Smiling brazenly at the crowd, Nicole Zefanya steps out into the limelight. She was only fifteen when the opportunity to open for international pop songstress Taylor Swift’s Red Tour arose back in 2014, but the confidence she exuded on stage surpassed beyond her age. Facing the 8,000-strong Indonesian crowd armed with only her ukulele and her voice, Zefanya marked the beginning of her journey with an impressive performance.
Ever since being talent spotted by venture capital backed, mega platform for Asian creatives, 88rising, the Indonesian songbird now goes by NIKI and has released two albums; each one honing her maturity in terms of musicality. Her clear tone still remains a characteristic component of her art, but now emphasized with a more coherent creative vision that drives the music forward. Debut album “Zephyr” is an indication of her experiments with storytelling—an eight-track-telling of her encounters with love and relationships. Then in “wanna take this downtown” released last year, layers in beats gave the four-tracker a fuller sound. From the EP, “lowkey” was the attention-grabber; amassing over 74 million hits.
The tide turns once again with the enthused drop of “Switchblade”, declaring the start of the ‘Moonchild’ era. The latest single is accompanied by a visual trip into the whimsical side featuring speckled galactic skies and glowing creatures as she harmonises befittingly about venturing into new experiences with an ironclad “switchblade faith”.
Popspoken: What were the inspirations that you looked to when coming up with “Switchblade”, which holds very vivid imagery?
In discussing the creatives for the video, I came up with this narrative about the Moonchild for the concept album, so that video came together very quickly in terms of concept. I just sat with my creative director, Amber Park, and we talked about fairytales that we loved. Some references that people have picked up include Avatar, Harry Potter and Disney movies. Those were the jumping-off points for the video.
Popspoken: What kind of fairy tales did you grow up with when you were younger that might have inspired this mythical concept?
I was a huge Disney girl. My parents introduced me to Disney at a very young age, so all of the Disney princess movies. I loved Harry Potter; I loved Avatar, the James Cameron movie; Pan’s Labyrinth—I could go on. But yeah, I was very much of a fairytales girl. This narrative is a lot more original to the moonchild concept, but those are the influences.
Popspoken: Going back to getting talent-spotted by the 88rising crew; what were the things that you did differently that got you spotted?
I was friends with Rich Brian, fellow 88rising artist. We both were in Jarkarta at that time and we became music buddies, then we would send each other our rough demos. I sent him one of my early R&B demos and he said “Wow, I really like this”, and produced over it. He got super excited over it and showed it to the 88rising CEO, Sean, who is now my manager as well. Sean liked the song very much, asked to talk to me and here we are today.
Popspoken: As a young Asian female, is there anything you hope to change when you see other female artists being represented by the media?
Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a lot of stigmas to being female. Double standards exist everywhere, regardless of industry, but it is very much an existing thing in the music industry. I think that as a female, you tend to have to work twice as hard to get recognised or to be taken seriously. That seems to be the common experience, at least between the females I know in this industry and myself. Being the only female on 88rising has had its challenges but at the same time, it has been very enlightening for my colleagues, team and I. We have grown together and I think it’s pretty cool that I’m the only female artist, and that I self-produce and write all of my songs. I think my presence is pretty much a statement to show other girls that you can be self-sufficient. You don’t need to rely on men or anyone to make it, that’s what I want to get across.
Popspoken: Your confidence; was it a learnt trait? How did you get past your initial anxieties? What were the processes in terms of developing that?
Honestly, it’s just time, growing up and being around people. I’ve been very fortunate to be working with 88 in that I’ve been given creative liberty right from the start. It has always been “How can we help you?”, as opposed to “How can you help us?”, so I’ve been very fortunate but that being said, I was very young and had a lot of disillusions about myself and what I can do. So yes, I had anxieties. I think, again, making sure you’re surrounded by the right people, especially if you’re young and still so amenable. I think it’s so important to be surrounded by the right people and those people need to support you. At the end of the day what I’ve noticed at least in this industry is that I just can’t afford to think negatively all the time because it’s so mentally exhausting to put yourself in that kind of mindset. You have to push through the difficulties and cultivate some level of resilience. I know that it’s tough love but that’s what it takes. Sometimes you just have to frame your mind in a way that’s positive and get there however you can.
Popspoken: When it comes to getting out of that mindset, are there specific instances you’re able to share with your younger fans? There are the highs and then there are the lows with music, and now that we’re going through a very big low with the virus, which has been dubbed by some as the “Great Depression”.
I don’t want to reduce my advice to just this, but do what you can and do what you need. Especially right now, if that means leaning on others, do that; if that means retreating by yourself, do that. It’s so important to nourish the soul and the mind because living in this digital age, the constant battle is not physical—it’s very much mental and emotional.
If you’re younger and it’s a difficult time to be at home right now, just remember that nothing lasts forever and this too shall pass. I know it’s hard to think that way given how uncertain it is right now, but try to lean on your family and your peers. Do what you love. And to any aspiring artists out there that are young, also remember that this is the digital age and we are living in an era that is different to our parents and our grandparents. I just don’t want any artists out there to be discouraged in any way for whatever reasons. I think I had to really put myself in the mindset that yes, I want to do music and I just never really thought twice about it. That’s kind of what you need to do too if you’re going to pursue a life in the arts.
Popspoken: How are you passing time during the quarantine?
I bought a multi-cooker and learned how to make Chicken Rice, because I love Singaporean Chicken Rice. It’s so good. I looked up the recipe online and I’ve just been eating that for the past week because I made a lot.