Niya Nolting grew up singing in church choirs in New Orleans. At 16, she joined her first band, which led to her to being voted one of NOLA’s top “Women in Rock”... until they found out her age and disqualified her. But it was too late: Niya had been bitten by the performance bug, and has remained in love with singing and sharing her music ever since. While attending CU Boulder, Niya enjoyed some local recognition with her jazz band, Niya and the Satellites. She stayed in Colorado, met and married guitarist Kris Nickeson in a ceremony at Red Rocks, and released the album 'Through the Matter' in 2013, with a band calling itself simply “Niya”. The all-too-familiar pressures and difficulties of maintaining a full band led to the current stripped-down sound of the duo Niya & Kris, which is Niya’s most current project.
This Saturday, September 24th, Niya & Kris will perform at Westminster’s Orchard Arts Festival, and from there, they set out on tour. Their new album, 'Beneath the Watermark', will be released song by song starting this Christmas, with videos accompanying each track. The duo’s first single will be “Where the Rain Held Weight”. Niya’s music reflects her entire history, with influences from rock, jazz, and New Orleans swamp soul. I recently had the chance to discuss Niya’s diverse and powerful sound with her in a conversation that really dug into the hardship and beauty that gives rise to her music. Check it out for yourself:
How did growing up in New Orleans and singing in church affect who you are as a singer and songwriter?
Having New Orleans woven into the fabric of my music challenges me as a singer, but at the same time helps me relax into something familiar and true. The challenge is to always remember that spiritual base that brought me to singing by keeping faith and conviction in the words and message I am conveying with my voice. Today, this emotional honesty is a soul-baring process that takes me on a journey through the fear of opening up to the satisfaction of having done it. Having been exposed to so many styles of music growing up has made me eclectic as a singer, and I feel at home singing everything from blues, to rock, to jazz and soul because in a way, New Orleans lives through me.
You joined your first band at 16. Did you get hooked on performing outside of church right away?
Yes. I remember the moment I fell in love with making music. It felt just like falling in love with a person. It was in my bass player’s garage and we were playing U2's song “Bad”. A feeling washed over me like I was somewhere else; a new place I had never been before. Now, I look for that place: a calm inside the music every time I play, and that’s when I know I’m doing it right. [It’s a feeling that] can be hard to gauge when you’re onstage, but in my experience, the only way to know you've engaged the audience is when that switch has been flipped inside of you.
You had a jazz band, Niya and the Satellites, when you were at CU. How did that group come together? What led you from rock to jazz?
I put a sign up in the CU auditorium looking for players, and my buddy Robbie Stiefel answered. He’s an amazing guitarist with an old-school country blues style of playing, which fit well with my eclectic vocals. My daughter had a friend in school whose dad played piano, Bill Giebler. His piano became the heart of the music we produced together, and the three of us became quite a writing trio. My rock style went to the wayside because the jazz needed room to grow, and my musical style expanded because of it. The songs coming out on my next album were mostly written with this crew.
After Niya and the Satellites, you went back to rock. Did that have anything to do with the sad fact that jazz is so underappreciated in America, the country where the form was born?
The blues/rock/soul album I released in 2013, Through the Matter, was composed of music I had written before the Satellites that I needed to get out. It made sense at the time to go back to what I had been doing on my own before the jazz. Now, I [play all styles] in my shows with my husband Kris Nickeson. His jazz/funk background has brought me back to where I need to be, which is right in the middle of rock and jazz. Being a duo allows the music to be free from style restrictions, because no matter what you play, you sound like two people playing on a porch somewhere.
Do you find musical pleasures in this two-piece, stripped-down approach?
The songs from Through The Matter are as beautiful and fun to play as a duet as they were with a full band. I can play them alone, as a duet, or with a full band and the story stays the same. I am loving the duet approach because we can hear and play off of each other better while enjoying our companionship as husband and wife, singer and guitarist, music lovers, and friends. There is nothing more exciting than holding down the rhythm while my husband rips out an amazing solo. It has made me a better guitarist, singer, and percussionist since I get to do all three.
You’re releasing your next album, 'Below the Watermark', song by song, with a video to accompany each song. That’s quite a project! What was behind your decision to adopt this ambitious approach?
The music world has become more visual with YouTube and Facebook the way it used to be with MTV. Personally, I love that. It has pushed me to learn video production, which I find I truly enjoy as much as making music. Both of my grandmothers were painters, and I loved to draw before I was lured into the music world. So now, I feel like I’m going back to my roots in a way, and can convey my ideas with more of my talents. It is ambitious, which is why it takes time, but each song will be like its own little album, a piece of the bigger picture. I can see all the videos and music complete in my mind as I perform them at Red Rocks one day, which is a dream my husband and I both share. He asked me to marry him there; it would be amazing to come full circle and see that dream complete.
You told me in an earlier conversation that your new tunes have a more “swampy, New Orleans vibe” than the songs on 'Through the Matter'. Was that a direct result of the fact that, on at least some of these songs, you were writing about your family and the hurricane? Did you write any of the songs in New Orleans?
The “new stuff” is really what I wrote with the Satellites, and now it is finally coming to the light. Below the Watermark is a compilation of songs dedicated to my family, and much of it is about living there and what it felt like to go through something life-changing with my family. I was living in Colorado when [the hurricane] happened, but my heart was with them when I wrote this music. “Below the Watermark”, the album’s title track, is a fan favorite, and “Where the Rain Held Weight” is another. This record has been a long time coming because honestly, it took that long for our hearts to heal. I want this music to be a celebration of our family and all the New Orleans families that endured and persevered through tragedy.
I know this can be a tough one for any artist, but can you tell our readers, in a few words, what the essence of your music is, and what you hope listeners will take away from it?
Life is hard and beautiful. My intention is to bring myself and those who choose to journey with me through the hard parts to something beautiful. I’m using the power of my voice and the rhythm of my words to bring listeners with me to that calm place; the one I’m always trying to reach when I perform. It's that same magical place that I found in the church choir, in the garage band, and now in our husband/wife duet. It seems a waste to keep that to myself, so I share it in hopes of making people feel better and less alone.
Tell us a little about The Orchard Arts Festival and what we can expect from your set this Saturday?
Westminster has an amazing arts community in its historic downtown. The Orchard Arts Festival highlights local musicians and artists, and I am excited to be one of them. We play from 11:30AM-12:30PM, but the festival opens at 10AM. We will kick off our set with tunes from Through the Matter, and some old blues by popular artists like Elvis. I'll pepper in some swampy jazz tunes from our upcoming album too. I’m also paying tribute to a female artist that left us too soon, but in order to know who that is, you'll have to come see and hear for yourself!
What’s next for Niya & Kris?
Our master plan is to tour the world together playing music, while expanding our repertoire and performing shows that are studies of past artists. To be diversified is to live in this business, so we are writing shows that will showcase artists from the past like Billie Holiday. We’ll perform some of their songs, tell stories about their lives, and shed some light on the origins of music and why it drives people like us to dedicate our lives to performing. We are starting by expanding in Colorado, with more shows throughout the state, and in neighboring states. Our first mini-tour starts in Moab, Utah and will end at a house party in Logan. More dates and places will be added as we go along. Eventually, all roads lead to Red Rocks; at least that is our underlying prayer: to show our love for one another and the music that we create in the most beautiful music venue on Earth.
Make sure to see Niya & Kris this Saturday at The Westminster Orchard Arts Festival. Details on the event can be found here.
Keep up with Niya & Kris on their website.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.