Photos — G L Askew II
It's only been seven years since Niia Bertino really learned about pop music. Growing up in a family of serious musicians in Boston, she always sang but never with dreams of fame or "making it."
"It was more like, know your instrument and then you're a music teacher," she told me, walking through aisles of restaurants and food shops at Grand Central Market in Downtown L.A. "Being famous or music being my job was never my mission."
It was Wyclef Jean who ushered her this direction after finding her singing commercial jingles in a New York City recording studio. She was 18 and just months into her first year at a jazz conservatory. He was taken by her, so he featured her on his song "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill),” and then took her on the road with him.
"It was wild. Some of the shit I saw," she said, trailing off about what her parents might have thought at the time and about life on the road for a shy 18 year old.
Niia said she still has to fight against issues with stage fright and tell herself not to sing with her eyes closed. But after releasing her beautifully morose Generation Blue EP last fall — produced by boyfriend Robin Hannibal — and now writing with Dev Hynes, she has started to come into her own a bit.
"I'm still a little awkward," she said while we waited for our lunch. "I remember this girl came up to me after one of my shows and said, 'I'm so happy you're so awkward and weird. Because if you were too confident I would hate you.’ It was pretty bold of her."
"I'm not an extroverted person. I'm not going to jump on top of this table and sing for you,” she said as we reached the front of the line at Eggslut, preparing to order some sandwiches. "But some people would. Especially in L.A."
Since moving here from New York nine months ago, she said she’s still shocked by how outgoing the people are. It’s a difference between the cities, but it’s also that her life has turned the opposite direction and become quiet and secluded since coming here, as her and Robin spend almost all their time working on music. At 26, what's relatable and authentic to Niia is considerably different from your average, hip 26-year-old. But she hopes what might seem like her "awkwardness" will catch on.
"I think being cool is still sadly important to the younger generations, so that's why I want to be like, Look I'm kind of cool and I went to band camp," she said between bites, as we start eating. “I didn't go to any of my cool senior year things because I was in practice rooms making audition tapes… I spent my summers at big band jazz camp in Louisville, Kentucky. I've just never been tuned in to what the cool kids were doing."
As Niia talked, it became clearer that she hadn’t strayed as far from teaching as she had suggested earlier. While writing and performing is her path now, she has a drive — implicit or otherwise — to set an example of following one’s passions. In an era that nurtures instant gratification, she might still inspire a younger generation to do something with greater weight.
“You've got to work hard; you just have to be brave,” she went on. “Work ethic, to really build your craft — it's also what i really want to encourage younger kids to do. Like, practice man, Yeah, some people get famous overnight but they don't last. And if they do, it's probably because they started working hard. I've really realized that the musicians who are on top are the hardest working people ever. I don't even work that hard. But I'm trying.
Niia performs at A Sunday Kind of Love on January 25, Upstairs at Ace Hotel Downtown LA. For information and RSVP to the free event, head here.