Armed with her bass guitar and an electric purple fro-hawk, 24-year-old Nik West is about to show us what she’s all about at this year’s SingJazz Festival happening from 31 March – 2 April. The firecracker of a performer is known for her wild onstage presence, including her tendency to perform splits. Ahead of her show on 2 April, the talented young woman speaks to us about her intriguing beginnings and her experiences hanging out and performing with the legendary Prince.
What drew you to play the bass?
That was actually all Michael Jackson. My dad picked me up from school one day and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ was playing on the radio. Now, I’ve heard this song a million times but this time I was actually listening to it and I heard the bassline thumping. So I asked my dad what instrument that was and he said “That’s the bass”. Right away I knew that was what I wanted to play. I didn’t want to play the guitar anymore. I wanted to play the bass.
So did you teach yourself or did you go for classes?
Well my dad is a guitar player so, he just got me a bass and started teaching me some basic stuff. I already knew some blues from playing guitar so I just tried to apply it to the bass. It was tough at first though, because the strings are so much thicker and the bass is so much bigger.
Was this something you did full time?
Actually, I hardly did it at all! It was more like a hobby. I went to school for engineering and that was the main thing I was concerned with. Only a few years ago this guy I knew since I was 13 came up to me and said, “Yo, don’t you play the bass? Why aren’t you playing anymore? Why aren’t you trying to be professional at it?” and I said, “I don’t think I’m good enough to do that”. And then he said, “Go practice. Figure it out”. So he inspired me to pick up the bass for real and upload a few videos on Youtube. That’s how it all started.
Let’s talk about that Engineering bit. What in the world made you want to study engineering?
Crazy, crazy story. I was a really bad little girl growing up, I would not pay attention in class and the teachers kept sending me to the office because they didn’t know what’s wrong me. But another teacher suggested that they just test me, and when they did that, they discovered that I was gifted in Math and Science. I knew things that 6th graders should know, and I was in the 3rd grade. That’s when they decided to send me to schools for the gifted. And of course, I wasn’t bored anymore, I became a good teen because I actually had a challenge and from that point on, I was just destined to do something involving Math and Science, you know, problem-solving stuff. That’s kind of how that happened.
Would you ever go back to something along the lines of Engineering?
Well I feel like I kind of do that now. Engineering for me is being able to solve problems exceptionally well, being able to come up with solutions to problems that are difficult and I think I’ve been doing that musically.
What does Jazz mean to you?
Jazz is a language that not everyone can understand, but they can all speak it. Even if you don’t write music, when you hear Jazz music come on the radio, you can’t help but start tapping your feet or start grooving to the beats. Jazz feels good even when you’re stressed out and I can’t say the same about other types of music. It just soothes people.
What is something you always have with you when you tour?
My bass, of course! But apart from my instrument, I’ll bring my recording devices and microphone because sometimes I get inspired in very strange areas, and I just record. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night in the hotel room and start recording. Other times I’ll record myself singing a bassline on the phone and quickly record it when I get back to the room.
Do you have a favourite song you like to perform live?
I’d say a favourite song of mine would be ‘Forbidden Fruit’, I really love that song because it was the very first song that I wrote and produced 100% by myself and it’s a crowd favourite. And a cover I like to perform is Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank you (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” because that song was the very first song that Prince and I played together and we played it all night. He taught me a lot from just that one song, on our very first meeting. I just love playing it, and I feel his presence when I do.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what it was like to work with Prince?
Well Prince, and I say it all the time, was somebody that created a style of music but was also not afraid to be inspired by other people like James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. That’s something that I learned from him, to copy or imitate other people but to just learn and be inspired, and then make something of my own and be myself with it.
What would you say is your favourite memory of Prince?
Hands down, getting beaten by him at ping pong. I was terrible at it, like really, really terrible. I got a little better as time went along but you know, he was like a kid, he was like a little boy at heart. He would stick with ping pong and at first he would be nice and gentle with it and then when he saw that I was getting the hang of this game, and I got my confidence, he would slam the ball at me. Sometimes it would pop up and hit me in the face, and he’d say “OH! Got you!” He was just so much fun.
One last question, just for fun. If you were given an elephant, where would you hide it?
Okay so I live in L.A where it’s nice and warm right now, and the only space that I have, well a big enough space to hold an elephant, would be the roof. The roof is flat, the elephant can go up there and just sit, maybe. I don’t know! *laughs* The roof is the only place I can fit it.
Catch Nik West at SingJazz Festival 2017 on 2 April. Get your tickets here.