Jazz/Pop Teen Vocal Prodigy Nikki Yanofsky Talks About Her Upcoming Debut Album On Decca Records
Nikki Yanofsky performing live.
At an age when most kids are online checking out the latest hip-hop artist or alternative rock band, 10-year-old Nikki Yanofsky was on iTunes discovering the magic of Ella Fitzgerald for the first time and downloading “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and “A-Tisket, A Tasket.”
A few years later, this budding young singer was in a recording studio with legendary producer Tommy LiPuma and some of L.A.’s top jazz musicians, scatting her way through Lady Ella’s classic “Airmail Special” for Verve Records’ all-star collection We All Love Ella: A Tribute To The First Lady Of Song. Already a rising star in her native Canada, Nikki more than held her own with the legendary artists on the collection, including fellow Canadians Michael Buble, k.d. lang and Diana Krall as well as Natalie Cole, Etta James, Queen Latifah, Chaka Khan, Dianne Reeves, Linda Ronstadt and Gladys Knight. Yanofsky, a Montreal native who is now turning 16, continues to keep company with industry powerhouses on her upcoming Decca Records debut, which was produced by Phil Ramone and Grammy winning singer/songwriter Jesse Harris—who penned Norah Jones’ breakthrough hit “Don’t Know Why.”
Yanofsky’s upcoming album features her songwriting collaborations with both Harris and famed Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith, in addition to an original song written for her by Nova Scotia native Feist. Paying homage to her jazz upbringing—she was the youngest performer ever to headline her own show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival—the singer also spotlights unique arrangements of standards with her big band, an original song Yanofsky wrote for Fitzgerald entitled “First Lady” and the Joni Mitchell classic “Circle Game.” Her jazz background informs her intuitive approach to this song, which she starts faithful to Mitchell’s original on the first verses and chorus before making stylistic changes to the later verses and second chorus. “I love that mixed approach,” she says, “which pays homage to the original artist yet allows me to make the song my own.”
Yanofsky was originally scheduled to release a debut album called Nikki – A Little Bit Of Everything in 2008. Instead she made her Canadian recording debut that year with Ella…Of Thee I Swing, a live CD/DVD tribute to her musical idol. Certified gold, the album was nominated for two Juno Awards (making her the youngest nominee in Juno history) and the DVD documentary Nikki: Beginnings won a Gemini Award – the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy. Her cover of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” is available on iTunes.
While the title of her Decca album will be different from the album that was originally going to be her debut, the “little bit of everything” title concept holds. While she made her initial splashes and has received international acclaim in the jazz world, she’s equally comfortable in a wide variety of genres. She had enough clout to make an album that allows her to tap into a multitude of influences. Yanofsky says, “Phil had been interested in working with me since he heard my voice on ‘Airmail Special’ and was very open-minded in the process of selecting and writing songs so that there would be an eclectic mix of pop, jazz, soul and R&B. Listeners will definitely get to know me through this music.
“I know people in the industry often find it easier to work with artists who stick to a single genre, but I had just the opposite problem—I was afraid to pick just one,” she continues. “I know I don’t want to be in a single category my whole life. My first love will always be jazz, but I see myself not as a jazz or pop singer but as a singer. I think it’s cool to break the mold and show emerging artists that they don’t have to limit themselves. Phil has worked with so many amazing artists, and it has been such a pleasure to learn from someone who knows everything about production and making great records. First, it was so flattering that he wanted to work with me, but as this project has developed, my focus has been on giving my best vocal performances and learning how we can make every detail better. I like the way Phil trusts his gut. I’m a huge perfectionist so it’s a good match.”
In 2008, further displaying her equal comfort with jazz and pop, Yanofsky recorded “Gotta Go My Own Way” in English and French for High School Musical 2 and collaborated with Herbie Hancock and will.i.am to record a crossover version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which was used on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s audio book “On The Shoulders of Giants.” She also collaborated with Wyclef Jean.
While preparing and working on her debut album, Yanofsky performed several more times at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Montreal’s Bell Centre (home of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens), The Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival in Montego Bay, with Marvin Hamlisch at Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and with the Count Basie Orchestra at the Luminato Festival in Toronto. Last November, she also taped a PBS special in Montreal; the special will be broadcast nationally on PBS affiliates during the March 2010 pledge drive.
The Montreal Gazette said it best about the way she captures an audience when they wrote: “Her gift is channeling the voices and spirits of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Judy Garland, among others…not even the experts can understand it.”
When she listens to some of her earlier recordings, she is grateful that she waited till now to record and release her official debut. Aside from greater maturity and confidence, she also likes the richer, more nuanced tone of her voice much more. “It changed a lot,” she says, “and when I listen to myself on sessions from 2007, it’s like I’m singing on helium compared to now! My voice has definitely matured and has the sound it will probably have for the rest of my life. I’ve been taking formal lessons and enjoy exploring the technique aspect of singing while expanding my range and depth. I’ve never been nervous before performing, but I feel more assured onstage as well. The key is to keep growing. I always think the day you think you’re the best you can be, it’s a bad day. There is always room to get better.”
Yanofsky, whose parents taught her early on the value of taking constructive criticism, may be young chronologically, but she’s an old musical soul who freely offers advice to singers of all ages who ask her for the secrets of success: “It’s one thing to be given a good voice and have the chops to pursue it, but another to just sit there as if the world will come to you without a lot of hard work. You have to believe in yourself and develop that inner strength to get through the setbacks that will inevitably come. Your parents and friends may support you and give you a lot of advice, but ultimately you have to trust your gut and follow what it tells you. And when things start going your way, keep things in perspective and always remember the great line that Quincy Jones once said: ‘Check your ego at the door.’”
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at Few522@aol.com.
Even a good voice can show improvement with professional singing lessons.