! It did. I called home and asked, ‘What do I do?’ Having their nuggets of wisdom really helped.”
It all started as an inside joke between NIKI and her closest friends. Becoming a professional singer or celebrity was never seriously on the cards for her, even though she had opened for Taylor Swift in Jakarta at the age of 15. “When I put out my first single in 2017, I remember joking with my friends and saying, ‘Imagine if one of my songs ended up on the 88rising channel. That would never happen in a million years, and then it did’,” she says of ‘See U Never’ and ‘I Like U’. “I’m very grateful and humbled that people want to listen to my music and can relate it to it.”
After an EP, Zephyr, in 2018, two studio albums—Moonchild in 2020 and Nicole in 2022—and a remarkable slew of singles in her repertoire, NIKI still feels constant self-discovery is imperative in her life. “It’s inevitable that you’re going to keep growing,” she explains. “There’s no ideal destination because I really enjoy learning and personally don’t like to be satisfied with the status quo. I recently rewatched Kung Fu Panda—it’s so good and there are so many nuggets of wisdom in that movie. There’s this quote, ‘If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than what you are now’. Discomfort is growth, and I feel a need to push myself to keep learning.”
Nicole was a true testament to that. She sifted through her YouTube account—which had been kept private for five years— during the COVID-19 lockdown, and quietly confronted her past head-on. She resurrected heartrending songs which tell the tale of her first relationship and break-up, and added to them others written as if she had put herself in her teenage self’s shoes. It is introspective indie at its best, accompanied by the soulful strums of a guitar and lyrics that are boldly confessional.
When asked about her current musical style, NIKI says it is leaning towards “whatever is organic”, and is reverting to how she started making music. The song she identifies with most at the moment is ‘Backburner’. “I resonate with it more musically than I do lyrically now because lyrically it’s very downtrodden and heartbreaking. I’m not in that place lyrically anymore, but musically it’s a song that I find myself coming back to. I don’t ever get tired of it,” she muses.
NIKI has been in a relationship with fellow musician Jacob Ray—whom she calls her grounding force—for the last four years and she is grateful for it. “It’s really cool to be in a relationship that is healthy,” she confesses with a squeak of laughter. “Up until now, it’s not something I have experienced in my life. It’s really interesting though because for me, songs usually come from a place of needing to express when I’m feeling unseen or unheard. Now that I’m in a relationship where I do feel seen and heard, there tends to be less to talk about in songs, which I would say is a complete blessing. But at the same time, artistically, it’s a challenge because I’m not heartbroken anymore.”
“I think just existing and putting out music that is true to myself means something to people”
NIKI pauses momentarily as we wade through the greatest challenges she faces as a singer-songwriter who has soared to global stardom and gets recognised in public. “I haven’t been super open about this publicly, but I’ve always been introverted, especially in my teen years,” she reveals as she glances away. “Being a public figure can be difficult if you don’t love the limelight, especially when you’re under it all the time. I don’t think it’s singular to me—I think a lot of artists feel that way—but I wrestle with that a lot.”
She adds: “When I’m writing and producing music, I am reminded of why I do this. When I perform, I try to overcome whatever I’m feeling with the reminder that music is greater than myself. It is a language that is universal and connects people all over the world, no matter what they’re going through. Not everybody gets to stand on a stage, play their songs and have a crowd sing back to them. So, I try to enjoy it and trick my brain that I’m really excited—and it ends up happening.”
Playing at Coachella last year was a momentous occasion for NIKI, but also one which required her to muster up her courage and lose herself in the wonder of performing for a live audience. “If you’re on the line-up for a festival, the crowd is not there just for you so there’s a 50/50 chance the people who show up at your set don’t know you. It was very daunting,” she admits. Having a guest list of 30 people, which included family and friends who flew out to see her, didn’t help either. “But as soon as I got there—honestly, anytime I get on stage—I felt like my Sasha Fierce, my alter ego, stepped into place. I was a bit more nervous at Coachella and didn’t know what to expect, but it ended up being very chill and I had a lot of fun with it.”
NIKI, who lists Yuna, beabadoobie and Singaporean singer Sam Rui as Asian musicians she looks up to, believes in empowering young Asian artists worldwide. “I think just existing and putting out music that is true to myself means something to people. I try to live as authentically as I can—I think that affects people and makes them feel less alone in some way.”
She is preparing to go on tour again in the second half of 2023, and there is no doubt that only greater things lie ahead for one of Indonesia’s brightest stars. Yet success looks like a completely different story to NIKI, and she leans forward with a mild expression of surprise when I ask her to define what success is to her.
“Wow, these questions get deeper and deeper,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t know if there is a destination in life that I would deem as true success. You can find success in small, micro ways, in the way you live your life daily. With what I do, it’s very difficult to find structure, stability and routine. To me, success is having a balanced life. It is all about balance.”
Photography Charlotte Rutherford
Styling Katie Qian
Hair Athena Alberto
Make-up Sinh Vo
Manicure Michelle Tran
Movement direction Henry Metcalf
Lighting Lance Williams and Sebastian Johnson
Set design Payton Newcomer
Set dressers Kailah Armand, Gina Sgrenci and Chelsea Steele
Scenic Max Flick
Production Photobomb Production
Order your copy of the April ‘Pop’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands on 13 April 2023.