Nikka Costa Offers Soulful Sounds On 'Pearl'

Before white soul singers like Amy Winehouse and Duffy hit the music scene, Nikka Costa built a fan base around her old-school funk style. The singer-songwriter burst onto the Billboard charts in 2001 with the infectious hit singles "Like a Feather" and "Everybody Got Their Something."

But Costa told NPR's Farai Chideya she welcomes Winehouse's more recent success.

"I feel like the audience and radio have caught up to what I've been doing all along," she said. "They are a bit more open to this kind of music. When I was making records in early 2000, they were like, 'No one's going to listen to this.' Now it's been proven that people like it."

Uniting With Stax Records

Costa's newest album, Pebble to a Pearl, was released on Stax Records, a label synonymous with soul and home to the music of legends like Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

"I was just going to put this record out on my own," she said. "We paid for it ourselves and had no real plans to get in bed with another label. But Stax, through the grapevine, heard that I was in the studio and they came in and heard it and just really loved it. They were aggressive about wanting it, and they didn't want to change anything about it, which was really refreshing."

'Fun Song To Sing'

Pebble to a Pearl features a well-balanced mix of ballads and up-tempo tracks, which give heed to the days of funk and soul music. Costa said her favorite song from the CD is the ballad, "Love to Love You Less."

"It's such a fun song to sing," said Costa. "It's very tongue in cheek and very sassy. If you don't listen to the lyrics, you think it's some sentimental love song. But it's really about staying with this useless guy because he's really good in bed!"

Nikka Costa: Reviving The Sound Of Stax

Wednesday's Pick

  • Song: "Bullets in the Sky"
  • Artist: Nikka Costa
  • CD: Pebble to a Pearl
  • Genre: Soul
Nikka Costa 300

Nikka Costa's "Bullets in the Sky" fits neatly into Stax Records' legacy of message songs by sounding more reverential than referential. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

Southern-fried romance has long been a hallmark of the Stax Records sound, but the legendary soul label also showcased notable social commentaries from the likes of The Staple Singers and the Rance Allen Group. Nikka Costa, whose new album Pebble to a Pearl just came out through the newly reactivated Stax, extends the label's tradition of message songs with the stirring "Bullets in the Sky."

Sung from the perspective of a mother losing her children, Costa addresses the war in Iraq while sticking to a human scale. "You can say that the war is over / Try telling that to a mother," she sings, before capturing the unsettling silence that follows the sudden death of a loved one.

Costa's knack for channeling old-school R&B should come as no surprise to those who savored her first two albums, which summon the crackling intensity of Janis Joplin and the worldly sass of Betty Wright. But make no mistake: Costa avoids playing vintage dress-up. For all the song's analog '70s embellishments — an insistent keyboard riff, fuzzy guitars — the arrangement doesn't attempt to replicate the Stax sound, as martial snare-drum beats evolve into a boom-bap rhythm. It all helps "Bullets in the Sky" fit neatly into Stax's legacy of message songs, while sounding more reverential than referential.

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