Growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia, Niki – whose full name is Nicole Zefanya – was exposed to music from a young age as her mother was a gospel singer.
Then, at nine years old, after watching a programme featuring Taylor Swift where the pop singer talked about composing songs on her guitar, Niki decided to teach herself to play guitar so she could write songs too.
Niki then started to post YouTube videos of her singing her own songs as well as cover versions of popular numbers. At 15, Niki got to be the opening act for Swift’s The Red Tour when the star performed in Jakarta in 2014.
“There was an online competition to find the opening act for Taylor Swift’s Jakarta show,” recalled Niki, who was in Kuala Lumpur last week. “When I heard about it, I uploaded a video of me singing, but I thought nothing would happen.
“Then somehow, I ended up winning … I was like, what? (On the day of the concert), Taylor Swift came to my little section backstage and said hi. I cried, because I looked up to her so much when I was young,” Niki reminisced.
Today, the 20-year-old is based in Los Angeles and has released two EPs in the R&B genre: Zephyr last year and wanna take this downtown? in May.
However, Niki admitted she only started pursuing a music career seriously two years ago, and even then, it all happened by accident.
“I moved to the United States for college, and somehow I released my first single through (label) 88rising Music,” said Niki, explaining the events that led to her becoming an R&B singer.
What it entailed was, Niki had recorded a track, See U Never, and passed it to Rich Brian (previously known as Rich Chigga), an Indonesian rapper/singer based in the US. Brian then gave the song to the American company he’s signed to, 88rising Music. The company liked the song and signed on Niki as an artiste.
“Everything since then has just been a total whirlwind,” she admitted. “Honestly, it was not planned at all. But yeah, I think the moment I realised that I’m probably going to have a music career was when I put out my second music video, I Like You (2017), and it did pretty well.
“People started recognising who I was, and I was like, ‘OK, it’s time to call my dad now’,” shared Niki of her decision to become a full-time artiste.
In person, the young lass comes off confident answering questions, conveying both friendly and serious demeanour. Lowkey, the first single from her latest EP, showcases her eloquence with words, be it spoken or as a writer.
“My father likes to chat. He passed that gene to me,” said Niki with a laugh.
She reasoned: “I went to an international school in Indonesia, so all my educators were either American, Australian or Canadian. I also grew up watching a lot of American TV, and I was always drawn to languages.
“I took my language courses very seriously, English and Indonesian as well.”
Thanks to her love for words, Niki said she thinks of herself as a songwriter first, and singer, second. For both her EPs, Niki either wrote or co-wrote all the tracks. She even played most of the instruments on the albums and produced the songs as well.
“Yeah, I’m very involved in all aspects of my music,” confessed Niki. “I’m a very hands-on artiste, I’ve always been self-sufficient, I suppose.”
She continued: “A lot of people jump into the creative industry knowing this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, that wasn’t the case for me.
“Instead, it was a growing experience for me, but I’ve embraced it. Now, I love what I do. I love music. I can’t think of myself doing anything better than music. I’m very committed, and excited to, hopefully, catalyse a cultural change in mainstream media.
“Asians are either under-represented or misrepresented in a lot of Western media. And, you know, I just want to help change that, even if it’s a small contribution.”