In the Spotlight: Kimberly Nichole

You may recognize Kimberly Nichole from her performance on Season 8 of the hit live musical television show, The Voice. Born in Seattle, over the years Kimberly has garnered support from the likes of Pharrell Williams, Christina Aguilera, Lionel Richie, Mark Ronson, and Reba McEntire. Her show-stopping performances, stylish presence (she’s deemed 'The Rock Ballerina') and her powerhouse vocals make Kimberly a force to be reckoned with. ProjectNextUp got the chance to speak with Kimberly about her experience on The Voice, her proudest moments, and who she would collaborate with if given the opportunity. Rolling Stone once said, “Kimberly Nichole is a superhero hybrid of Aretha Franklin’s vocals with Bono’s stage presence.” Seriously, go watch her Voice performance House of the Rising Sun and then come back to read this interview. 

ProjectNextUp: How did you get started in music?

Kimberly Nichole: I started singing when I was a kid in Seattle. My mother is a singer. She’s a musician, too—instrumentalist and a vocalist. At a young age, we started singing in church. Then I grew up singing in musical theatre, and choirs, writing a bit, and dancing. I left Seattle and moved to Atlanta to go to college and studied economics at Spelman College. After I graduated I really started pursuing music full time, and performing at open mics in Atlanta.

PNU: You studied economics? 

KN: I actually liked economics. But I ended up leaving Atlanta and moving to New York, performing a lot, and building a name for myself. I released a record independently in 2010. I caught the attention of BET’s Music Matters which is for up-and-coming independent musicians. I did a showcase for BET, they liked me, they put me on 106 & Park, and then they put me on the BET awards for their Music Matters segment. After that, I just kept performing. I got placements in MTV, LOGO, VH1, and then I was featured in Vogue magazine. I did some other stuff here and there, but then last year my friend asked me if I was interested in The Voice. At first, I really wasn’t. But I felt like I had hit a ceiling of what I could do for myself independently, and I thought it would be great exposure. I passed their people my music, and they flew me straight to the blind auditions. The rest is history. I got on there and did exactly what I’ve always wanted to do musically. I did every type of style of song that I wanted to do—all rock and soul—and I wore every outfit I wanted to wear. On stage and on TV, I was exactly who I am off stage. Then I made it to the Top 6.

PNU: As someone who doesn’t know what goes on behind the scenes, I’m sure you were excited to perform on The Voice. Before hitting the stage, and receiving all the positive feedback, it was kind of exciting, right?

KN: It was. It was nerve-racking and rather stressful. I initially went on there just wanting exposure, but then you start to get into this competitive frame of mind — which can work against you. I was definitely nervous, but I made really good friends on the show. We kept each other laughing and encouraged one another. It was fun, stressful — but overall a really good experience. 

PNU: What would you take away from the whole experience?

KN: For me, being myself is always very important. On the show, I allowed myself to shine as I am —  not to fit into anyone’s boxes. One of the major takeaways is that it’s important to really live and enjoy your life, enjoy every moment without having expectations, because sometimes what you expect is going to happen doesn’t happen. I didn’t expect to get that far, but then I didn’t expect to leave that soon. Live in moments without having these expectations, these criterion for what you want to happen exactly. Let your actions and your energy and your purpose decide what’s going to happen for you. You can have things in your mind that you want to happen, but maybe that’s not part of the plan. And that’s okay. When you have expectations you’re sometimes disappointed, and that can really mess you up.

PNU: You call yourself ‘The Rock Ballerina.’ How did that come about? That’s your unique style, look, name.

Let your actions and your energy and your purpose decide what’s going to happen for you.

KN: It happened really naturally. I never thought, “I have to have this image.” I think in 2009 I needed an outfit for my album release show in Atlanta, and I had nothing to wear. I was in Seattle, my best friend was getting married, and I bought this vintage dress. A beautiful dress that was white and sheer with lace on it, and it’s one of my favorite tutus to this day. I was telling her how I didn’t know if I had anything to wear, and she mentioned that her husband’s stepmom sews—she made the veil, and she made the costumes for her son’s ballet company. When I got back to New York I went to her house in Brooklyn, showed her the dress, then she put a bar in it, took the sleeves off and made it really fabulous. That’s the beginning of ‘The Rock Ballerina.’ But the actual name came from one of my mentors—Valerie Simpson. She’s a songwriter from Ashford and Simpson, who did a lot of songs for Motown and Ray Charles. One day she called me 'The Rock Ballerina, wild and wonderful’ and I thought, “Hey, that’s who I am!” and I’ve been that ever since. 

PNU: On the note of mentors, how and why was this person such a mentor to you? Who are some other people you look up to?

KN: I first met Ashford and Simpson when I moved to New York and was performing at open mics. I went to their restaurant on the upper west side every week to sing, and they really took a liking to me. When I released my first album, they heard it and said, “Kim you’re a great songwriter,” and I was able to sit with them and get advice on my journey. The reason I was even in Vogue magazine was because of them, too. They’re good friends with Andre Leon Talley, and they put together a showcase for me when he and some others were there. Nick has passed now, but Valerie and Nick gave me such keen advice on the journey and about how sometimes you have to give a little bit to get something in return. They always told me to be myself and to keep writing. Anytime I needed advice, and even to this day, I’m still able to call Valerie to guide me and give me love.

Another mentor is this gentleman who is more in the underground performance arts scene in New York, Raven O. He used to do drag shows with Joey Arias and all these iconic lower east side performers. I met him when I started working at The Box. Raven is this extreme personality who knows his stuff and knows entertainment. Watching him, and getting words of wisdom from him, have really helped me understand how to be an entertaining, engaging, captivating performer. I learned from him how to deal with all types of audiences, from high brow to low brow, from lower east side to euro trash, whatever. He really taught me that. When I was on The Voice, when I was sometimes so frustrated, even to this day, he’s really helped me out and has always been a great voice of reason and a very important person in my life.

PNU: What was one of your favorite performances on The Voice? House of the Rising Sun is mine. Gives me chills every time. 

KN: That one is a favorite, and then Free Fallin’ was another fave. It was something I wanted to do for my mother — a woman I idolize and the reason why I’m a singer. I was on National TV to sing to her and show her how much I love her. Oh, and Creep. You know what, I love all of my performances. I’m proud of myself. 

PNU: You should be! What music did you grow up listening to that really influenced your music today?

KN: My family played a lot of soul and gospel, but of course I grew up in Seattle so the grunge movement was big. I think I was influenced as a child by one thing, but as I started coming of age and becoming an adult I began to be influenced by different styles. I love The Doors, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I really love Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner. I also love Alabama Shakes… I just really love soulful, gritty music. I’m very inspired by ragtime music, and I love Sarah Vaughan. But I think it’s all interconnected. It all comes from the same energy.

PNU: You travel and perform a lot. I’m sure you have a lot in store you want to achieve over the next year. What are some things you really want to do to take things to the next level? 

KN: I feel like every year something even more incredible happens in my journey, and I never know what it is. I want to keep evolving as an artist and keep taking steps higher professionally. I would love to release my EP next year, get a manager that really supports me and understands what I want to do as an artist, musician, and as a creative person. As I have the ability and the resources to make it happen, I would love to have an agent as well. 2016 is about really solidifying a team of people.

PNU: All great things! What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

KN: Stay focused. Go for your dreams. Never let anyone throw you from your path. And it’s really important to have good grades, too—I believe in that—but to have a balance. I think I did alright as a 15-year-old! Actually, I would tell myself, “Love yourself.” I think that’s very important because when you're a teenager, you’re setting up how you feel about yourself for the rest of your life. So if you don’t love yourself, or you have issues with your image, it’ll play into your adulthood. 

PNU: When you think about women in music—it’s a male-dominated industry on all fronts, but women are there. In 2015’s Billboard Power 100 issue there are 15 women. And the top woman is Michelle Anthony at number twelve, which means there are eleven men before one woman. What are some things, if you think of any, that women in music, particularly, face? Maybe things that you as an artist face?

Love yourself. I think that’s very important because when you’re a teenager, you’re setting up how you feel about yourself for the rest of your life.

KN: It’s usually hard to be really respected as a musician. You’ll find that, at times, people interact with you differently than how they interact with men. I can’t be strong or matter-of-fact about my business without being called a name. If I’m about things happening a certain way, or I want things a certain way, and I’m about my business…I’m one thing. But if a man is that certain way, he’s a boss, a businessman. There’s definitely sexism, and all kind of ‘isms’ in the industry, and it’s frustrating at times. Just hearing those statistics is frustrating, even considering that there are more women in the world than men, which leads us to question why men can dominate one sector, or one industry, when there are more women in the world. I believe in making history and breaking through that glass ceiling and working passionately, hard, and collaborating with other incredible women to make a way for us, making opportunities for us, and allowing our business to be heard without discrimination for being women. But absolutely in the industry have I experienced a lot of things where it’s like “If I was a fucking man, this wouldn’t be happening.” It’s always a different response. Then there are other layers. I’m a black woman. But that’s a whole different conversation. 

I believe in making history and breaking through that glass ceiling.

PNU: Damn straight. If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be? 

KN: Jack White, Slash, Pharrell, CeeLo, Brittany from Alabama Shakes, Dave Grohl, and Mark Ronson. There are more, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

PNU: Your first album was independently released. Did that take a lot of work?

KN: I was fortunate enough to meet a gentleman who was a producer and handled all the music production. I was mainly responsible for writing and collaborating with him, and then the business side took a lot of work. I was reaching out to people — nobody knew who I was. I was running off the fact that I had performed at a lot of showcases, and that a few people may have potentially liked me. Things really started happening for me because of that project and because of my performances, but it was definitely a labor of love. I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of where I’ve come from, and what that represents. I still perform those songs today, and people know them. After The Voice people were buying the record, which is really good.

PNU: If you could perform anywhere in the world—on any stage—what would it be?

KN: I would, one day, love to perform at Carnegie Hall. 

PNU: If you could Tweet your purpose in 140 characters or less, what would it be?

KN: “My purpose is to inspire and change peoples’ lives through my voice.” That may not necessarily be my singing voice. That can be my voice as a whole — from the way I treat people, the opportunities I take that are not music driven, and the way I present myself. 

Follow Kimberly on Twitter: @kimnicky

Check out Kimberly's Music Glue profile!


Michelle Golden