Niia’s ass is front and center on the cover of her second album, II: La Bella Vita. The title is there, too, tattooed in cursive just above her hip, more of a stubborn assertion than a triumphant celebration. But the best part about an album cover so blatant, is the stunning, subdued jazz the record represents. A statuesque beauty, who is just as at home modeling as she is using her smoky, sweet alto to croon updated, percussive jazz standards, Niia Bertino was born and raised in Boston, the daughter of an opera singer who dutifully studied piano and was unable to shake an insatiable love for jazz.
After working with the likes of Wyclef Jean, Akon, and Lil Wayne for a mid-level reggae hit in the late 2000s, it became clear that a career in music was Niia’s for the taking. But the pathway opening up before her wasn’t the one she had in mind. Instead of sticking around New York for more radio hits that weren’t quite her style, she opted to move across the country, hitting her stride by pursuing songwriting in earnest in Los Angeles. And it was that early encounter with Jean that showed her both what she did want — to be an artist — and what she didn’t want: to be one on someone else’s terms.
“My mother was a classical pianist and an opera singer, so music kind of became my thing,” she explained to me one morning in early December, at one of the many trendy coffee shops populating Sunset Junction in Silver Lake. “It was very organic. I used to moonlight as a jingle singer, and one of the gigs was at Wyclef’s studio. So he asked me to sing him something and I sang a jazz song, and he was like ‘you know you could do this for your career, right?’ He was the first one to introduce that thought to me, and he opened the door to the industry, and being an artist.”
Getting the attention of a musical powerhouse at such a young age was a blessing and a curse, and Niia knew she wasn’t quite ready to commit to someone else’s plan for her career, even if the idea of trying to make it as a musician was appealing. Besides, there’s so much more to being an artist than having a great voice, as she quickly began to learn. “Show business is such a skillset too, you can be really good at music but if you don’t know how to put on a show, or don’t have that personality, it’s tough,” she said. “I’ve been writing songs since I was four, but I don’t think I was seriously working on the songwriting until I moved to LA.”
After refusing a deal with Wyclef, and dropping out of school, where she was pursuing a degree in Jazz Voice, Niia went to work making music instead of studying it, casually uploading her ideas to Soundcloud until someone in LA stumbled upon her songs. With this influx of interest, she moved to the west coast, and almost immediately began collaborating with Robin Hannibal. Officially releasing her first album, I, in 2017 via Atlantic Records, Niia was finally getting her sea legs, a decade after her radio hit with Wyclef came out. Produced in partnership with Hannibal, I earned a glowing review in The New York Times for its trip-hop sensibilities and songwriting that oozed the desire and decay inherent in modern romantic relationships.
And listening to Niia’s latest release, I’s follow-up, it’s clear just how much relationships have still been at the top of her mind over the last two years. La Bella Vita is about other women’s obsession and falling for sad boys, or Coppola, Italian villages, and dissolved engagements. “Hating on me except for when I’m on my back,” she sings on “Coppola In Black,” a sharply drawn vignette that offers insight into her relationship headspace. Working just as closely with Hannibal on her second release, Niia is also billed as a co-producer on the record, indicating her insistence on sticking to her own vision for her music hasn’t rescinded one bit.
So while La Bella Vita is being released independently, it’s an even more fully realized project than her debut, skillfully weaving beats, hip-hop influences, and R&B sensibilities into a tapestry of straightforward, piano-driven jazz. Early single “Whatever You Got” is more upbeat and pop-oriented than some of the record’s slower tunes, pairing rich strings with a spiraling, insistent chorus about the addictive nature of love. Then there’s “Obsession,” which interpolates Mariah Carey’s well-known take on the subject, “Obsessed,” with the clearance of Niia’s sung sample signaling Mimi’s tacit approval of the song. And even more traditional ballads, like piano-heavy opener “No Light,” prove Bertino’s voice is just as fascinating when it’s the only thing to focus on.
Along with co-producing the entire album with Hannibal, Niia even co-directed the video for “Whatever You Got,” taking a larger role in creating her own artistic world than ever before. Even if the record dips into sad, challenging experiences in love, the overarching message is one of self-empowerment, and moving forward despite drawbacks — like the title suggests. Coming out in a few weeks, with the release date auspiciously falling on Valentine’s Day, La Bella Vita is the culmination of years of work from an artist who eschewed the influence of others to pursue her own musical ideas. Presenting the world with such an intimate view of what she’s been going through — album cover included — opens Niia up to finally get the attention she deserves, as a songwriter, singer, director, and producer of her own sound.
II: La Bella Vita is out on February 14. Pre-order it here.