From our archives: The
flamboyant singer-songwriter’s still got her something.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Nikka Costa: You know all about her.
That she made husky sinewy freak-funk nasty-ass power soul
records that were way too fly for a white girl before Duffy, Amy and Joss did.
Which is why you might’ve been afraid to buy them in the truckloads they
deserved to be bought in.
That she had peeps like Lenny Kravitz, Jon Brion, The
Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin, and the Roots’ ?uestlove playing on them. Which
only helped lend a hand to Costa’s compositions’ muscularity.
That her back-story was even funkier: that she had smash
hits in Italy singing “(Out Here) On My Own,” from Fame , when she was a kid; that her pop was
legendary producer/arranger Don Costa and that her godfather was Sinatra.
All these things. All these men.
“All these men sure, but where are they when I’m throwing a
barbecue?” laughs Costa, from her Los
Angeles home. Costa’s most recent album, Pebble to a Pearl was self-financed prior to finding a home at the
newly-regenerated Stax label, home to Otis, Isaac and Carla. “It’s pretty rad,”
says Costa, about being at Stax with its snap-finger logo and its formidable
history. “Stax was the gritty answer to Motown, the underdog. I’m totally
stoked.” First thing you notice about Costa when she calls is how radically
different her speaking voice is from her singing voice. Now that’s not the
rarest of pop phenom. But while her vocals can be an ebullient burst of hoarse delight,
her phone tone is as chipper and flitting as a blue jay in flight. Maybe she’s
simply happier that more people will finally hear her records.
It’s no surprise, given how her former label, Virgin,
bungled her previous releases, 2001’s Everybody
Got Their Something and 2005’s Can’tneverdidnothin’ .
“My story is common. The company was dying. I had four presidents
and staffs during my tenure. Each president doesn’t necessarily vibe with each
artist. The stuff I do is left of center. I needed someone to stick by it. But
the next guy wants to put his stamp on what you do…”
And that, my friend, is a history of the record business. As
for being more influential than commercial – for doing what Winehouse and Stone
do before they did – she admits she’s probably their inspiration but that Teena
Marie was hers, and Marie had her inspirations, too, in the
white-girl-black-soul stakes. “The public is more open now to the sound I’ve been doing for a decade. It’s win-win.”
Costa won’t allow herself to be down. She was liberated by
making the record she wanted to make, sans anyone else’s hands in the pudding. She made the production raw and players do
it plush-like in one room, recorded down to tape like a garage band. “There’s a
commitment that you have to have if you’re not going ProTools [laughs]. It makes for an energy in the
room that’s like ‘no shit it’s time to work’. And since we did this on our own
dime we needed bad asses that could channel that brusque energy but bring the
songs’ beauty to the next level.”
That means creating tracks like the jarring “Bullets in the Sky” (“mothers
having to send their kids to an unnecessary war crushes me whether it’s on our
side or on the other side of the world”) and the pleading “Can’t Please
Everybody” (“never worry about appeasing anyone”).
No matter what else she’s singing about, Pebble to a Pearl was about the process
– getting made. That’s why there’s so much joy to be heard through whatever
pain she pronounces. “I didn’t feel bitter or done wrong by the past. I didn’t
want to live my life in that space.”