As an in-demand backing vocalist, Nicki Richards has toured with legends like Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, and Madonna. Before she embarked on supporting gigs, however, she was an experienced lead singer, composer, and keyboardist in her own right. Presently on the Queen of Pop’s “MDNA” tour, she’s concurrently making the most of her precious free time to shed light on her solo talent. The release of her third disc, Tell Me…, finds the transcontinental triple threat pouring her heart into a masterful melange of pop, R&B, and dance flavors garnished with international spices. She talked with me about the long road to success and the underlying factors that make it so fulfilling.
Your career is a textbook example of versatility. Not only have you performed solo, on tours as a backing vocalist, and as a studio session singer, you’ve also written and produced in a number of musical styles—not to mention acting in a movie or two! Do you consciously strive for versatility in your artistic endeavors?
That’s my badge of honor and my passion. I go after it all, and luckily I get to do it all because I love it all. I always push myself to expand and to be better. I challenge myself with all kinds of music and languages—anything I can get my hands on.
I watched an interview in which you noted that a lot of people want to be a star, but don’t want to pay their dues. You’ve been putting in your dues for several decades. What drives you?
I honestly have a love for the craft. I love the entire art of it, and the details. I’m a big nerd. I like the notes, harmonies, and intricacies of music. I like to know what makes it tick in every genre; what makes one song or voice better than another. When something strikes me, I wanna know all about it. That makes it easy to do justice to my work. No matter what job I’m doing or which artist I’m working with, there’s always a challenge that I have to bend myself to meet. I don’t have a choice.
What was your first professional experience in the world of entertainment?
I started at five doing TV commercials. My parents thrust me into that whole world, and I just ate it up. I did a lot of on-screen roles, including some ads for Colgate toothpaste.
At what point did you enter Star Search?
I was in my late teens. I had made a decision to let people know that I wasn’t just about a face and singing, but that I could write and play also. I didn’t watch the show or know anything about it, but I had the opportunity to go on. I figured, ”If I can go on and perform my own material!” I think that they thought, “It hasn’t been done before. You don’t have a chance of winning.” Maybe they needed fodder. But I was on eight times, and won three times doing my own stuff.
Around that time, you also landed one of your first songs with another artist: “What You Need,” which became an R&B hit for Stacy Lattisaw in late 1989. How did that come about? Did you have to go through a lot as a female songwriter to secure a song on another artist’s album?
I’ve literally been writing songs since I was a kid. I didn’t think about it that way. I just thought, “I’m gonna keep doing what I do. Every day, I’m gonna wake up and be happy to write a song. I’m gonna hang out at the after-hours clubs and meet everyone in New York (underage!) and sing demos for free.” I was on this track for years as a teenager. I just got to know enough people where a demo would end up in the right hands, and “This is a good tune!” They weren’t thinking about me; they were thinking about the music. Eventually I earned and gained respect for the work I was doing. One thing led to another, a song got to the label, and the ball started rolling.