Modestly just three words describe the way singer Nia Ekanem perceives himself, but behind the acoustic guitar is a compelling narrator riding a timeless rhythm.
In 2014 it’s fair to say that popular music is largely dominated by mindless lyrics. Content sits on the periphery of offensive and has arguably been raped of its intellect, but scoop the shit from the piss and you’ll unearth a new wave of artists. Students of their craft, they concentrate on getting it right, whatever it may be, and gain a collective of loyal fans in the meanwhile.
A musician, and singer, Nia Ekanem fits perfectly into this category. Self-confessed perfectionist, his aptly-titled debut EP – Learner Composer Expressor is beautifully nostalgic with unexpected depth for someone so young. It’s no wonder then that before the official release in July, single Home had already been featured on BBC Introducing, a proud moment for the then, 21-year-old. ‘I was very excited but took a back step and thought, I guess I’m doing something right.’ But I’m surprised to hear him say this as his noticeably cool exterior verges on self-effacing. Nonetheless incredibly charming, I’m drawn in by his considered responses, although jumbled at parts – I get the logic and sense his passion.
A distinctive sound, made far more seductive by its maturity and raspy edge, he’s dubbed his own genre away from ‘Acoustic Soul’ to simply ‘Organic’ – much like everything about his brand which he approaches strategically (what else do you expect from a Marketing Management student?) Nia’s thoroughness though I find quite funny as it contrasts his naturalistic style of just about everything, from the frustrating way he song writes: ‘I sit down, whether on keyboard or guitar and when the melody comes to me, I play it over and over again, and try to trust whatever comes,’ to being in awe of nature and the great outdoors.
Needless to say, he’s come a long way since his beginnings at church where he was a shy singer.‘I always felt singing was a bit nerdy and that you had to have an RnB voice. I couldn’t sing like Trey Songz or Usher so I left it.’ Or at 16 rapping on grime beats with childhood group L4C, but when creative differences split the friends apart and Nia took a two year break, this is when it all really began. Music direction found, ‘I got introduced to soul music and I was like, I guess not everybody has a high-pitched voice,’ Nia Ekanem was ready to get serious and I couldn’t wait to hear about it.
Your EP came out late July, why did you choose to have only four tracks?
I have a lot of material so I thought to pick the songs that really represent me as an artist. I still see myself as a newbie in the industry and not everybody will get me or want to get me, not because I’m crap but it’s understandable. Keep it short and simple, and if you like it, you will support me in my music journey, if you don’t, onto the next one.
The lyrics are very heartfelt. I’d love to know what memories you were channeling?
All of them represent me reminiscing about the past but Old School Days really puts a stamp on it. It was basically me at university bored, missing home, stressing over exams and the chorus came to me. I had the chorus for a couple of months just repeating it and then one day, the verse came. I try to write as natural as possible, if not it just becomes a whole mess. Home was pretty much the same, when I was around 14 my mum said the words, “Home is where the heart is,” and explained it to me, it has been with me since then. That song was literally written in two hours, I guess I was telling the story of a person on a journey. Their heart is somewhere else but they have to go through this journey in order to make a great ending for their loved ones. Little Jack basically is whatever you’re going through, someone is going through something worse. I wanted to tell a story about somebody’s reality and Don’t Let Me Go it is, we all want to be accepted.
Who do you want to be accepted by?
I would say everybody and anybody but I really just want people to take away the message, something that will help them in their lives and future.
Are you planning to tie your marketing degree with the music?
Later on, yeah, I want to create a summer camp for creatives so people who are interested in music to help develop them, and help with their direction. Myself and two others have a management company called CIC which stands for Creative Ingenuity so marketing helps with the whole management side of things.
How important is it for artists to marry that business acumen with performing?
When you understand the business aspect of things you don’t necessarily have to rely on record labels because record labels are selfish. You come under me, sell so and so, if you don’t, we’ll drop you. If you owe us money, we’ll take your belongings, but if you can figure out a way of how to market yourself, it works in your favour.
You took time out to decide whether you would pursue music. What were you doing to make that decision?
My first year was recovering from the break up of L4C and thinking how to market myself because I’m a person who likes perfection, and if I get into something, I like to be sure. I changed my whole social media to just one name because it made sense and I tried to just sort out my brand, who I am and how I want to be looked at. So that was the first year and the second year was practising the keyboard and guitar.
Having to shut yourself off, was that quite a lonely experience?
It was both lonely and annoying because I saw my friends and peers doing things. We feel the need to compare our level of progress or success to those around us and if it’s not on the same par, we condemn ourselves. That was one thing I kept doing. So while my friends were graduating, getting jobs, releasing projects etcetera, I condemned myself and didn’t try to look at the end goal and bright side in what I was doing.
How do you preserve your creative energy and focus?
I watch movies a lot. I go to the cinema alone, not because I don’t have any friends but it helps to expand the mind. Every time I go with somebody I feel like I’ve wasted my time but when I go by myself, my mind goes wild and it helps with my creativity. I also travel a lot, like I said to a friend of mine recently, “I’m going to the mountains,” or something like that [laughs] but really I’m going somewhere to unwind. It’s been a very busy, stressful couple of months and to get back to myself I’ll just book a hotel somewhere and spend a couple of days.
So you value your space and time to recharge.
I try not to lose myself because when you’re around people, all you get are compliments to an extent so it’s trying not to allow the compliments to fill your head because then you’ll be like, ‘I’ve arrived!’ [cue my sly giggle at the joke] but no, you haven’t. People will say it I guess to be encouraging but you have to realise to stay humble.
What do you see then as your value in the music industry? What are you doing differently that needs to be heard?
Staying organic with my sound. Standing for something and being able to make a difference with my music, now that is amazing. That is really something I believe is different and I can’t wait until everybody hears it.