Niki Talks Exploring Her Sound on New EP & Being An Inspiration for Asian Girls

Carlos Gonzalez
NIKI

"I just want to show everybody that you can do this," the singer-songwriter behind the new 'Wanna Take This Downtown?' EP tells Billboard.

Singer-songwriter Niki decided to change things up for her recent project: wanna take this downtown, released on Friday (May 17), dives into a new territory for the 20-year-old from Jakarta, coming off as a bit more traditional pop than her typical offerings. But the sleek liveliness of the EP holds an immense amount of depth and personal growth in its four tracks, and is an expression of Niki’s growth and resiliency as one of the brightest rising stars in R&B.

“It felt very therapeutic for me,” Niki tells Billboard about writing the EP, which she began working on in the aftermath of the passing of her mother in February. She was previously working on a "darker and more experimental" album, but put things on hold when struck by inspiration for what would go on to become wanna take this downtown. “You would think that one would end up writing super depressing and dark things, which some people do but for me it actually triggered the opposite. I ended up wanting to just write up straight bangers.” 

The resulting songs are just that: the mellow single “lowkey,” previously released through a bright yellow and blue visualizer video, leads into the smooth desire of “urs,” which is followed by the grooviness of “move!” and things close out with the lilting eccentricity of “odds.”

She suggests listening to the EP in order from start to finish, and describes the quartet as her "children." But if it were to come to one of the tracks she'd like everyone to particularly take note of, it's definitely "move!" "Ya’ll better be bumping to that song all summer, or I’ll be very upset," she says. "I love that track because I feel a common adjective that people have used to describe my music is 'chill': 'chill pop' or 'chill R&B.' I honestly feel like 'move' just kind of elevates me from that. It’s just so energetic. Literally the chorus combusts with an explosion of energy. It takes me by surprise too, because I never thought I’d have a song that has that much gumption."

A sense of Niki’s wit and soulfulness permeate the album, even as it explores a new style from the young star. “All the songs on this EP are songs like what I always listen to by other artists, but never felt I could personally make,” she says. “I really realized that I confined myself into some sort of genre-focused bubble. I was like, 'Ah, I’m an R&B artist I can’t make these songs. They’re more pop. The structures are different, whatever.' So making this EP really just expanded my definition of what kind of music I can make. The common theme of my album is kind of abandoning structure, if that makes sense. The theme this year seems to be versatility -- whatever I want to make. Honestly, it’s been really creatively liberating that way. ”

As a teenager, the Indonesian singer got her start recording videos of herself performing both original songs and covers on YouTube. She taught herself how to produce, and one day when playing around with GarageBand she discovered the program’s built-in sound library. “With producing, you get to be creative with sound, versus when I was writing songs with just a guitar. Not to undermine that sort of music at all -- I love that, but I felt like there was only so much creativity with one instrument versus if you have a whole sound library. You can do whatever. Some people genuinely find no merit, like, ‘Oh no, that synth was built in, I have to build my own and layer three thousand guitars and six pianos for it.’ And if that works for them, power to them. But for me, the sound library is my co-producer.”

After moving to the States in 2017, Niki has rapidly gained traction, and she credits a lot of her success to the support she has from 88rising, a media company and indie label with a goal to serve as a platform for Asian musicians. “Just being part of 88rising has been one of the most meaningful experience of my life," she says. "I feel like what sincerely separates us from every other major label -- because we’re super indie -- but with that you feel a sincere family-like environment. People genuinely give a shit about one another. I feel like I’m in the best possible scenario for what I’m trying to do as an Asian female artist, literally surrounded by the best people for that.”

What is “that” exactly? For Niki, her music is a way to inspire others, especially female Asians, to pursue a career in creative fields. “I realized I have an opportunity and a responsibility, and that is for me to show girls, especially -- I’m Indonesian, so I’m always thinking about Indonesian youth," she explains. "I just want to show them that this is okay. You don’t have to abandon the arts to do something that the generation before us wouldn’t deem as a viable way to make money. I just literally want to show people that if you’re passionate about it, stick with it.

"This didn’t happen overnight for me," she continues. "I had to put in the work. If you care about it, and you’re passionate about it, give it your all. That’s the message that I want the Indonesian youth, and literally Asian youth everywhere, to know. ‘This is cool, you guys. You can be artistic and succeed.’ With me personally, I just want to show girls, Southeast Asian, Asian from Asia, Asian American or Asian whatever, I just want to show everybody that you can do this. This is 100 percent an option.”