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Brand New She's Retro

Niela Blends a Mixed Bag of Old-school Styles Into her Neo-Everything Sound

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By Jason Torres | Posted

Niela has been shopping around her four-song demo CD to label reps over the past few months, but the Baltimore-based singer/songwriter hasn't been having much luck. Though her list of influences--which range from Prince to Massive Attack--sounds like bankable urban-music building blocks, what Niela has done with them confounds many label reps. "I've been told [by reps] that I didn't have a 'traditional black' sound," she says. "Most people just look at me and assume I sing R&B or I'm a rapper."

Yeah, at first glance you can foolishly compare Niela to, say, Erykah Badu. Or Jill Scott. Or even Alicia Keys. Like those vocalists, Niela doesn't hurt the eyes. But she combines elements of rock, R&B, electronic, and funk to make her music, practically crafting an all-new genre for herself: trip-hop soul.

At Niela's Gallery 409 debut this past June 15, a capacity crowd vibed and grooved to her sultry yet thumping beats laced with angelic vocals. Think Morcheeba or Tricky as fronted by Sade. And onstage she was the epitome of confidence, conveying a carefree spirit in love with the moment at one instant, then shifting to a jilted woman with a sorrowful demeanor the next--whatever fit the mood of the song. Her polished stage presence was an unexpected surprise, especially from a rookie performer.

But when asked how long she has been a musician, she proves as elusive as she is alluring.

"I've always had a passion for music," she says with a coy smile, and then proceeds to dodge the question. That soft-spoken tone is a smoke screen to avoid revealing her age. She carefully dances around citing dates of her development--when she picked up the guitar, when she started singing, when she started writing songs, when she started performing onstage--though she does admit that she's been recording her own songs for about seven years. "I got my violin in second grade and I played instruments all through middle school," she confesses.

She says she doesn't want to reveal her age to avoid being misjudged by both younger and or older audiences. She does admit to being born in Baltimore at John Hopkins Hospital in 1970-something. And she credits her interest in the arts to her family. "Everyone in my family is musical," she says. "My mother's sister was a backup singer for Rick James, my mom sang, and my brother is an MC."

She casts light on these seemingly pivotal moments in her musical education as if by a flashlight in a dark room: You catch a glimpse of everything in there, but not how it's laid out. "One of my earliest memories is of watching my father play the drums," she says. "The sounds would vibrate through the house--it was like he was being overwhelmed by some other force."

Her dad's drums made Niela realize the power of sound, but she didn't always want to pursue a career in music; in junior high and high school, she preferred acting and dancing. "Music came last," she says. "I was honing other skills. I was always on stage doing some sort of recital or dramatic-reading contest."

At the time, she was more interested in having fun, though her practice time under the stage lights has paid off. Niela looks so comfortable on stage, that's where she appears to be most candid. As you watch her perform, you suspect that the emotion behind her songs are organic and sincere, not as edited as her conversations. Her tormented, introspective tales of failed relationships are woven into a melancholic but sumptuous melody, sounding like a collaboration between Prince and Portishead.

"When I first heard Portishead I said, 'That's it! That's what I wanna do!,'" Niela says. "After a friend of mine gave me the [Portishead] tape, I immediately got way into the genre, with Tricky and Hooverphonic and stuff like that. I like the darkness of the music, yet it's so well-produced. Trip-hop is really like movie music. I like that drama inside it. It's what I'm looking for."

Her music is in some ways an homage to her influences, but Niela makes sure to use that as a springboard rather than a crutch. When she hears an idea in a song, she says, she'll take it and fold it into her own songwriting style. It's a process that comes from learning as she goes along. Having taught herself to play guitar after only a "few lessons," Niela writes and performs all her own music, which for her is clearly a source of pride.

"Music isn't real music anymore," she says states matter-of-factly. "People aren't playing music anymore. Especially with a lot of female musicians, you look at the credits, and they're not writing the songs, they're not playing the instruments. They're just pawns singing. I'm trying to bring the whole creative process back and I want the respect that comes from that."

Niela makes it clear that she doesn't plan to change her sound to fit BET's 106th & Park demographic, even if that music show--and the streamlined style it espouses--could prove helpful to her career. "People think that kids won't like [my music]," she says. "I think if they get a chance to feel it then they'll feel it.

"I don't need to go platinum, I just want to touch some people."

Niela performs at Organic Soul Tuesday at Maryland Art Place's Saratoga Lounge Oct. 29.

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