Hear First: NIIKA’s Close But Not Too Close

Stream the new album, and read her conversation about it with fellow Chicagoan NNAMDÏ.

Hear First is Talkhouse’s series of album premieres. Along with streams of upcoming albums — today’s is NIIKA’s Close But Not Too Close — we publish statements from artists and their peers about the mindsets and impressions that go into, or come out of reflection on, a record. Here, NIIKA, aka Nika Nemirovsky, talks with fellow Chicagoan NNAMDÏ, aka Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, about her new album, which you can also listen to right here.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

NNAMDÏ: Where did the album name Close But Not Too Close come from?

NIIKA: I delayed finding a name for the album for a really long time, but when it popped up, I didn’t ponder it too long. When my friend Vivian Le, who designed the cover art, sent me her first draft, the feeling just sort of clarified itself. It’s got like this sweet, childlike edge to it, but it also has me eating this dead bird and blood dripping from it. And it’s kind of that push and pull, which I think exists in my music as well, where I have this kind of sweet voice, [Laughs] — I’m not saying “I have a sweet voice,” but it’s quite feminine and high — but the music often times has these weird, maybe not super expected, or not entirely pleasure-oriented sounds and decisions being made. It embodies my experience making music and sharing it. I really want to invite people in and bring them really close, but there’s another part of me that wants to hold on to the mystery and mystique around it.

NNAMDÏ: I would say your voice is sweet. [Laughs.] The first line that comes in on the album, “Pull at the thread; watch it unravel,” is such a fitting lyric to accompany what’s happening sonically from the very beginning. A deep, spacious synth swells out of nothing into a warbled drone. The wavering high vocals above that guttural growl remind me of an animal soaring above and looking down at itself having some sort of out of body experience. 

I used to have a pair of really nice pants that started unraveling, and every time that happens to any of my clothes, I have a minor panic attack! I don’t know how to sew anything. Like with a lot of things in life, the longer you wait to deal with certain issues the worse it can become. I patched those pants up so many times over years, and by the time they became unsalvageable and I decided to part with them, it was a whole new creature. Unrecognizable!  To me this song seems to be a story about attempting to mend a relationship that’s had rocky moments. It’s not presented like it’s a new effort, or even like it’s happening in real time necessarily.

NIIKA: I think often you find within any long-term relationship that you end up hashing over the same problems a lot of times in different iterations. Issues with the same core come up and once you start to pull apart the meat of a fight you are often left with the same few themes. It’s a really frustrating experience. Like, “We’ve done this so many times. Why can’t we actually find the key to unlocking the core of these things?” Dissecting a relationship in the form of song or poetry is really fascinating and terrifying and leaves you a bit raw.

NNAMDÏ: What I love about this song is the first chunk is inquisitive and dissective, and with that line “Let’s go hunting for the key,” things shift to a proactive approach. We’ve acknowledged the issues, and now what can we do about them? I think that is relatable to the current climate. We can only focus on what’s within our control or we’ll go a bit crazy.

NIIKA: Yeah, If you want to zoom out in this moment, everyone’s lives have unraveled around them and most people feel like they’re backed into a corner, being stuck at home, not being able to go about our lives. We’ve really been made aware of the core of our existence.

NNAMDÏ:  The song ends on a suspended chord that leaves you floating. Was it intentional to leave you feeling unresolved, like it’s an open ended question? 

NIIKA: I wouldn’t say that it was an intentional decision, but one thing I should mention is that a lot of the time when I’m writing, because I don’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge about guitar, I often times let the music inform the way that the words move and fall into the song. So I think that the music informed the feeling and the lyrical content followed that path.

NNAMDÏ: What’s your heritage? Where are you from?

NIIKA: I’m Russian. My dad’s side of the family is Russian Jewish — his dad was born in Ukraine and moved to Uzbekistan with his mom and brother when WWII began. My other three grandparents, parents, and I were all born in Uzbekistan, which was a Republic of the USSR, and we moved to Chicago when I was one. It’s a complicated history. I can’t say that I’m “from Russia” because Uzbekistan isn’t a part of Russia anymore… but I’m not ethnically Uzbeki either. 

NNAMDÏ: Even with the unique rhythmic phrasings on this album that stray from a lot of western idiosyncrasies that people may be used to hearing, you find ways to make it very free flowing and danceable which I love. A lot of neat sounds happening in the background on the second track, “Girl of An Arc”. Especially in the guitar. The vocal runs find me hearing things of Indian folk music and just generally scales I would typically associate with eastern music. 

Are any of these things that actively influenced you as a child or even in adulthood?

NIIKA: It’s not necessarily a conscious choice, but non-Western scales and the bending of notes heard in Indian Carnatic, and Eastern European folk singing, for example, are things that I really, dearly love. While I wouldn’t think it appropriate to directly pull some of those stylings into my own music, hearing masters of traditional folk singing move so freely and dexterously within all this microtonal information is hugely inspiring and influential. You get a similar jolt of excitement when you hear someone like Coltrane doing an insane sax solo and you’re like, I can’t comprehend the amount of information that’s compressed into this small moment of time, but I do know that it’s moving something in me. Thanks to my dad, who is a big music nerd and audio engineer, I grew up listening to a lot of music outside of the western canon. I’ve seen a lot of incredible classical Indian musicians, Middle Eastern musicians, African musicians and definitely grew up listening to music outside of Western pop. Those deep-seated childhood influences have fused with everything that is being created in my community now- indie, a bit of neo-Soul, a bit of folk, a bit of rock.

NNAMDÏ: It’s a combination of worlds that comes off genuine and unique. I like what you said about Coltrane and the Carnatic singing packing a lot of musical information into a brief moment. I think there are moments like that on this record, with vocal runs and some of the instrumentation where it’ll go “SURPRISE!” There’s a lot happening in some of those moments, but one of the main things I like about the record is the spatial awareness that accompanies this. There’s also a lot of room to breathe. It never feels convoluted, and the moments that are dense stand out because of that.

On “Witness” which is one of my favorites, the combination of electronic and acoustic drums is just *chef’s kiss*! I love that shit! So good! I hear a lot of worlds coming together to form this song. What led to those production choices? 

NIIKA: Low-key, that’s my favorite track too. It’s one of my favorites to sing and perform and it sits really deep for me. I have to shout out V.V. Lightbody here, because I wrote it after one of her shows at Cafe Mustache. I was so musically inspired, and I just wanted to write. I’d seen this couple at the bar — they were being super lovey-dovey and sweet to the music, and I was like, Whoa, they are so in love! I have many feelings about this! [Laughs.] So I went home, and started writing this song. 

Production wise, Matty Witney, who is in the band did a lot of the post-production and editing, along with Nick Broste who engineered and mixed. On the whole, I was trying to envision where and when to replace the acoustic drums with samples, or maybe take them out entirely. We have all of this recorded and now let’s figure out where we need to subtract and where we need to add more.

NNAMDÏ: What was the first part of this song you wrote?

NIIKA: It was the chorus.

NNAMDÏ : So intoxicating! Get ready for crazy comparisons. When I hear that chorus I hear a mixture of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “Sounds of Blackness,” as well as a little hint of The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Mainly, it reminds me of old spirituals that led to the blues. There’s a tinge of sorrow that brings to mind music that comes from a struggle.

NIIKA: It does have that blues feel to it. The lower three strings on the guitar are doing this sultry pentatonic thing. It definitely harks back.

NNAMDÏ: I don’t know if i’m reading too into a feeling of struggle because of that bluesy feel, because the lyrics seem like they could also come from a place of joy.

NIIKA: Well, I guess when you see a couple that’s super fresh in their relationship and they are so infatuated with each other that it seems like nothing could ever come between that feeling, I kind of got freaked out. I was like, holy shit! It was almost comical the way they were swaying in the middle of the room and staring into each other’s eyes for a really long time.

NNAMDÏ: Yuck. [Laughs.]

NIIKA: They were in this love cloud. like Cupid had flown through the room and shot them both with multiple arrows. They were drunk on love.

NNAMDÏ: Gross. [Laughs.]

NIIKA: [Laughs.] The rest of the song talks about seeing your relationship with your lover through a different lens and realizing, I want to do this better.

NNAMDÏ: So “Blue Smoke” was the first single right?

NIIKA: Yes! With a video by Maren Celest, the genius.

NNAMDÏ: Each line of this song sounds like it’s describing a person that has a lot of mystery to them. It also paints a picture of some comfort and familiarity, but also some things that are equally unclear and mysterious. Everything’s not always straightforward and you’re consistently wanting to understand more about whatever/whoever this subject is.

NIIKA: That’s pretty spot on. This song is about my bandmate Francesca, written before she was in the band but we had been tight for a while. I don’t want to say I’m overly anecdotal, but the way I talk about an experience usually gives the whole play by play, in grounded and real-world terms. She communicates in a very different way… It’s equal parts alluring and mystifying. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know what you’re talking about anymore. I wrote it during a time when she was in a particularly airy state and I was finding it difficult to communicate with her but I also wanted to honor that this is a beautiful part of her personality. Also, I just really like writing songs about my friends because friends are so good and everyone just writes about their romantic relationships and that’s stupid [Laughs.]

NNAMDÏ: The romantic stories are played out! We get it! [Laughs.] It’s great when you’ve been friends with someone for a long time and you think you know all there is to know and then surprise, one day you learn something new. Like, Whoa, this person hates worms! I’ve known them forever and didn’t know that. It’s beautiful.

NIIKA: And putting into words what you feel about the essence of that person during that time is not always easy. Although I kept it pretty simple in that song — it’s not too wordy. The spirit of the song is kind of what she was embodying at the time — there’s a lot there, but it’s kept pretty vague for the most part. 

NNAMDÏ: People have layers! Onions have layers. Ogres have layers.

[NIIKA: We delve into a brief tangent about Shrek and also The Sandlot]

NNAMDÏ: The next single, “The Cage” has a theme that I’ve noticed in a lot of the songs, this image of being higher up and observing things from a bird’s eye view. It seemingly shines light on an ability to be hyper-aware. Like for example when a tiger smells a drop of blood and its senses are heightened, or when an owl sees a field mouse scurrying from hundreds of feet away and its pupils expand, and its eyes are locked on this little creature as it swoops down. To me, you seem like someone who is very aware of subtle intricacies and cues that could likely slip past other people. Would you say you possess any sense of hyper awareness or ability to read situations?

NIIKA: In some instances yes, but I don’t want to say I’m more aware than other people. When I write lyrics, something that I strive for is to go more micro. I feel like I have this tendency to zoom out. I start writing about a feeling, person or concept but then I tend to feel like I have to present this larger context. I think that sometimes it actually makes people get a little bit lost in because I’m painting this big illustrious picture, instead of just talking directly about a moment. I think someone who does the “simple” thing so frickin’ well is Courtney Barnett, who will sing lines like “I went outside, and I saw a bird and hung up my laundry,” and you feel right there with her. So honest and simple. Hyper human. It’s a battle of my sensibilities sometimes when I’m trying to be true to a big feeling but also remain accessible and connected.   

NNAMDÏ: It’s not easy to do. When I’m writing, sometimes I want to convey exactly what I’m feeling, but I don’t always want it to be so specific to my situation that it’s not relatable to other people. Having the ability to tell your own story and have people be able to insert themselves and what they’re going through in their own lives is a thing a lot of songwriters strive for and I feel that space in this song.

A reason I even brought up this hyper-observant bird’s eye view theory I think has to do with the way your voice sits above the music and the feeling that gives me. It’s able to ride above the instruments without feeling disconnected. That in itself paints this picture of observation. Observing the whole track sonically. It’s beautiful. 

NIIKA: Since I’m not necessarily proficient with guitar theory, a lot of the times the chords and melody weave and build upon each other. People have asked me how I write these complicated parts, and I really don’t have a clear answer for it. I know that there are some complexities. It’s sort of like I’m building a weird Jenga ladder as opposed to being like, Now I’m going to slickly switch back and forth between these time signatures and do all this crazy shit. It’s sort of like I’m constructing a puzzle using the melodies and what I can reasonably execute on the guitar. 

NNAMDÏ: “Black Mountain” is maybe my favorite track on the record. The steadiness of the long held out vocals on the verses gets me every time and the string arrangements at the end are really beautiful. Can you tell me what this song is about?

NIIKA: It’s about my friend Jeunae Rogers, who’s from Australia. She’s one of my early musical influences that I know personally, and she’s just generally really inspiring. She’s like someone out of a fairytale. She lives in this little cottage on her parents’ land in the hills with her beautiful daughter and two dogs. Their house is all decked out with amazing relics and herbs and pieces of art. You feel really transported when you step into their home. She’s a really incredible singer and musician too — this song is definitely an homage to her songwriting. She uses a lot of allegory and myth in her writing, and really delves into some ancient symbolism. This song is the oldest song on the record. It was a contender for my first EP but I’m honestly glad that it has had all these years to marinate, gain beautiful harmonies, and come into the world with so much more intentionality.

For the strings, we got three incredible musicians (Macie Stewart of Ohmme, Lia Kohl, and Sam Hyson) to record at the Second Unitarian Church in Chicago. My dad brought all of his recording gear and we tracked all the strings for the album in one day there. 

NNAMDÏ: From what I gather from the lyrics, the song “Bad Medicine”seems to be about someone falling for someone who is clearly not right for them, and that doesn’t treat them well.

NIIKA: It’s about having a tough time with someone who you’re romantically involved with. Medicine is medicine but it doesn’t necessarily go down easily. I think in every close relationship, romantic or not, you’re going to get spoon-fed things you don’t want to hear about yourself. If you’re being self-absorbed or temperamental and you’re called out on it, it’s not going to feel great. But ultimately, it may be something you need to hear. 

NNAMDÏ: I love the drum solo on that song as well. 

NIIKA: That’s Mitch Settecase, who plays drums on the whole record! Brilliant drummer that not enough people know about!

NNAMDÏ: The whole album is like a saga. It’s definitely got otherworldly elements. “Dream Song” feels like you’ve arrived at the pearly gates. You’ve opened up a door and sunlight is shining through. On the other side of the door are rays of light and the clearest running water you’ve ever seen. You can’t decide whether you want to drink or dive in! It gives me the same feeling I got from the ending of the first song. You’re satisfied but it doesn’t end with a firm exclaimed punctuation. Rather it still leaves you pondering, as if we are at the end of this conversation but now you can go think about it on your own. Why did you decide to close the album with this track?

NIIKA: I feel like this is my little wish of “good night.” There’s a lot of information on the album, and while I love nuance and complexity, I also  really value simple guitar and voice-centered songs. One of my all-time favorite records is Moon Pix by Cat Power. The simplicity of those arrangements communicates an honesty that I can only hope to encapsulate in my work. This is my offering of peaceful, quiet energy after the lushness of the other tracks. 

NNAMDÏ: Agreed. It’s definitely such a nice note to end on. I love it! The record is amazing from start to finish!

NIIKA: Thank you! You’re the greatest and I really appreciate being able to talk about all of these ideas and decisions in such depth. 

NIIKA’s Close But Not Too Close and NNAMDÏ’s BRAT are both available for pre-order now.

NIIKA (FKA Good at Bad), conceived and fronted by Russian-born Chicago native Nika Nemirovsky (guitar and voice), is a genre-bending, continent-crossing, soft explosion of intimate indie, soul, and dirty pop. Nika wrote and recorded much of her music in Australia, but is currently holding a close focus on the blossoming creativity of her Chicago ensemble. The live show is a lush bath of ardent vocal performance, cradling harmonies, and seamless groove changes, which align like aural punctuation around Nika’s vivid storytelling and deep, organic vulnerability.