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.
Shortly after winning Star Search, you signed with Atlantic Records. For someone who grew up in and around the business, was it all that you expected?
The label deal was tough. I sat around for almost a year and a half before I could even get a meeting with my A&R person. This was during a time when no one was trying to give an 18-year-old kid any power or control, and I wanted it—I demanded it. Because Ahmet Ertegun had signed me, I kind of had a little clout. But that didn’t mean that my A&R person, who didn’t choose me, was gonna go easy with that. It was a constant clashing of the Titans for a few years. I was signed in ’89, and my record didn’t come out until ’91. As much as I’m proud of Naked and stand behind it, I had to fight for every scrap, every note, and every other musician that I got to play on it. There were some legendary musicians, like Trevor Horn and Bootsy Collins, who agreed to work on it. But because they didn’t fit the mold of what R&B music was at that time, the label shot it down. I fought as hard as I could and ended up with what I wanted; but there’s so much more I could have done had I been given a little bit more.
You had a sizeable R&B hit with your rendition of the classic “Summer Breeze,” but it seemed like you disappeared from the scene for awhile after Naked.
I moved away and got married. I did a lot of theatre. I kept music in the front of my mind and tried not to get distracted by other stuff that would stop me from my path. I dug my heels into life to come up with inspiration for my music. Eventually, I found myself back in New York: that’s when I started getting calls for tours.
Who was the first artist you toured with?
A Latin artist named Emmanuel. It was a stadium tour all over South America and Central America. He was huge there. I’d never seen so many people screaming so loud. It was amazing. During that time, we were going to countries where coups were happening. We’d ride a bus and get stopped by teenagers with machine guns. It was very dramatic, but I was very excited to be a part of it.
How did you come to be a part of that tour?
Everything I did was word-of-mouth. I loved languages, and I was good at singing in different ones since I understood them. I could get the feeling across, so I sounded like I knew what I was doing! I got called for all kinds of session work, one thing led to another, and that’s how it’s always been for me.
You’ve mentioned before that it’s important for aspiring artists to study the history of their art form and what worked for the greats. What are some things you’ve learned from touring with other artists?
My first proper tour was a promotional one for my Naked album. I learned the hard way all of the freshman mistakes. So by the time I started working for other people, I had first-hand experience. I had perspective. I understood the burnout and the health and safety risks. Whether it was traveling the college or chitlin’ circuit, I knew the perils and pitfalls.
What do you turn to when you hit that burnout point?
Now, there’s no chance of burnout, because I know I have to stay balanced and healthy. I pace myself. Some jobs are more demanding than others. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, which I’ve been doing for several years, are an intense amount of work in a very short amount of time. It’s easy to get over-extended and not sleep. You’re putting in 16-hour days, learning 30 songs a day, and singing at the top of your lungs. You’ve got to figure out what you have to do to make things go well. I try to eat great, sleep as much as I can, and I don’t talk a lot. I’m working out like crazy so that my body can handle all the strain, and drinking a lot of water. I want to do everything right so that I have a fighting chance of seeing it through and still enjoying it. At the end of the day, I want to have a great time.
You mentioned that there can also be health and safety risks encountered while touring. What are some examples of those?
Well, as focused as I’m telling you I am, there’s also a part of me that’s a little bit reckless. And my motivation for that is that I really want to squeeze all the juice out of life. I remember when September 11 happened, it was devastating. No one wanted to fly anywhere, and a lot of tours and travel arrangements were stalled for awhile. There were travel advisories, especially throughout Europe. But I didn’t want to be afraid. And there were a few brave souls saying, “We’ve got dates booked and we’re going anyway. Do you wanna go? Because nobody else will go.” I was like, “I’m goin’.” If it’s time for me to check out of this life, then I’m goin’ down singing on a stage, or in a plane on my way to some place. I’m gonna hack at all the languages I can possibly speak poorly. I’m gonna have ridiculous love affairs. And I’m gonna do it all in every corner of the world until my clock runs out.
What tour were you part of at that time?
I was in New York, right near the Towers when all of this happened. I did a lot of the tributes and memorial shows, just volunteering as much time as I could and hoping to heal with music. Then, I got a call from Anastacia, who’s huge in Europe and the rest of the world. She was going out to do a huge world tour. Every place we went, because we were American, there were threats. It was treacherous, but I was determined. It was a lot of living!
You’ve now been on three tours with Madonna, beginning with the “Confessions Tour” in 2006. It seems like we started hearing more from you as a solo artist since that time, as well. Was there something about that first tour with her that motivated you to put out your own music again?
Madonna is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my life. But Donna DeLory, the other backing vocalist on the “Confessions Tour,” really lit the fire under me to get back into the fray of putting music out. As an independent artist, she was just unstoppable. It’s one thing when you have a lot of support and money. It’s another to just wake up one day and decide this is what you’re doing, then make it happen. I’ve worked with some really hard workers: Tina Turner, Mariah Carey—people I would say are some of the hardest-working musicians out there. Madonna is certainly that kind of creature. Every day, I’m influenced by that.
Let’s talk about your new CD. First off, is it called Bedtime Story or Tell Me…? I’ve seen it mentioned online under both titles.
It’s officially entitled Tell Me… We had a couple of glitches in the road, and it was first called Bedtime Story (Tell Me…). One of my heroes is Herbie Hancock. In the ‘70s, he wrote this incredible, mind-expanding, funky music for Fat Albert. And then there’s his instrumental piece, “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” When I think about what is the most perfect-sounding music I can come up with, that tune is the epitome—harmonically, where it goes and takes you, it’s so beautiful. So, I wrote a lyric and submitted it to him, and he suggested that we collaborate to come up with a new creation. So, we had to change the title. Now, I have a co-written song with Herbie Hancock. It’s a dream come true.
The opening track is “Queen,” in which you sing of enduring “all the lonely nights of conquering, how I need someone to handle me.” Tell me about that.
I’m a hopeless romantic. I love escapism and to be transported to other times and planets. I think that I had watched too many movies when I wrote the song: Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Marie Antoinette. Plus, I work for Madonna! But with these movies, I was slayed by the fact that these were women who had everything they wanted; they were powerful conquerors and warriors—yet when they came back home to their palaces, they were so lonely. I’m a great believer that we all just want a little bit of love. I was raised to be a Black American queen, and I was the only one that was gonna make that happen if I wanted to feel that way. To have any kind of effect, I had to make myself feel that way and command that respect.
Continuing on that royal theme, “Knight in Shining Armor” is the second track on the disc. It’s got something of a Middle Eastern hip-hop feel to it.
In the time leading up to this album, I had pretty rough luck in relationships, and I decided that I wanted to make myself feel better. I kept trying to imagine what would the best of love feel like: when I’ve had relationships that went really well—even if it was a brief period of time and most of it was bad overall. I wanted to capture that moment of what it feels like to be so secure, happy, elated and thrilled in a love situation. Most of the songs on Tell Me are new; “Knight in Shining Armor” is an older one. I wrote it about the love of my life at the time, the man I married.
So there’s a bit of a fairytale aspect to the album?
When I was a kid, every night my parents would tell me stories. Sometimes, they’d turn the book upside down, and I had to tell them a story back: “Okay, that was happily ever after. Now, let’s turn it upside down and fracture it a bit!” That’s where I live, in another land.
Nowadays, I get to go to all these cool places. I don’t have authentic references for some things when I’m not of the different countries and lands; but I’m influenced by them. There was such a freedom and chaos that happened in “Knight in Shining Armor” that I wanted to get across, with the Middle Eastern instruments. I wanted it to sound like you’re in the middle of the marketplace and you can have a wild love affair. You know, like, he’s gonna slay dragons for you! What could be cooler than that?
You also have Native American and Creole roots. Does that influence your music?
Where my roots show up on this album are the song “Surely.” These past few years, I’ve lost way too many loved ones: my grandfather; my father; my aunt; several of my employers and artists I worked for; Michael Jackson. I went through a really tough time grieving. I found myself on a tour in Jerusalem not being able to get back for a funeral. I was at the Wailing Wall just balling and crying. The only thing that comforted me was a passage from the Bible: Psalm 23. I found myself latching on to those words, regardless of spiritually and religiously what was going on for me. The story of someone who’s fighting a battle, but finds comfort and feels like, “No matter what, I’m gonna be okay”— that soothed me and ended up becoming powerful for me in song. I ended up reading all the psalms, and that led to “Surely.” I set it to a second line beat. You hear some voodoo rhythms in there. Meanwhile, Take 6 is singing spiritual lyrics straight out of the Bible. It’s straight-up New Orleans, with a twist.
The first single release from the CD is “Lay Your Hands on Me.” How did that song come to fruition?
Again, I was in Jerusalem when the idea came to me. I was standing at the hole where the crucifix was. I got my hand in the hole where the cross that held Jesus Christ was, if you believe the story. I was just moved by it. During this trip, I was learning about Muslim history and Jewish history. It was all very powerful, and I came away from it thinking about universal truths that flow through all of these stories and teachings. When I went back to these stories, there’s the story of Mary Magdalene in the Bible: a woman who was ill and shunned. But she just had this faith that there was something bigger than herself that she knew would change her life. Even though the song is sexy and sensual, it started out as trying to relate to someone who needed healing.
You’ll be on the “MDNA” tour through the end of the year. How do you find time to promote Tell Me… simultaneously?
Trying to promote an album while on a world tour is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I don’t have it figured out yet. There’s not a lot of time for me to do all the things that need to be done; but I’m ever-hopeful and hard-working. At the end of the day, I just want the songs to have a life: for somebody to hear them, appreciate them, and be moved by them.
Photos by Sandrine Lee