As the daughter of legendary producer and arranger Don Costa, Nikka was born with music encoded in her DNA. Growing up around the likes of Frank Sinatra (her godfather), Paul Anka, and Sammy Davis Jr. (among many other musical luminaries), she was already a child star in Europe and had sung on the White House lawn with Sinatra before she was old enough to enroll in middle school. She recorded her first single, a Christmas duet with famed Hawaiian singer Don Ho, when she was just five years old. With the encouragement of her parents, she cut her eponymous debut album at eight, and her childhood in Los Angeles was punctuated by world travel and performances before enormous crowds. By just about any measure, it was an extraordinary way to come of age as both a woman and a musician.
After graduating from high school, Nikka’s maturation as an artist truly began. She sought in earnest to discover her own voice and her own style, to find what made her authentically Nikka. As she told MTV.com in an interview in 2001: “I was really into Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, all the old Motown stuff and Stax. I would just sit around and rewind [the tapes] and try to sing the harmonies and learn each part. I would sit in front of my stereo for hours. I wanted to get that — whatever that was.” After a string of critically acclaimed and commercially successful LPs that began with her 2001 Virgin debut Everybody Got Their Something, Nikka, along with artists like Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone, became a bright star in the “nu-soul” firmament, renowned the world over for her unique style — a seductive alchemy that recombines the tropes of American soul and funk music into something wholly her own. In the years since her debut, she has toured with Lenny Kravitz, Coldplay, AC/DC, Beck and D’Angelo, has recorded with superstar DJ and producer Mark Ronson, was nominated for an MTV Music Award, and had multiple hit singles in Europe. Nikka also collaborated with Prince on several occasions: she wrote Silver Tongue with him, which became the B-side for his single Call Your Name, she performed with him at his Live At the Aladdin Las Vegas show (that was released on DVD), she was his special guest for one of his 21 Nights in London shows at the O² during the Summer of 2007 and opened for him at the Forum in LA in 2011. Known for the raw allure and energy of her kinetic live performances, Nikka’s voice and stage presence have been compared favorably to everyone from Janis Joplin to Chaka Khan to Sly Stone.
Her new record Nikka & Strings is rooted in this legacy, but is most remarkable for how it marries the soulful dynamism of her previous work to her recent exploration of intimate performance. While playing an interim residency gig in 2016 at the Largo in L.A., Nikka rediscovered the sonic possibilities of playing live shows in small, intimate spaces. And, as the album’s title makes clear, she also rediscovered the intoxicating beauty of strings. Never a stranger to orchestral performances and arrangements, she’s philosophical about the magic that can be conjured when performing with a string quartet. “I was raised with strings, so the sound and feel come naturally to me,” she says. “There’s just something about the unforced, relaxed experience of listening to strings that people respond to.” The responses she and her fellow musicians received from audience members after performances at the Largo were remarkably positive and consistent. “People would bring their moms and their kids, they would come back to see the show multiple times,” she says. “Many of them told me ‘This is a different side of you.'”
After a chance meeting one night with renowned engineer and producer Bob Clearmountain, who told Nikka he wanted to work with her, the momentum to capture the intimacy of the Largo performances on a record began to snowball. She strategized with her producer husband Justin Stanley about the best way to proceed. They created an online pledge campaign and raised the necessary funds in a single week. Produced by Stanley and Clearmountain at Henson Studios in Los Angeles, Nikka & Strings was recorded in a single day and is – as Nikka describes it – as fluid and frictionless a record as she has ever made. “This record almost feels like it sort of called itself into being, it was just so easy and free from roadblocks,” she says. “It makes me feel like this is the right record for this time of my life.”
The album’s opener, an enchantingly funky reimagining of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” has special resonance for Nikka. Prince, whose death in April of 2016 sent shockwaves across the globe, had been Nikka’s longtime friend and collaborator. Her cover filters his classic through the prism of her personality, infusing the song’s lamentations with a swagger and sexiness that would have brought a smile to the Purple One’s face. Another standout track, Nikka’s rendition of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” has a similar effect on the listener, taking a song ostensibly about heartbreak and, like a second line brass band at a New Orleans funeral, transforming it into a jazz-inflected anthem of joy. For “Arms Around You,” Nikka and co-writer Justin Parker (best known for his writing with Lana Del Rey) met at Henson Studios for a more reflective writing session. The pair spent the session sorting through their emotions surrounding the deaths of friends and loved ones during the previous year, and the result is a moving, introspective tribute to the transience and preciousness of life. Lyrically, the emotionally supercharged song is defined by the kind of bittersweet regret that anyone who has ever lost a loved one can relate to: “There’s a shadow in my heart / Bigger than this lonely room / All of the time I thought we had / Is gone forever with you.”
If the album could be said to have an emotional center, though, it would have to be “Come Rain Come Shine.” The origin of the song’s place on the record is as beautiful as the song itself. As Nikka tells it: “We were a day away from our first show at the Largo, and I was cleaning out my office. I came across an arrangement my father, Don Costa, did for Frank Sinatra. I don’t have many things of my dad’s, so this truly was a rare find! I immediately called my friend [arranger and musician] Jeff Babko and said ‘You gotta come check this out! Is this what I think this is?!’ He came over and we discovered it is the arrangement he did for Sinatra for their recording of ‘Come Rain’ for Reprise Records. I asked Jeff if he could squash it down from a 50-piece orchestra to a string quartet, and he said he’d do his best. I think the result is astounding. He captured the essence of all of it, and I don’t really miss anything from the original. It’s a true joy to play live and to have it recorded. It’s like being able to be with my dad in some way every time.” For an album whose inception was essentially an accident, spawned from the rich intimacy of connecting with audiences at the Largo in L.A., Nikka and Strings is a testament to the creative potential of allowing ourselves the freedom and openness to be honest. For Nikka Costa, that honest exploration has led to the discovery of new artistic territory. As she puts it: “What started out as an excuse to do a couple of gigs while I tried to figure out what my next record was going to be about wound up snowballing into something all its own,” she says. “The making of this record has been a gift for me and I am so excited to share it with you.” From the thirty-five second, funk-infused intro in her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compare 2 U,” to the languorous string arrangements and unmistakable sultry vocals channeling Lena Horne in the eye of a hurricane on album closer “Stormy Weather,” Nikka Costa demonstrates on track after stunning track of her new album Nikka and Strings that, even when interpreting a song made famous by another artist, she is thrillingly and inescapably herself.