After spending her childhood with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., R&B veteran Nikka Costa has made a career out of versatility, perseverance and hard-driving funk.
When we spoke, Nikka Costa was in the midst of coordinating rehearsals with her band, gearing up for her United States tour in support of her newly released EP, Pro*Whoa! The goal, Costa said, is to release a series of EPs rather than go the typical full-length album route. “For me, right now, this feels more exciting – it keeps the engines running,” Costa said. “Plus, it suits the ADD culture we’re living in.” She also thinks it’s good for the fans to give them little bursts of Costa’s funk and soul rather than unload her fierceness all in one huge chunk.
Mission accomplished. Pro*Whoa! is a tight collection of six songs that highlight Costa’s signature hybrid sound of rock and funk with a heavy dose of soul and a dash of hip-hop mixed in. She’s a true Gemini: uber-feminine, and even girly, but when she opens her mouth to sing, her voice explodes from your speakers. It’s easy to see where her influences lie. She’s Janis, Jimi, and Led Zeppelin all folded into the tiny package with a big, sultry voice that is Nikka Costa. And she’s not shy, nor is she afraid to get naked for her art. Costa recently appeared on her YouTube Channel, “Nikka’s Box,” standing topless with a letterbox over her bare chest, the words Pro*Whoa! splashed across, and asked “What’s a girl gotta do to get the word out?”
Perhaps the reason for the shameless promotion is due, in part, to the fact that Costa hasn’t quite exploded in the United States…yet. Her self-titled debut released when she was just nine years old, and through the years she’s found much of her success overseas in Europe. Hits like “Like a Feather” and “Everybody’s Got Their Something” penetrated the airwaves stateside, and she’s a bit of a soundtrack darling with songs appearing on the television show Grey’s Anatomy and the films Blue Crush and Blow. There was a time Costa even questioned whether she wanted to be a musician.
“I had been touring from the time I was eight until I was twelve,” she said. She’s the daughter of famed musician, conductor, arranger and producer Don Costa, best known for his work with Frank Sinatra, arranging and producing Sinatra and Strings, as well as producing hits for the Osmond Brothers, Sammy Davis, Jr. and his own daughter’s single “Out Here on My Own.” The two were planning a follow-up to the single when the elder Costa died of a heart attack.
Around that time, Costa said she didn’t want to perform anymore and lived a “normal” childhood. Once she finished high school and all her friends headed off to college, however, Costa realized being a musician was the path for her. Costa’s “college years” consisted of writing songs, traveling around in a van, auditioning drummers, hanging her own posters and learning guitar. “I was out there doing it,” she said.
And Costa never looked back. She went from “sitting in the laps of the real Brat Pack,” as she sings on the new EP’s title track, to rubbing shoulders with celebrities and collaborating with big name artists like Eric Clapton.
So being around famous people her entire life, it’s hard to imagine Costa getting star struck. “Madonna walked right by me once and I didn’t say hi—I couldn’t,” she laughs. Same with Stevie Wonder – the first time she saw him she was too in awe to say hello.
She’s sung with Prince on several occasions, but Costa said he still has a starry-eyed effect on her. “There have been a few times when I’m sitting across the table from Prince, and I’m thinking, ‘This is so surreal—I’m talking to Prince!’” In fact, Costa’s sound, at times, is very Prince-like, especially on Pro*Whoa!’s, “Head First.”
Costa recently collaborated with another artist walking the androgynous, glam-rock line, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert, and contributed a few songs for his sophomore album. “He’s great because you can throw anything at him, and he can sing it.”
Costa said it’s nice to collaborate and write for other artists, “It’s good to go into their headset and see where they are.” Costa said. “It’s fun for me, too, to be outside myself.” The challenge of writing for other artists creates challenges for her own songwriting. She can return to her own music with new perspective and fresh eyes.
Touring can also offer some fresh perspective and downtime gives Costa more time to get her life in order. On the road, Costa’s favorite pastime is organizing her computer, of all things. “I wind up doing things I can’t do at home because I end up cleaning.”
Things like deleting duplicate photos and learning how to use Garage Band help pass the time. Depending on the city, she loves checking out the scene once the sun goes down, but said the local park scene ranks pretty high on the list, too, especially when her daughter hits the road with her.
“It’s not good when I’m away from her for too long,” she said, her voice dropping an octave and losing a bit of its upbeat lightness. Now that her daughter is getting older, she joins Costa on the road. “She loves touring,” Costa said.
“We look at it as an adventure.” she said. “It’s really great for her. It gets her out of her schedule for a minute. Obviously, we’re always thinking of her first.” And the “we” is Costa and husband, Australian music producer Justin Stanley, who she said have been married for “a million years,” so the work/life balance is old hat for them. She said when they can’t get it together for whatever reason that’s when the balance becomes hard.
The Pro*Whoa! tour will find its way Philly on July 13 when Costa performs at World Café Live, and Costa said she loves heading to the City of Brotherly Love. “I love Philly, it’s an awesome city with its funky restaurants and tattoo shops.” Even though the venue tends to be one that is memorably on the chilly side, Costa said. “We’ll try to bring some heat. I love it when it’s a sweaty funk fest.”
Words to live by, Costa said, consist of only one, persevere. “I’m always telling myself to persevere.” After a literal lifetime of singing and eight albums under her belt, Costa is persevering quite well.
This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Origivation Magazine, http://www.origivation.com