Singer-songwriter Nikki Jean

The pop artist, who also performs music from her debut CD, “Pennies in a Jar,” discusses what it was like to collaborate with the likes of Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach and Carole King.

At an early age, pop artist Nikki Jean knew she wanted to learn how songs were written—even before she began studying piano at age 8. After being mentored by Nona Hendryx (of "Lady Marmalade" fame), contributing lyrics and vocals to Lupe Fiasco's hit project "The Cool" and touring with Kanye West, the Minnesota native landed a record deal with S-Curve records. She's ready to unveil her debut CD, "Pennies in a Jar," which contains songs co-written with some of the legends, including Burt Bacharach, Lamont Dozier, Bob Dylan and Carly Simon, among others.


Tavis: Her name is Nikki Jean. You’ll be hearing a lot about her. She’s partnered with Carole King and Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach. She’s coming on strong. We’ll talk to Nikki Jean in just a moment – stay with us.

I don’t know what singer-songwriter Nikki Jean has planned for her second CD, but here’s the lineup of collaborators on the much-talked-about debut. Get this: Bob Dylan, Carole King, Lamont Dozier and Burt Bacharach, to name a few. The disc is called “Pennies in a Jar” and in just a few moments she’ll perform a song from the new project, but I am honored to have her on this program for the first time; not the last, I hope. Nikki Jean, congratulations, first of all.

Nikki Jean: Thank you so much.

Tavis: It’s good to have you on.

Jean: I’m honored to be here.

Tavis: It is amazing to me – and this doesn’t happen all the time on this program, but when it does happen it’s fascinating for me to sit across from someone who you’ve seen and heard, read about, collaborated with everybody, you’ve been on tour with a bunch of artists that we all know, from Lupe to –

Jean: Kanye.

Tavis: Kanye.

Jean: Rhianna.

Tavis: There we go, see, that’s – (laughter). Having said that, though, when you’re out there working with that many artists, what’s the process for getting your own project out the first time and how patient do you have to be to make all that happen?

Jean: Well, I’ve had to be extraordinarily patient, but the challenge for me was had after my initial success with Lupe Fiasco been interested in doing an R&B pop record, I probably could have gotten that moving pretty fast. But I’d always been a songwriter; I’d always sat down at the piano to write songs.

I wanted to do something really true to who I am and my musical loves and my musical identity, and that took a little longer. But luckily, the idea to work with all these people came along and allowed me to fulfill that vision.

Tavis: So how does one end up, on a debut album, hooking up with people like Carole King, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach? If I didn’t have any integrity – I hope I have some integrity or credibility – people would probably say, “He’s lying. There’s no way that on a first album you could be working with that caliber of people.

Jean: That’s what I say all the time. It’s funny, because people would be like, “What are you?” I’ll be like, “I’m a songwriter.” They’ll be like, “Oh, well, I hope that works out for you. Have you worked with anyone?” (Laughter) If I start to say it, they’ll be like, “This poor girl, she’s delusional. Of course she has not done it.”

I was very fortunate to have not only a great producer named Sam Hollander, who had worked with Carole King before, who had this idea like, “Oh, you know all these songwriters and you love them; you should work with them.” I said, “Sam, they’re not going to work with me,” and he said, “They’ll work with you.” So he did a couple of really amazing things.

One, he reached out to Ms. King; two, he reached out to Jody Gerson, who’s my publisher, and she is hands down the champion of this project because she laid it all out there and she called everybody and she asked them to give me a shot. I’m fortunate because many of them did.

Tavis: What is it about your style that you think makes them even open to wanting to work with you in terms of writing?

Prendergast: I think

Jean: I think two things – one, I have a lot of genuine respect and I’ve studied their work – not just their personal work, but the work from the canon that they are from, so I know the songwriters of the 1960s, I know the Tin Pan Alley songs and songwriters, so I can hopefully speak with them on a level where they understand that I’ve done my homework and that I can get in a room with them and really be able to produce something that they can feel good about as well.

If they’re legendary, of course you definitely have to be humble, but you have to be honest and push your own creative vision and who you are, because at the end of the day my name’s on the album and I have to sing it when we go to shows.

Tavis: In a minute, as I mentioned, people will get a chance to hear you, some for the first time, no doubt. But how would you describe your style?

Jean: I call it classic American pop music, because it is pop music. Carole King’s a pop writer, Jeff Barry, pop writer, Lamont Dozier, 54 number one radio hits, but it doesn’t sound like today’s pop music, so it’s nostalgic, classic pop.

Tavis: The question I asked a moment ago was not just a rhetorical question. So when you come out this strong on your first project, where do you go from here? You’re probably not even thinking about that at this point, but do you put pressure on yourself with a debut like this?

Jean: Well, we always strive for excellence, so my goal and my aspiration is for the next album to be equally as excellent and to take these lessons that I’ve learned from these writers and my mentors now and apply them and write some really great songs of my own and hopefully collaborate with some other people, not necessarily from this classic genre of pop writing, but from my own.

Tavis: What, for you, makes a good song?

Jean: Honesty, a lot of truth, something that is evocative for other people so that when they listen to it they feel something. It’s not all about – like a great song will have a melody, it will have a lyric, and they will be perfectly married together, but that’s only half of the equation because the other thing is if it doesn’t mean something to the people when they hear it, then it’s ultimately a failure as a song to me.

Tavis: What was happening in your developmental years, and I don’t mean just what you were listening to, but the times that you grew up in, what you were listening to, where you were raised. How does that confluence end up helping to develop the artist that you are?

Jean: Well, I’m from Minnesota. The bulk of my family is in South Dakota. I spent a lot of time there so I grew up listening to not only pop music in Minnesota and Prince and The Time, but going to South Dakota and hearing a lot of great country music, which is amazing songwriting, and we also didn’t have a television in my house.

We had a player piano. It had 200 scrolls that ranged from the early 1940s all the way, and I learned a lot of old songs that way too. My mom took a really high value on being able to educate yourself and learn things, so it was a great place to grow up. Minnesota’s great, great family.

Tavis: But when did you know that this was your calling, that this is what you were going to spend your life doing?

Jean: I fell in love with songwriting when I was five.

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) I call that an early start.

Jean: It’s a funny story, I was watching Irving Berlin’s 100th birthday celebration, and –

Tavis: At five?

Jean: Yeah, it was on television. (Laughter)

Tavis: Okay. Not “Sesame Street.”

Jean: No, we were at my stepdad’s house and it was on television, and he taped it because he liked Irving Berlin, and I started watching it. It was crazy. Willie Nelson was singing “Blue Skies,” Ray Charles was singing “What’ll I do,” Natalie Cole “Summertime,” Nell Carter sang “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

It was just magical – the costumes, the lights, it was a huge production. You never see them honoring songwriters like that now. I’ve never seen it again. But these songs, they were so fresh and they were so brand new, but he was 100. When you’re five, what is that, like, a million years old? (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Jean: I was like, okay, this is crazy. Like, he obviously has the best job because he’s like the Wizard of Oz, everybody loves him, adores him. These songs take on their own life, and to me, like, a good song becomes your friend. Kind of sad, you sing this song, you’re happy, you sing this song.

Tavis: That’s a good point.

Jean: The ability to create that for people, to create friends for people and company and comfort, it’s just too good to pass up.

Tavis: And you were hooked from that point forward.

Jean: I was hooked. I didn’t always – in high school I didn’t always think like oh, I’m going to be able to make a career out of this. But every time I tried to put it down, I just had to pick it back up.

Tavis: I want to end where I began our conversation, and that is when you know at five this is what you want to do and you’re working with a litany of other people until you finally get to this point where you put your own project out, tell me again about the patience it requires on that journey to get to that place.

I ask that because I know there are a lot of folk watching right now who in a variety of fields and human endeavors are in that same space – trying to get to that point where they get their own moment. Your message to them is?

Jean: The patience is one thing, but the other thing is the determination, and there’s going to be a million people that say no. Yu can always say, oh, it only takes that one person to say yes. That most important person to say yes is yourself.

So as everyone was telling me this isn’t going to work and this isn’t good, I always felt internally that they were wrong and that I was right, and that’s what you have to keep. If you believe, like no, this is important, it’s good, it deserves a chance, it’s who I am, then you can’t abandon that.

Tavis: Well, for my money, (laughter) I’m thinking of all the people who told you it’s no good. Bob Dylan says it is. (Laughter) That’s about all you need, really, but the Carole King says it is, Burt Bacharach says it is, Lamont Dozier says it is, and I think you will too.

But I’ll let you decide that for yourself, because in just a moment, a special performance from Nikki Jean coming up, so stay with us. Good to have you on.

Jean: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure.

From her critically acclaimed debut CD, “Pennies in a Jar,” here is Nikki Jean performing “My Love.” Enjoy.

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Last modified: August 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm