Nikki Jean: Friends In High Places For her first solo album, Nikki Jean reached out to the songwriters who inspire her most. Previously best known as a guest on Lupe Fiasco's album The Cool, she discusses working with Fiasco, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan and others in her own songs.

Nikki Jean: Friends In High Places

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When a musician gets famous for one kind of music, they sometimes have a hard time doing new things. In 2007, Nikki Jean became known when she helped write and sing on Lupe Fiasco's hip-hop album "The Cool." But her musical breadth extends well beyond rap. Her varying tastes can be heard in her solo debut album, "Pennies in a Jar." She joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with.

NIKKI JEAN: Hello, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And I want to get right into - let's hear a bit of "Million Star Motel," if we could.


JEAN: (Singing) Lord knows I've been lower. Locked underneath the cellar door. I've been bent till I broke but never poor. You might ask why I'm smiling with empty pockets can't you tell? Diamond shine in the midnight sky and the world is my million star motel.

LUPE FIASCO: (Rapping) L-u-p, I'm back where the beat at. Love always shines every time I see that. Hugging the track if you're under...

SIMON: By the way, it features Lupe Fiasco. So what was it like to for him to return the favor for you?

JEAN: Oh, It was amazing, you know, because he doesn't work with a tremendous amount of people, having them on his album and but then to lend his talent and certainly notoriety to my record was a gift and I'm very grateful.

SIMON: Now you've also worked with Carly Simon.

JEAN: Yes.

SIMON: And with Carole King.

JEAN: Indeed.

SIMON: What's it like to work with, what I think it's safe to say between Carole King and Lupe Fiasco, a real range of talent?


JEAN: Well, it's been amazing. You do see a through line of brilliant people and characteristics that they possess, and the creativity and the work ethic, you see that kind of across the board. Great writers are huge fans of other great writers regardless of genre.

SIMON: Speaking of great writers, whatever the genre, let's listen a bit to the title track "Pennies in a Jar." I'm really going to tip our hand as to who you're collaborating with.


JEAN: (Singing) All I recall the fireworks and the fireflies that lit the sky. It seem to imply if skies could catch them, why couldn't I...

SIMON: You were collaborating with...

JEAN: Mr. Burt Bacharach.

SIMON: How did that come about?

JEAN: Well, he was, he was called.


JEAN: He was called and asked very nicely. I went to his house and he played some melodies for me and he said, you know, why don't you try writing some lyrics and we'll see what happens. And so, "Pennies in a Jar" is what happened.


JEAN: (Singing) Something that I could tell my dreams to. What did I do? Filling up the stars with pennies in a jar.

SIMON: Is it intimidating to work with someone like Burt Bacharach who has had about a thousand hits?

JEAN: Oh my goodness. That, writing with him was the first time that I was really exposed as a writer, because up until that point, I had been collaborating with people, and we would write the melody together and we would write the lyric together.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

JEAN: When I wrote with Mr. Bacharach, it was the first time, he's like okay, I wrote the melody, you write the lyrics, and we'll see what you have by yourself.


JEAN: And I was just pacing the floor in my apartment, like, how am I going to write something that could even compare? And I just stopped thinking of it like that and was like, you know, just write from your heart but really good though.


SIMON: Well, that's how he began, right, writing from the heart. He just got really good at it.

JEAN: Yeah. And there was a point in the process where I had written these verses and I sent it back to him and he was like, you know, I like the verses. Here's the melody for the bridge because he didn't give it to me all at once, and I was stuck. And it took me four months. Ultimately he was like what is the holdup? And I said, you know, I just, I'm scared that it's not going to be good enough. And he's like I've got tons of songs like that. You just have to finish it. It's OK. And just having that kind of encouragement was a really big deal for me.


JEAN: (Singing) I was playing with you. I was playing with you.

SIMON: How did you get to love music?

JEAN: I think I always attribute it to Irving Berlin. We saw his 100th birthday celebration on TV.

SIMON: Yeah.

JEAN: You know, it was amazing. There was Jerry Orbach and Willie Nelson and Ray Charles and Bea Arthur and all these wonderful entertainers. And some of the songs, even being five, like I already knew "White Christmas," I'd already heard "God Bless America." He was immortal, like he was 100, but these songs were so fresh and alive, and it was so important to be a songwriter, obviously, because they had this big event. And that's when I decided I wanted to be one.

SIMON: It sounds like you're interested in every genre of music.

JEAN: I just love good songs that stick with you, that touch something in you, that become your friends like a good book. I was born in St. Paul and moved around a lot as a kid. But Minnesota has a huge melting pot of music. Like...

SIMON: Yeah.

JEAN: Prince is from there but Bob Dylan is from there.


JEAN: (Singing) I still see the best in humankind. In war you make this broken world all shiny and new.

SIMON: I want to listen to a little bit now of "Steel and Feathers." Different for you.

JEAN: (Singing) Don't ever take yourself to a place where I can't find you.

SIMON: So you can hear the trace of Bob Dylan.


JEAN: I was given the song to finish. And when they sent it to me it had verses. And I sent it back. I was like I am not changing a single word, not a note.


SIMON: Yeah.


JEAN: (Singing) Take a cab to that little old diner and take a stab at feeling together the feel of the feathers that they (unintelligible).

SIMON: Is it hard to sing a Dylan song and not sound like Dylan? You sound like yourself?

JEAN: I don't know. I think for me we, I wanted to find that place where me and Mr. Dylan intersect. You know, where I could sing it like myself and still honor the character of the song.


JEAN: (Singing) Take my pail and water the flower garden. Take my (unintelligible) from bloom. But don't ever take yourself away. Don't ever take away...

SIMON: Do you think about what's next?

JEAN: Every day.


JEAN: Every day. I really want an opportunity to go out and perform the record and take it to people.

SIMON: And do you like touring? What's that like for you?

JEAN: I love touring. I was born to tour.


JEAN: I really was. You know, it's not even that, it's the road.

SIMON: Yeah.

JEAN: It's being out in the - me and my mom had driven from Washington, D.C. to Minnesota four times by the time I was five years old. So I've had all this experience being in a car and I like it. I love little towns and their quirks. And I love big towns and their energy. And it's great for me. It's very exciting. It's very rejuvenating.

SIMON: Nikki Jean. Her debut album, "Pennies in a Jar." Good luck.

JEAN: Thank you so much for having me. I've had a really wonderful time.


JEAN: (Singing) ...feels like milk when it spills like a baby when it's born. Each day I could dream like a rose in the ground but today I feel so fun.

SIMON: You can hear songs from "Pennies in a Jar," and we hope you will, at NPR/ And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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