MusicMusic Features

Nia J Explores New Sounds in Debut Album ‘Melomania’

Love, loss and a whole range of genres

a portrait of local singer-songwriter, Nia J, sitting on the ground wearing headphone while playing the keyboard
Nia J (Photo by Alyssa Johnson)

The last we heard from Charlotte singer-songwriter Nia J, we followed her on a winding sonic journey in her debut EP Rabbit Hole (2021). Her artistic berth examined the emotional dissonance of life’s sweetness and absurdity through a diaristic songwriting style that felt simultaneously intimate and universal.

If this sojourn in Rabbit Hole introduced us to Nia J’s creative vision, her debut full-length album Melomania, which she released with a show at the NoDa Art Hole on June 28, serves as the burgeoning pop artist’s definitive statement.

The 10-song LP explores similar themes as her EP did — lack and abundance, love and loss, etc. — articulated through her signature cutting lyricism and a shapeshifting sound that spans rock, R&B, pop and folk.

“I think there’s definitely a major shift with this album,” Nia J told the Queen City Nerve. “I’ve had a lot more time experiences and practice with writing. I tried to be a little bit more open with how I wrote things, like what I was willing to share.”

This writing practice has manifested in a masterful use of clichés that imbue a folk sensibility — using the imagery and language of the everyday to expose mundane profundity—to her pop performance. Throughout Melomania, Nia J deftly manipulates almost stale common phrases into poignant meditations on growing up.

At times, she uses cliché to explore the normal yet piquant pains of young adulthood. On the opening track “Melomania,” she reflects softly over a simple ukelele strum, “Since I was a little girl, I knew I was meant for more/ wish I was sure…

This gutting turn at the end of the phrase opens the narrative as the bass joins the ensemble. “I’ve got this feeling that I’ll be erased if I close my eyes/ so I’m wide awake…” The song crescendos as she pleads, “Will somebody save me?” before returning to the bare ukelele melody.

Elsewhere, she leverages the cliché to capture the joyful highs of life like the sunset drives of halcyon midsummer days.

Girls just want to have fun, so do I/ chasing after the sun until we die…” she intones in a feathery voice on “GWHF.” As her harmonies echo her final syllable of each line in the chorus, backed by guitar/drum/bass trio reminiscent of ’80s pop-punk, you can almost feel heat of the orange and pink sun setting on your face.

These twists and turns of the album — each song containing a universe within itself — are magnified by the production and engineering of Nia J’s collaborators, Ike Byers (BEKI) and Te’Jani Inuwa. The trio worked together seamlessly, despite sometimes collaborating remotely and sometimes coming together across the state as they each moved away from and back to Charlotte. Their chemistry enabled a certain kind of playfulness in the construction of the album’s sound.

As Nia J shared with the Nerve, “It was challenging the type of vision that I had for the songs, and Ike was super talented, so he’s capable of anything.”

Byers’ production and guest verse on the cheeky track “Lemonade” was supplemented by engineering from Inuwa.

“Between Nia’s songwriting and vocal performance and Ike’s unique sample selection and use of instruments, I knew this was going be a such a fun project to work on,” Inuwa reflected. “You can’t pin down a reference for Ike’s production because it’s so unique and uses a lot of uncanny sounds and rhythms.”

a portrait of Nia J wearing all white kneeling on the ground with a bed in the background
Nia J (Photo by Alyssa Johnson)

The power of this collaboration is at its acme on the album’s finale, “Encore!” After a brief hook from Nia J on rebirth after the pain of adversity, Charlotte artist Tré Ahmad raps a stirring verse on the ambiguous payoff of pop vulnerability.

Don’t know if trauma belongs in songs/ I’m sick bro. Why are they feeling this?” Ahmad laments. As the verse turns, however, they elevate an octave and narrate a visit from an angel in a dream who reflects to them, “You done made mistakes/ but you also made a way/ That’s how you create…

It is a fitting finale to an album that, in spite of various moments of despair in breakup ballads like “Me Too” and the luxuriating ecstasies of radio-ready bops like “Fan Girl” and “Birth of Phoenix,” ultimately examines what it means to continue to grow even after you’ve grown up.

This ambiguity is perhaps best articulated in “20 and 5,” which features Nia on the keys, reflecting on the contradictions of her journey: “20 and 5, barely a dime, what a time/ God you were right, enough with the signs, spare me the strife/ at least it’s mine…

With songs like this the album is neither a celebration of carefree youthfulness nor a navel-gazing diaristic confessional. Rather, through Nia J’s skillful penmanship and the project’s sonic expansiveness, Melomania embodies the very contradictions that its title connotes.

Read more: Nia J Brings Us Down the ‘Rabbit Hole’ with New EP

Once unmoored from the (dis)comforts of childhood and adolescence, we have no choice but to take the melancholy with the passion, the ego with our insignificance, and the pain with the power of growth. Luckily we have albums like Melomania that remind us to, as Nia J puts it on the album’s finale, “Soak up the sun over your skin/ It’s not over/ It isn’t over…

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