Nina Lee is clearly not just your average 17 year old. The New Yorker is a talented singer/songwriter who belts out lyrics with so much soul that she belongs along the ranks of Amy Winehouse, Adele, et al. If you don’t trust us, take a listen to her latest, a five track EP titled Snapshots. Curiously enigmatic – though she does a really amazing job at explaining the intent and direction of the work -, the EP does nothing if not floor you with her incredible talent.
As someone who seems to have been born with music coming out of her, Nina Lee is an impressive, well-spoken, vibrant human being. And we know all of this because we got a moment to ask her a few questions leading up to the holidays. So here she is, unfiltered and incredible as ever.
What was the first album or song you remember ever listening to, and who introduced it to you?
Growing up I remember listening to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons among others from that generation all the time in the car with my grandpa. My sister and I were the only little girls who knew every word to “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, and “Sherry”. Some of my fondest childhood memories are driving in the car with him and belting out “Oh What a Night”. I am the first grandchild, so the two of us have a very special bond, and he is such a huge supporter of my passion. Having such a strong family unit helped me to be the person that I am today. Music during my grandpa’s era seems like it was more authentic than what we now hear every day on the radio. There was just a voice and instruments, which made me appreciate it even more. That’s why in my own music I like to focus on having as much authenticity and rawness as I can.
Was there a moment that you realized you had the talent and the drive to pursue music?
I was always told from a young age that I was a very musical person, and I was not afraid of being in the spotlight . . . in fact, I thrived on the spotlight. My parents saw that performing was when I was my best self. When I used to get overwhelmed as a little girl the one thing that always calmed me down was the ocean. My mom would sometimes just pack the car up and drive to the beach when I needed it because the cold rush of water was exhilarating for me. When I was in the water I would float looking up at the sky, humming melodies and feeling peaceful. I knew that singing gave me that same adrenaline rush, but a million times better.
So, the way I think of it is that the ocean calmed me down, but the music drove me. My music has pushed me through every difficulty in my life because, like my family, it is a constant. I know it sounds like I am personifying music but really, even though it is intangible, it is something you feel all around you. As I have grown older, my hunger and drive has just increased. That’s how I know that it is what I am meant to do with my life.
Your voice is absolutely stunning. Did you have professional training at all?
Thank you! I guess I was born with a natural ability to sing, which I am so grateful for. But I’ve also worked really hard to condition it and make it even better. When I was younger, and even now, when I feel insecure or unsure of myself I know I have my secret weapon up my sleeve. No person sings exactly the same, so when I surprise people with my voice it makes me feel more confident of myself. Since I was a toddler, I had taken music classes and performance classes and started vocal lessons at the age of 5. I currently have a great music coach, Kate Baker, who helps me to use my voice in a healthy way, and maintain my sound. She was with me through the whole process of recording “Snapshots,” which was so beneficial for me. I just have a really strong support system that is encouraging me, which makes me even more excited for what’s to come.
Your latest EP “Snapshots” follows in the same footsteps of your previous releases, leading us on a narrative about your family members. What made you choose that theme for your EP? Was it a concerted effort?
Yes, “Snapshots” is a series of pieces of my life and my family history all entwined in an EP. I am beyond proud of this work of art and I had amazing people to work with to make my vision a reality. “Snapshots” stems from my incredibly strong bond with my family. I am so lucky to have parents who are always supporting what I do, and a little sister who could not be more reassuring and encouraging. My sister made the painting that is the cover of the EP. The single from the EP is called “Airborne”, which is about my late great grandfather and my great grandmother who is now 94. He was a paratrooper in WWII in the 101st Airborne, while she always held him up at home. When he passed away, I didn’t know how to convey my feelings to my great grandma, and how to tell her how much I admired her and how heroic she was. I think that from that idea of family and love, I was able to make all the songs have that sentiment within it. I had so much help from my vocal teacher, musicians, and my producer Steve Greenwell. It takes a village, and it really took a lot of people to create what you can listen to now. I am so grateful for everyone who has taken part in making “Snapshots” and everyone who has listened!
What is your writing process like? Do you start with a melody, start with concept, brain dump lyrics? Take us inside it all!
Writing is never the same for me. I don’t sit down at a set time and force myself to do it. It is really an organic thing, sometimes I have a melody with nonsense words that I will switch out later, and sometimes I have a chord progression I want to put lyrics to. Sometimes I work with co-writers and sometimes it’s all me. When I was younger, I would just make up melodies with words that did not fit together but it is just what came out, so I went with it. Now I am more precise on the message that I am trying to get across. Lyrics usually come with a melody or after the melody, not by itself because I like to have the idea in my head first. Also, it depends what instrument I am writing on because the baritone uke gives a different vibe then the tenor uke, and definitely gives a different vibe than the piano. The instrumentals usually start out pretty simple as a skeleton for me to expand on and get more intricate as the process moves forward. A lot of the time I will write part of a verse or the chorus and sit with it for a while to make sure that I really like it. I want each line to mean something and not overall just have a loose meaning, because it doesn’t sound as important to me. Everything in my life, I like to be planned out in advance, and I am not a fan of being spontaneous because the unknowns are scary, but with music I am the exact opposite. I tune into everything with no predetermined method, which allows me to make even better music when I don’t overthink it and question the process.
How did you choose which family members to write about?
It is all organic, because some songs don’t even start out about someone, but then I realize when it’s finished that it does represent someone in my family. For example, in “I Got This Light,” I wrote it not having any particular person in mind. When I sang it full through and was able to hear every word I realized that it was my interpretation of my mom. I subconsciously explained everything that my mom is to me; she is my rock, support, and go to person. I also write about friends and the way I feel about them. Sometimes people can be disappointments and not only positive which also makes for very good song ideas. I heard someone say once, “That you shouldn’t date a songwriter, because you know when you break up you will have a pretty bad song written about you.” I think that’s true! I have so many songs in progress about members of my family including my mom and dad and how they met, my sister, etc. I think that with family you never can run out of stories to write, so I have an unlimited supply.
What was studio life like for this one? Did you have go-to snacks, a strict schedule, brainstorming time? Immerse us in the experience!
I don’t eat right before I sing, so I eat breakfast and then sing until we are finished. When instrumentals are being done though my go-to is always sushi. I had an amazing studio experience with my producer Steve Greenwell and great musicians including Aaron Comess on drums, Nadia DiGiallonardo on piano, Richard Hammond on bass, and my dad on guitar. My favorite part was when we did the backup vocals because it was just me and Steve and we found a groove and went with it. For me, making music is the magic of it all so whatever way works is what I go with. Whenever I am recording, I always tend to have a cup of hot water and honey to coat my voice and try not to speak so much in between takes. I usually feel like I sound different at different times of the day so in the morning is when I hit the low notes, and throughout the afternoon I can get to the higher ones. It’s just something I love to do and it’s fun for me to be able to experience it in all different ways, with all different people.
How do you imagine people listening to this album?
I imagine people listening to my album in any way they want. Everyone can interpret this EP differently and that is the beauty of it. When I wrote each song, it connected with me in a specific way, but the connection someone else feels may be totally different than mine, which is what I was hoping for. I want people to connect to my songs on all different levels. I would love people to be able to jam out at the top of their lungs on a long road trip, or listen while decorating the house for the holidays with my songs playing in the background. I only imagine this because these are the times that are most memorable for me when I listen to music. The beauty of music and art is that everyone can see things differently, which is something that is really beautiful. If I can reach people through my music, however they listen to it will make me happy.
We get the impression that you might be more of an old soul, especially considering the grace with which you conduct yourself and the music you write. Would you agree with that?
Thank you, that’s so nice of you to say! I guess that’s true in the sense that I do not act like a normal 17 year old. I am not caught up in the petty things of high school even though they can be tough waters to navigate. I connect with people who are more mature and relate with them. A lot of people I’ve met have told me they think I’m an old soul because of the way I write my music and how I sing. It makes me think of this time when I was younger and my parents found an old Renoir painting that looked exactly like me. It was from the late 1800’s, and it was a dead ringer for me, so I can’t help wonder if I have had past experiences and past lives which make me an old soul! I like to connect with people not only on a surface level, but I invest a lot into making a strong relationship. That is why when I love, I love so deeply and fiercely and when I hurt I feel the pain so much more because of the love I once felt.
You sing about a lot of very strong women in your life. Why do you think it’s important that their stories, in particular, be told?
For me, I write about strong female role models that I believe have shaped me into the person that I am. My family has always been such a strong outlet for me, and my mom especially has played a very important role in my life. She is the person I always look up to, and my best friend. When I was little, I wanted to grow up to be my mom. Everyone in my opinion should have the opportunity to thrive and be their best self and no matter what have support to do it. My goal is to be that person for others who feel as if they don’t have that support, and through my music hopefully there can be some comfort for them.
Who is your favorite superhero? Substantiate your claim.
I don’t know if I have a favorite super hero but I definitely have a favorite Disney Princess. As a little girl, they were the superheroes that I watched on television. I connected most with Ariel. I love The Little Mermaid and knew it back to front. When I was little, I had bright red hair like Ariel and I loved that she sang all the time, just like me. I also to this day have always loved the ocean, and the idea of living in the ocean seemed magical to me. Whenever my sister and I dressed up as princesses I always insisted on being Ariel. Then, I saw it on Broadway and I was blown away. I thought all of the theatrics were amazing and I loved every part of it. I saw the set afterwards and I was in awe of how they made this movie come to life. I always thought I was a princess like Ariel and wanted to be a singing mermaid when I grew up. I guess I fulfilled the singing part, but I’m pretty sure I will never be a mermaid!
What is the best piece of advice you have ever gotten?
The best advice I have even gotten was from my mom. She always told me, “There is no need to push people down because they will fall down on their own.” That actually is a line in one of my upcoming songs. This advice allowed me to see that mean people will destroy themselves on their own. There is no need for me to point it out. Eventually what goes around comes around and it catches up with you. That’s why I always try to be nice to everyone so no one ever thinks of me in that way.
The holidays are coming up… any special traditions you’d like to share with us?
My mom is Jewish, and my dad is Italian Catholic so we celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas. Every year my grandma (my dad’s mom) sends us zucchini bread, which is a family recipe and something I always look forward. When I think of the holidays, that is one of the things that always comes up. Also, for as long as I can remember, my family has always gone on a horse and buggy rides through Central Park during the holidays. The whole city is full of lights and the holiday spirit is in the air.
Doing anything fun this year for the holidays?
This year will be spent with family. Wherever we go for the holidays my mom and dad always make sure that we have family close. That is one of the best lessons and values that I think a parent can instill in a child. Understanding and not taking for granted the family that you have no matter what the situation may be. I am lucky enough to spend it with a very loving and supportive bunch that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
If you could perform with any artist, who would you perform with and what would you perform?
Hands down Billy Joel. He is my favorite storyteller of all. All his songs resonate with me for one reason or another and singing with him would be singing with my idol. I would sing any song with him because I believe he makes each song so powerful. My family and I went to see him perform at Madison Square Garden and I turned to my mom and was like, “Imagine what it would be like to sing with him.” One of my favorite songs of his is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” so I think that would be a really fun song to sing with him because we could make some really cool harmonies!
What is your favorite word?
I like the word “humuhumunukunukuapua’a,” which is a type of reef triggerfish. I just think its fun to say and fun to spell. The name originates from Hawaii and I think that it sounds very tropical!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am just so glad I was able to share this stuff with you guys, and hopefully I can come back soon and talk about more upcoming projects that are in the works. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me!
Keep up with Nina Lee here.