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II: La Bella Vita
Release date: 2.14.20
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Niia Finds Beauty In Pain On New Album ‘II: La Bella Vita’ (Out 2/14), Co-Produced By Niia & Rhye’s Robin HannibalRead More
Niia's second album La Bella Vita sets its scene immediately: her voice is a soothing escape from the hell of the outside world, the tinkering of pianos and the soft patter of its drumming a comfort in the darkness. But if you start unravelling its layers, and as the beats get more skittish, and the soundscape more twisted, as the journey begins to unfold, it turns out that Niia's world is not ideal, nor beautiful. Niia grew up a classically trained pianist, and was obsessed with acrobatic vocalists and jazz: from Mariah Carey to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald to Sarah Vaughn. There's been a decline of diva belting, of assured show-y singing in favor of a hipster airiness - but it's coming back around. Coming from an Italian family with very strong music roots, Niia had grown up surrounded by classical musicians including her mother who taught piano from home. In LA where she's based, there's an element of tongue-in-cheek irony to her now. It's in the album title, in her demeanour, in the juxtaposition of rage and loss of faith in love with songs that are both soothing and sorrowful. She was dealing with the dissipation of a long-term relationship here, but she doesn't seek to emerge the victor or the wronged – her perspective is far more complex than either and her stance as a modern day jazz singer makes her the perfect vessel to explore these facets.
Niia Bertino doesn't profess to being a saint, but figures her presentation to the world has told a different story over the past decade. That in itself has rendered her restless. When she was young and wild in New York, Niia got a first, trashy “La Bella Vita” tattoo on her butt. She hates it, but it does remind her to try and find some beauty even in the most painful states. A lot of what she experienced while making this record over the past 18 months has been driven by sadness and misery, and so amplifying something emblematic of regret felt fitting as a title to define this creative era of her life.
After Niia's 2017 debut I, she experienced a bit of creative stalemate. Her debut album was about a relationship she moved to LA from New York City for. She was in it for six years. “Being with someone that long you start to think about getting married and growing old. I found myself wanting all these traditional things that I never thought I really wanted.” Conversely, however, the relationship ended. Mutually. And yet she was furious. “I found myself so fucking angry and really bitter, which was not really me. What do I do with that? I can't just put on a face mask and call it a day.” To stop from the bitterness consuming her, Niia wanted to build some sort of escapist hole. She needed to call in her collaborators.
Having had an already established working partnership with producer Robin Hannibal (aka RHYE), Niia decided to reunite with him on this next body of work. She felt there was a lot of unfinished work between them and untapped potential – that they hadn't truly pushed the boat fully out with they might be capable of achieving together. Despite being diametrically opposing energies, the yin and yang of one another reaps fantastic results. “We're such different creatives to the point where we can't stand each other, but we know we make good music,” she laughs. Without knowing where the lyrical content would head, she took Hannibal to Italy with her together with some other players. She needed to get out of LA. They debunked in a studio in a tiny town outside Pisa for a month with a Steinway piano.
The music sounds European and jazzy but she didn't know where it was going to go lyrically. Months passed, and she couldn't listen to the music they'd made, because she still didn't know how to deal with her life drama. “Then one day I went down into the shitty closet studio I'd made [in LA] and it came out. I wanted the lyrics to have more depth and I was also very angry.” Hence the stark contrast between brutal confessions and serene melodies.
On La Bella Vita, you instantly hear Niia's vocals more prominently. That was planned. She intended to challenge herself more as a vocalist, to proudly show off her skills, to remember those were her roots, and she wanted the spotlight to highlight stark lyrics about wanting her ex boyfriend dead. “These lyrics have to go the distance,” she explains. “It's very powerful.” She teamed up with a host of female backing vocalists to make them as strong as possible. They support her voice as she bolstered her anguish with collective power.
The album begins with uptempo infidelity on 'Whatever You Got' and doesn't finish with a happy ending. “When I finished recording it wasn't like I found myself in my peace. I was still left feeling like shit!” she says. She's learned about how fearful she is, and private. But she's trying to bat that away and share more of the truth. “People have pegged me as this strong, female femme fatale. I'll take that but I'm actually a total disaster,” she laughs. “I come from privilege, I'm not struggling for things but that doesn't take away from how miserable shit can be.” She also gave herself a production credit having realized how much more capable she is as a collaborator. “I relied so much on Robin for my first album,” she explains. “This time it was about what I wanted.” She threw herself into the arrangements and took more ownership.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Niia was classically trained. When Niia showed potential with singing and piano her mother sent her to an academic all-girls high school for structure. “She knew I was gonna be an air-head creative,” she jokes. Instead of making her competitive, the school made her meek, and a pleaser. She suppressed any expressions of darkness or negativity. She learned how to emit a sense of confidence and strength but it was surface level. It's taken a lot to get to a point where she can shake off those expectations and care less about the consequences of being so vocal, so unpolished and so forthcoming. She's still working on it.
In school she was a loner, and music became her salvation. There was no arts program so she went to bandcamp, she pursued jazz band outside school hours. She built self-confidence through her musical talents and not much else. Her family, however, were very conservative with music: a host of Berklee teachers and Juliard students. None of her relatives were in the industry. When Niia moved to New York after school, she experienced a lease of creative freedom unlike anything before and was surrounded by artists who had no limitations. She was singing jingles for Subway commercials for money at the age of 19 and Wyclef Jean got a hold of her in his studio. He brought her in, and she had her first foray into the pop world. “It was popstar bootcamp,” she says. But she had no idea what kind of artist she wanted to be or what her voice was. It was too soon.
From there, Niia was always too gun shy to put the songs she wrote out, but eventually started testing the waters via Soundcloud. When she moved to LA it was to get more serious about writing in rooms with others. It was a tricky transition. It's getting more settled now as she grows more into a community and finds her footing as an artist. Also, her music is starting to fit in with the zeitgeist.
“I've been screaming jazz for years and suddenly there's a resurgence of adult contemporary R&B,” she says. “I think it's because people are really emotional and unstable right now. La Bella Vita is dramatic, friction-fuelled, and tense. It's a diva record written from the perspective of someone who needs to feel braver and less terrified of judgment. “I go back and forth wishing I didn't say some of those lyrics but fuck it. Sometimes we curate things so seriously that you give off a mirage of what you are. I hope people get to see more of who I really am. I'll take the sexy femme fatale but I'd rather be the psychotic ex girlfriend.”
- Eve Barlow
- The Bare Magazine - Feature
- The Cut - Interview
- Flaunt - Interview
- Harper's Bazaar - Best 2020 new music round-up
- HighSnobiety - "Obsession" premiere
- Interview Magazine - Interview
- KUTX - "Whatever You Got" song of the day
- Line Of Best Fit - "Whatever You Got" news
- Lyrical Lemonade - "Whatever You Got" news
- NYLON - Valentine's Day feature
- NY Mag's The Strategist - Essay
- NY Times - Playlist
- Office - Feature
- Paper - Feature
- Paper - "Whatever You Got" news
- SoulBounce - "Whatever You Got" news
- UPROXX- Interview
- UPROXX - Best of Pop column
- BuzzFeed - Artist roundup feature
- Fader - A Capella performance
- Harpers Bazaar - Video performance + interview
- Harpers Bazaar - "Day & Night" video premiere
- KCRW - Morning Becomes Eclectic performance
- LA Times - Interview
- Lyrical Lemonade - "Pull Up" news
- NYLON - Live performance
- NY Times - The Best Albums of 2017 feature
- NY Times - 'I' Album review
- Pitchfork - 'I' Album review
- Vogue - Interview