"So, your 'Bad Intentions' EP dropped today and it has been absolutely killing it," I say to 19-year-old rising singer-songwriter Niykee Heaton in the HuffPost office on Sept. 23. "It’s currently number six on the Top-10 charts for iTunes and has already topped the Billboard + Twitter Trending 140 chart."
With a somewhat detached gaze, Heaton said, "It's crazy. I didn't expect it all."
I don't mean to portray her demeanor as a blasé response that's rooted in arrogance. If anything, her poise was the nervous realization of achieving a goal that was never set. Little to no money was spent on any promotional material leading to the EP's release -- partly a strategy by label All Def Digital, founded by Def Jam-founder Russell Simmons, entrepreneur Steve Rifkind and film director/producer Brian Robbins -- relying entirely on persistent self-promotion on social accounts by Heaton and her manager, Lauren Pisciotta. And while Heaton is extremely grateful for everyone purchasing and listening to her music, she isn't getting lost in the numbers.
Wielding turn-up jams like "Champagne" and "Villa" in the same space as the somber "Sober" and mid-tempo "Rolling Stone," Heaton's EP offers a significant variety for a debut, all held together by her vocals, most ravishing in her lower register. Discussing her rapid surge to popularity, Heaton opens up about her childhood struggles, her promise to a lost sibling and her favorite lyrics from the EP.
Do you have any idea of what might have propelled the album? You’ve had a number of articles written leading up to the EP.
BuzzFeed was the biggest, but I think I owe the most to my fanbase. They are so crazy. They are so insane.
When did that really start to build? Was it around the time of your “Love Sosa” cover that you noticed?
That was when everything kind of blew up. Before that, I had a number of videos on YouTube with 45 to 100 views. It was “Love Sosa” that got picked up by WorldStar, the day before my 18th birthday, and it was crazy. I didn’t know what WorldStar was, but my name was on it. I owe everything to them because that was the first community to really see me. The hip-hop, urban community I owe everything to.
You’re part of the YouTube generation where you establish yourself just by putting up your own videos of yourself. How do you establish and distinguish yourself as an artist outside of those videos.
The thing that has always been important to me is that people know me as a writer. I’ve been writing since I was 5 years old, and it’s always been my main thing. I never thought that I was going to be known for singing because I didn’t have that much confidence in my voice, but I always knew I was going to be a writer. When I was doing covers and getting known for it, it was cool, but I didn’t want people to think, “Oh, she’s a cover artist.” A lot of YouTube artists get their shit professionally filmed and edited, but, to me, that’s so corny. I kept it organic and just used my iPhone. I feel like doing that helped me because people didn’t know me as a professionally YouTube cover artist. And just putting in my own originals and letting people know I’m a songwriter, I’m an artist, made that transition a little easier. Even though a lot of people knew me from Instagram -- they thought I was an Instagram model. So I would have my bikini selfies, but I would also put a new clip of a song I was writing.
Your Instagram has definitely played a role in you getting some attention. As an artist, where do you see the balance in projecting your personal life with your art?
I think it’s important to never overshadow it. If I was just nonstop posting sexy pictures and there was no music to match up with it, that would be a problem. But I think it’s very important to take advantage of your social platforms. Before even my YouTube account, I was going to open mics and driving hours to creepy bars and begging them to let me play and doing dumb contests, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere.
Based off of my image on Instagram, people thought I was this girl who was trying to use her appearance to get far. I never understood that because I was always the ugly duckling. I was the girl in high school who was a complete outcast, so I’ve never thought of myself as a thirst trap, so it was weird to hear that from people.
There’s a good variation of sound on your EP. “Champagne” is a club-ready track, and then you have “Sober” and “Bad Intentions,” which are more somber. What inspires this variation?
My music is a direct reflection of who I am. My writing is everything to me because that’s all I had growing up. I had a really tough childhood and at a point when I was very young, I sort just stopped speaking because I stuttered. I was in an environment where no one was paying attention to me, I was very isolated, so when people talked to me, I would talk as fast as I could so that they could hear me. Trying to talk so fast, I developed a terrible stutter. The only way I could get out was through my writing, so I was this 5-year-old with these journals of poetry. In elementary school they would tell us to write a poem about our dog, and kids would write, “I like dogs, they are nice,” and I wrote a poem based on the Tom Waits’ song “Rain Dogs,” and my teacher is like, “What the fuck is wrong with her?” I was that complete weirdo.
Each song is a piece of my life. “Sober” is about my father. Both of my parents were raging alcoholics, and my father still is and my sister’s dying wish was, “Dad, can you please get sober?” And I remember being in the hospital room when I was 12, the day that she died, and him going up to her and putting his hand on her shoulder and promising her that he would get sober. The fact that he couldn’t do it, and that it was his own inner demons and it wasn’t about her. “Rolling Stone” is just about past relationships, how someone could love me even though I’m so damaged. Those emotions are so genuine and so that’s why each song isn’t the same mood.
I don’t mean to press too much, but could expand a little more on your childhood?
When I was born, my sister was already sick. She was 9 years older, but was diagnosed with cancer when she was 3. Her whole life was being sick and I witnessed all of it, so all of my childhood was watching her die. My brother was a little bit older and he was going through the same things, but he didn’t take the route I did. He turned to drugs and alcohol because he wasn’t getting the attention that he needed as a child either, so I watched that happen. I was like, “Okay, someone needs to be the hero here. I can’t be the problem child, I’m not the sick one.” So I became the silent hero.
I had to grow up super fast. At 5 years old I was already an adult, and I thought very differently. When kids asked if I wanted to come hang out and play, I was like, “No, I think I’m going to watch ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ I don’t really have time to play.” I wanted to have friends, but I thought so differently that I couldn’t be a kid. My sister and my mom were always in the hospital, my dad was always drunk, the rest of my family was in South Africa so they were never around. I was always alone, so I would just write all the time. It’s kind of sad, but if I didn’t go through all of that shit, I wouldn’t be the artist that I am.
And to say that it created the artist you are, it isn't about right or wrong, but the reality of things as they happened outside of your control. Now that you have this platform, how does it feel to put out these songs where you can embody all these things you have been keeping to yourself for so many years and the see people responding and connecting to them?
When I came in to this I never had any idea of wanting to win a VMA or hitting top 10 on the Billboard charts. The only reason I wanted to do this was because I wanted my music to make an impact. Even though music is the gift that I have to work with, the night that my sister passed, everyone was going up to her to say goodbye, and I remember going up to her and holding her hand. I just kind of promised her -- I didn’t understand why I got to live and she didn’t -- my promise to her was that I wouldn’t just live for me, but also that I would live for her too. My goal is to be the angel that saves someone else’s life, even though I couldn’t save hers. When I go to my Instagram messages and there’s a 13-year-old girl [who] Sharpied my lyrics on her arm where she had cut herself, that’s the most amazing thing.
Do you have any plans to collaborate with any artists in the near future?
Ever since the “Love Sosa” cover, rappers have been reaching out. Pretty much every song I covered, the artist would reach out. The first was 2 Chainz, he reached out at the very start. But right as I started doing this is when Miley Cyrus came out with her new thing, and she started collaborated with all these rappers. I was like, “Cool, a white girl with blond hair, singing and she has all these rappers on her songs. Fuck.” Because I love rap music, so that was my first thought. So we held out on all features. I would much rather my music be true and have someone on it because I have a connection with that person, not because I paid them a lot of money to do a feature on it.
Speaking generally, I would love to work with Nicki Minaj because she’s my favorite female artist. I really respect artistry and craft and she’s all about that. I would love to do something with Drake and Kanye. And then I would love to do a feature with Bob Dylan. I know he would never do it, but something that’s unheard of, something special.
Niykee Heaton's favorite lyrics from "Bad Intentions":
I’m still lying awake by your side, and even though I know I shouldn’t I’m feeding the monsters I’m afraid to fight - "Sober"
"This line represents the meaning of this entire song. I wrote this song, literally, from my father’s point of view regarding his alcoholism and his inability to achieve sobriety. It signifies being so close to someone, trying to love them so badly, but your demons are stronger than your intentions. And it’s easier to give into those monsters, rather than to defy them."
Is it too late? I’m so afraid. This poison, I need a drink to spite you. Will you ravage me? - "Champagne"
"The meaning behind 'Champagne' is the act of substituting the loss or pain of something with another, more destructive replacement. Trying to mend a broken heart with drugs and alcohol, etc. This line is important to the song because I’m saying I’m in so much pain and its gone too far, so ill consume this poison to spite you, when in the end, all I’m doing is destroying myself."
Love me even though I’m a motherfuckin’ rolling stone. - "Rolling Stone"
"I wrote the song, 'Rolling Stone' about finding that someone who can look past all the faults and flaws in you and love you even though you may think you’re so damaged. In regards to Bob Dylan’s classic, 'Like A Rolling Stone,' he describes someone 'lost,' and 'a complete unknown.' To love someone completely, despite their defects, is incomprehensible and so beautiful."
I know we’ve made a graveyard of this all. I know I don’t feel too sober know. I wanna lie awake with your black soul, count your fears if you let me. Baby, I just want your damn bad intentions. - "Bad Intentions"
"I wrote 'Bad Intentions' about my own internal struggle about loving someone else and letting them love me back. I feel that because of what I’ve been through, and the way that my pain has changed me, that I am apprehensive and slightly incapable of loving someone else fully and completely. In this line, it is the turning point, or moment of clarity when I see that someone else may be just as damaged as I am, and if I can learn to love their weaknesses, then perhaps they might just be able to love mine."
Before The Beat Drops is an artist introduction series dedicated to bringing you the rising acts before they make their break. Our unlimited access to music of all kinds is both amazing and overwhelming. Keeping your playlists fresh, we'll be doing the leg work to help you discover your next favorite artist.