She's Got Rhythm: Jazz-Pop Upstart Nikki Yanofsky, 16 And Swingin'

Nikki Yanofsky has been "singing since I could talk, basically." And doing it well: When her dad asked the Montreal native to sing a few songs with his garage band at a charity event, it was a little different than practicing in the garage. In the audience was the founder of the Montreal Jazz Festival, who asked Yanofsky to open the 2006 festival - meaning Yanofsky's first real gig, she says, was in front of 125,000 people. She was 12.

Since then, Yanofsky has been nominated for two Juno Awards (Canada's Grammys) for 2008's Ella... Of Thee I Swing, appeared on PBS' The Electric Company with Wyclef Jean and performed at both the opening and closing ceremonies of this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Besides standards like Duke Ellington "Take the 'A' Train," Billie Holliday's "God Bless the Child" and the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm," Yanofsky wrote several songs with Jesse Harris (Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why") and singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith for this year's Nikki, and had one written for her by Feist.

In other words, you don't find too many 16-year-olds who have appeared on both an Ella Fitzgerald tribute album (she sang "Airmail Special" on 2007's We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song) and the Canadian High School Musical 2 soundtrack ("Gotta Go My Own Way"), and shout out Wyclef and Bonnie Raitt. We haven't, anyway.

Rocks Off caught up with Yanofsky, now on her first full-fledged U.S. tour that pulls into House of Blues' Bronze Peacock Room at 7 p.m. this evening, from Clearwater, Fla., earlier this week.

Rocks Off: What is it about Ella Fitzgerald's music that brought out such a response from you?

Nikki Yanofsky: I don't really know. I think it's just the fact that it's very timeless and her voice is very pure and very joyful when you listen to it. It sounds like she's very happy, and it just makes me smile when I listen to it.

RO: What did your parents say when you said you wanted to pursue a jazz career?

NY: It wasn't jazz. I didn't know what jazz was at 11, I just wanted to sing. And even now, I just consider myself a singer, not really a jazz singer. But I do sing a lot of jazz, and people do put me in that category. But I always say I can't live in a box, because there's so much great stuff outside of the box that if you're living in one you don't have access to all of it.

My dad's reaction has always been very supportive. When I was two years old, I was always singing and he used to say to my mom, "It's weird - she doesn't go off tune, and she starts on the right key and the right note." My mom was like, "Yeah, yeah, proud father..." And then I got older and I guess other people started saying it too.

RO: What do your friends think?

NY: My friends are also very supportive. My good friends. I love the fact that I have this, because it forces people to show their true colors. It's almost like a big test, to see who's really your true friend and who's not. It's definitely shown me that there's lots of people who have been a little weirded out with it, and those are people I know I don't want as my real friends anyways.

The people who have known me since before I started singing - I have a group of about six close friends I've known since I was little, and they haven't changed one bit. They come to all my shows in Montreal, and some of them even travel with me.

RO: Between recording and touring, is it hard for you to spend time with people your own age?

NY: No. The thing is, this is all by choice. Nobody's forcing me to do this. If I wasn't happy with it, I wouldn't do it. Also, I've still got time with my friends. Technology is so great now that I can type something into my phone, and two seconds later I have an answer from like five of my friends.

It's awesome - I'm always in touch and up to date with everything that's going on at home. And also, I really like hanging out with adults. I find that the conversation's great, and I learn a lot.

RO: What other kinds of music are you interested in?

NY: Listening-wise, I listen to everything from rap to country to jazz to classic rock. I have a very wide range of musical tastes. But singing-wise, I really like to sing a lot of Motown and jazz and bluesy soul stuff, and a lot of funk too. I actually really like country blues, like Bonnie Raitt. I love her. Those are the genres I hope to explore - I always sing that at shows, but I want to find a way to incorporate that very fluidly on the next album.

RO: You've done some work with Wyclef. Are you a hip-hop fan?

NY: I love rap and hip-hop. Wyclef, I'm a huge fan since the Fugees. He's really talented, and also a very, very, very nice guy. He's so much fun to work with. We've worked with each other quite a bit, actually. He was responsible my first music video.

RO: Is that something you can possibly see yourself doing at some point?

NY: Hip-hop? Not on my own. Maybe as a collaborative effort like I did with Wyclef, but I really don't think I could pull that off (laughs).

RO: Have you ever been to Texas?

NY: No, but I'm really looking forward to it. Honestly, I can't wait. I forgot my cowboy boots - I didn't bring those.

RO: What do you think of when you think of Texas?

NY: It's funny. I always ask people the same question and they're like, "Oh, Canada - igloos, cold..." There's no igloos where I'm from. I guess the image I see of Texas is lots of cactus and cowboy boots and cowboy hats. That's pretty much it.

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