Long before she chased down a career as a jazz vocalist, the artist known as Niia moonlighted singing jingles, chirping about Subway sandwiches and restaurants with unlimited salad and breadsticks on TV commercials.
“Whenever you heard a jazzy jingle, that was me,” she says, breaking into a melody: “‘Da da da!’ It paid really well, which is why it was so easy and fun. I got to work in studios and sing about tomato sauce and tampons.”
Niia, whose second album, II: La Bella Vita, comes out later this month, got her first big break in college, when she signed on for a sub-sandwich commercial. The producers she was supposed to meet didn’t show up at the studio, but Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean did. He insisted she join his session, launching her career in music.
Niia is a dark-haired femme-fatale type with the cheekbones of a Hadid sister, though she insists people only make that comparison if they’re drunk and that she’s really more of a shy music nerd than the “cool, mysterious Sade persona” often attributed to her.
Born outside of Boston, she grew up a self-described “band-camp girl.” Her mother, a classical pianist from Italy, introduced her to artists like Annie Lennox, Sting, James Taylor, and Smokey Robinson, but she also sent Niia to a very strict all-girls Catholic school. “My mom thought I was going to be, like, a floozy — a weird, free art kid — if I didn’t have a little discipline. She put me in there and then realized that was a big mistake.”
After graduating from high school, Niia headed to New York City to study at the New School, where she mixed into the crowd of blue-haired, fashion-forward smokers. She studied jazz voice and classical piano, but when she started making money singing jingles, she dropped out. “Once I saw this big beautiful studio, I was like, ‘I’m not going back to class.’”
Niia released her debut album I, in 2017. In its review, the New York Times wrote, “Niia sings like a slow pour … She’s a singer who manages to call attention to herself while thriving in the shadows,” calling her sound, “trip-hop that strips away the pomp, leaving only the ooze.”
Last month, Niia performed a preview of her new album for a sardine-packed group of shoulder-swaying fans at the Standard Hotel’s East Village penthouse. There, she debuted a heartbreak-infused collection full of modern, soulful iterations of the torch song — numbers with earnest titles like “If You Won’t Marry Me Right Now” and “Sad Boys,” which had Niia and her backup singers rotating between the lines “Sad boys / my top choice” and “They turn me on.”
“I’ve had a few sad boys in my life,” she says. “They’re always very handsome. So cute and all punk … It never ends well. I didn’t realize sad boys get older and then they’re still sad boys.”
There’s one particular sad boy she had in mind while making the album: her ex-boyfriend, whom she dated for six years, and — in a very Fleetwood Mac twist — is also the album’s producer. Whereas Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were forced to sing out their heartache in front of each other, Niia’s ex hasn’t yet heard the lyrics for songs they co-created. “I took the music and wrote all the lyrics alone, angrily, in a corner, so he didn’t even hear a lot of what I was saying,” she says. “But hey! Fuck it! It’s the truth, and that’s what it is.”
The resulting album has “more frustration and angst,” Niia says, “because I was pissed, I was upset, I was sad … It’s hard to just be happy all the time. Like, ‘Oh, that was a life lesson!’ I just wasted six years of my fucking life with this dude!”
Appropriately, the new album drops on Valentine’s Day. In Niia’s own words, “I’m a bitter lover.”