NIKI KAND has a uniquely verbose presence for someone who doesn’t say much. She seems ageless. I don’t know how old she is, and I don’t need to. Softly spoken and friendly, performative egotism is strangely absent from this artist’s conduct. Yet, as I see her chat quietly with our photographer, Nata, I could not call her shy. In front of the camera, her poise is effortless; her words are few but carefully chosen, and she looks you in the eye when she asks a question. As I come to learn, the duality contained within this quiet power of hers forms the foundation for Niki’s artistic practice, both visually and sonically. She produces her crisp, minimal dream-pop heedless of attention’s fickle current, which so loves shouting. She goes along her own stream, saying only what she needs to say.
Niki and I are both Iranian and, as we wander through L1 looking for somewhere to eat, we discover that we share a language. We switch to Farsi and chat for a while, talking about our experiences of immigration. But, she tells me in her characteristically amicable but direct way, that this is not what she wants the interview to be about. Niki Kand’s music has nothing to do with politically-generated cultural identity – it is solipsistic in the way things are when they belong to the world of pure imagination. Niki’s real life runs parallel to an interior world that is freed from the constraints of reality or identity. Her alt.pop dreamworlds come from somewhere more cerebral – a private world of play which does not contain sticky proclamations of identity, which are easier than looking inside and finding something unnamed.
Inspiration does not come from the usual sources for this artist: she is indifferent to the concerns of the day. It’s the minutiae and debris of people’s lives and characters which inspire. “Sometimes an attitude inspires me, sometimes a smell… Like, if I see a woman who smells great and is really chic, it gives me passion to make something.” I ask about her latest single, China Doll, and she tells me how it was conceived. “My friend had a little [china doll] for her daughter.” Intrigued by the unfamiliar phrase, she researched the term and its figurative uses. “The definition was an innocent lady who is typically obedient.” The other part of her inspiration came from her friends: “The lyrics were actually inspired by a relationship – not my own – where the woman is worshipped by her boyfriend. I found it interesting how an innocent woman, who is obedient, who is good, who is a doll, can be so influential to the point she can impact all the decisions that another person can possibly make… You don’t expect a little tiny girl to be so powerful, but she’s valuable to somebody.”
This idea of power without force or excessive display epitomises Niki herself, and is the conceptual thread that underpins her aesthetic decisions. “I actually like minimalism for everything. I keep thinking it’s best for me to get rid of most of my stuff, because it just takes space in my brain and my head, and I don’t need that. Like with furniture, the less the better. In terms of design and style I like simple lines – straightforward, clean designs.” The same applies to her music. “I like to keep it to the bare minimum, until only what is strictly necessary remains.” The sounds she uses aren’t potent because they’re big; they undergo a process of distillation through which they become compacted. Small and powerful is not a contradiction in Niki Kand’s world, where strength can be found in a light touch.
As I point out to her, absent from Niki’s music are any impulses towards cathartic lyrical vengeance. Her work is not a vessel for her pain, but an escape from it. “There’s no hidden or serious message there. It’s all about having fun, light moments when you listen to the song.” When she describes her creative process, it also contains this lightness: “I can endlessly play around with chords, melodies and beats, and I can’t even realise the time is
passing by… There’s no seriousness. It’s just an escape from reality, which is most of the time boring and bitter.”
This is not to say that Niki cannot contend with depth. The subject, she tells me, that she always unwittingly finds her way back to is love: “I mostly write about [love], even though when I first start writing I don’t think about love. I think everything’s kind of related to love, because we are all very hungry and desperate to be loved. Like, maybe we’re not always conscious of it, but that’s at least how I see it.” Niki’s sensitivity propels her creativity. In Iran, she got her degree in visual arts and fine arts. “Music was my number one passion, so that was always clear, but I was also very passionate for other types of art – like theatre, or movies – I can see the beauty in it. I can feel the beauty in a picture and a photograph – even in the way you’ve dressed up today, I can see all the details and I can be
touched by it.” Suddenly, I feel very warm; Niki really has a way of making people feel prized with her sincerity.
Niki explains to me the process that ended in her deciding to pursue music full-time. She started playing the piano when she was 14, but it was too late to join the music school she wanted to. Left with no choice, she went to art school and bought into the Bohemian dream. “I was really inspired by that type of lifestyle, where you belong to nothing and no one… I wanted to become the next Picasso or something like that.” Then, there was a period of uncertainty: “For some time, especially around my 20s, I was a bit unsure which way to go.” But after graduating, she redoubled focus on what had been there all along, and was not wrapped in egoistic ideations: music. “That must be really nice, to just know,” I say, wistfully. “Yeh? You don’t know? Still lost?” she asks, laughing. “Don’t worry, you’ll find out.” She reassures me. I am inconsolable; “I don’t know if I will…” But she fixes her eye on me and speaks firmly: “You will, trust me – you have to. Under pressure you always find a way.”
“It took me some time to figure out my sound, but now I’m confident enough that whatever I put out represents me 100 per cent.” She arrived at a confident grasp of her craft not through an epiphany, but through trial and error: “It just took about 50 songs. I’ve got loads of songs just on my laptop that I’ve never released, and that’s because I was trying to figure out what I like and what’s me.” Her focus on self-actualisation reminds me of something she said earlier. “I like what you said before, about how even if nobody listened to music you’d still make it. I think you need that type of solipsism, so that you’re not always trying to predict what other people are going to like.” For her, this solipsism is natural. “It’s really difficult to figure out what people like and then go for that. My taste is good enough for me to rely on. If I’m happy, I just want to put it out and hope that people like it – you can’t control people. It’s really exciting if people find them interesting but the very first reason why I started writing wasn’t to show the world – it was just for me.”
This independence of spirit marks every aspect of her practice. Thus far, she has produced all of her own music, edited her own videos and curated her own aesthetic. “I think that’s just my personality – I don’t know, I can’t really trust anyone. I don’t think anybody else can do it better than I can.” I like this self-assurance; Niki may be softly spoken, but her confidence is unshakeable. I ask her whether she would sign her life away to record labels if
the opportunity arose and she is just as nonchalant in her certitude: “No. Sometimes I think about it and I wonder why people need record labels, because we have enough tools to make something interesting. It’s just a matter of time and passion.” Her DIY philosophy is very in keeping with the zeitgeist: “You don’t need anything, you don’t even need a studio. I work in my closet. I know that part of this whole thing is business, so for that bit I think it’s probably good to work with others, but for the creative bit I am happy where I am.”
Liverpool is the perfect match for such a freewheeler, and she has nothing but good things to say about her four years here. “Liverpool is in my heart already. It’s beautiful, and the music scene is great. I think is the best thing about it is that it’s good quality, but small enough for you to find your place – I like the fact that it’s not massively big.” I ask her whether she would ever go to London, as the prophecy seems to go for Liverpool’s talent all too often now. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t know why I should.” She tells me several of her musician friends moved to Liverpool specifically for its thriving scene. “It’s definitely the place.”
The city, in turn, has welcomed her with opportunities. “My next gig is on 28th September, for Merseyrail Sound Station at Liverpool Central Station. I’ll be performing with a choir for the first time, and I don’t know if it’s my last time, because it doesn’t happen every day.” As one of the artists who qualified for Merseyrail Sound Station’s artist development programme, she has been asked to arrange her songs for the purposes of a special choral performance as part of BBC Music Day’s Liverpool activity. “It’s just such a great opportunity. I’m really, really excited for that.” For those unfamiliar with Niki’s work, this will be a unique opportunity to hear her perform, and escape into the meticulous fantasies of this craftswoman.