Nikki Jean collaborates with stars on 'Pennies in a Jar'

Posted: August 07, 2011

When it seemed as though Pennies in a Jar - the album that Nikki Jean cowrote with such legendary tunesmiths as Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and Bob Dylan - might never come out, the Philadelphia songwriter needed to cheer herself up.

Last winter she'd been dropped by Columbia Records and had been selling homemade cookies on the Internet to make her rent. So here's what the singer, who grew up in Minnesota and has lived here since 2005, told herself: "I said, 'Man, I know that I've done something that is really cool. And that has never been done before.' "

She's got that right.

Pennies in a Jar (***½), released last month on S-Curve Records, is more than impressive on its musical merits. It offers a familiar-but-fresh take on the pop stylings of the '60s and '70s, from the Motown bop of "My Love" (written with Lamont Dozier) to the hummable girl-group plea "What's a Girl Supposed to Do" (with Jeff Barry) to the silky "How to Unring a Bell" (with Philly soul architect Thom Bell).

The aforementioned heavyweights are all one-song-apiece collaborators on the album by the sweet-voiced piano player, who was born Nicholle Jean Harvey and moved to Philadelphia after graduating from Howard University. Pennies also pairs her up with other elder statesman (and -woman) songwriters such as Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Carly Simon, Luigi Creatore, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil.

So how did you hook up with so many luminaries for your debut album, Nikki Jean?

"I think the idea was just so crazy that nobody ever had it before," says Jean, 27, taking a seat at the Prohibition Taproom in the loft district after coolly posing for photos on a sweltering afternoon while singing songs from Singin' in the Rain and twirling around à la Gene Kelly.

The idea, as she explained it to her producer, Sam Hollander, was to "make the new Tapestry." That is, Carole King's 1971 mega-selling singer-songwriter standard-bearer.

The plan was to enlist not only King, but a wish list of songwriters who have been her favorites since she saw Irving Berlin's 100th birthday party special on TV when she was 5 years old, in 1988.

"Heaven, I'm in heaven," Jean coos, channeling Ella Fitzgerald on Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and flashing a radiant smile at the memory of the crush that she, the daughter of a black father who worked for government aid agencies and a white labor-lawyer mother, held for a Russian Jewish immigrant a mere 95 years her senior.

"When he died, you would have thought my favorite pet, favorite aunt, and favorite next-door neighbor had all died on the same day," Nikki Jean says. "Because his songs were like friends to me."

Her path to working with her esteemed collaborators was indirect. The singer, who now lives in Manayunk, stayed on in Philadelphia after going to a barbecue hosted by the Roots the summer after college. One day while she was playing piano at the Studio, the recording facility then owned by noted Philly producer Larry Gold, Roots Crew rapper Dice Raw asked her to join his rock band, the Disease. Within two weeks, the band, renamed Nouveau Riche, was opening for the Roots at the Kimmel Center.

Soon after, she was approached by the rising hip-hop star Lupe Fiasco's production team. She worked on a few songs for the Chicago emcee's 2008 album The Cool, and one, "Hip-Hop Saved My Life," became a breakout hit.

The next thing she knew, she was touring with Fiasco - who guests, along with the Roots' Black Thought, on Pennies' "Million Dollar Motel" - and had a new career awaiting her, singing hooks on rap songs.

She wanted to play piano instead. But, she says, music industry types "would say, 'Oh, like Alicia Keys. . . .' There's an inherent and subtle racism. . . . If you're black, you're pushed into urban music. . . . When you hear the people they compare you with, you're like, 'Wow! If I looked like Fiona Apple, would we be even having this discussion?' "

She found an ally in Hollander, the producer, who has had pop success with Gym Class Heroes, Katy Perry, and Philadelphia's Chiddy Bang. She was signed to Columbia in 2008, and with early adopters such as Hollander's friend Paul Williams, who wrote hits for the Carpenters and Three Dog Night in the 1970s, the project was off and running.

Getting storied song scribes to work with a little-known artist required hustle. "We went to a lot of awards shows, and we would roll up on people and harass them," she says, laughing. "And they felt harassed, too."

"There's never a good way to ask, because you know you're asking for something that is ridiculous. So you always try to do it really humbly."

That's how she approached Jeff Rosen, Dylan's manager, who explained that his Bobness doesn't write with people in person, but does occasionally let people complete unfinished songs. That was the case with "Steel and Feathers (Don't Ever)," the song for which the Bard wrote the melody and chorus, and Jean wrote the verses.

The Dylan collaboration happened after the singer had been dealt the news that Columbia, after nurturing the album for two years with a $200,000 budget, had decided not to release it. "I don't have any animosity toward them," she says. "A lot of doors were opened by that storied, iconic name."

She's philosophical since buying back her master recordings for a quarter of what they cost and signing in March with S-Curve, the boutique indie label that is also home to Care Bears on Fire and Diane Birch.

"One of the challenges is that big record companies are in the hit business. . . . I don't think there was a way to both honor the concept and honor these writers and who they are, and manipulate it into something that was going to be a Top 10 hit right now."

(A Columbia spokesman didn't respond to a request for a comment.)

The idea behind Pennies, Nikki Jean says, was "to try to learn as much as I could and to try to get inside their process. Of course to bring myself to the table, and my lyrics and my melodies. But just to try to learn."

And on that count, the album is an unqualified success, whether it turns into the next Tapestry or not.

"There's an intangible quality about them," she says of her Pennies cowriters. "You can feel the air get charged when they tap into that thing that they do. When you see them in the act of creation, and you're a part of it, and you're throwing out ideas, and they're throwing out ideas . . . it's magical . . . .

"I wouldn't even want to sell it, because it's priceless."


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, ddeluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://www.philly.com/inthemix.

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