Just because Nikka Costa has a YouTube channel called “Nikka’s Box” doesn’t mean she prefers to be in one.
The former international child pop star-turned-wild-haired, funk/soul chanteuse (daughter of late producer/Frank Sinatra arranger Don Costa) launched her viral-video page early last year, before she released her EP PRO*WHOA in June. Already 60 videos deep, the channel sees Costa doing live performances, either performing her own songs or covers that are often requested from fans. Occasionally, she’s accompanied by special guests like Raphael Saadiq, Doyle Bramhall II and Adam Lambert. “It’s just another platform,” says Costa, on the phone from her Los Angeles homebase. “It’s another kind of way to, you know, express myself when I don’t have a whole lot of touring or anything going on. And it’s a good opportunity to kind of get with other artists and do something that’s not a lot of pressure and can be a little bit of a hang. And I hope to do more of that kind of thing.”
The channel is also a chance for Costa to do some silly things, like do a rap version of the contemporary bedtime story Go the F**k to Sleep with sitcom vet Jenna Elfman or engage in a beat-box battle that’ll have you wondering if she does have some verbal sound-effects skills. (“I’ll never tell.”) Perhaps her silliest episode was also one that prompted YouTube to restrict it for general audiences due to adult content. It was a minute-long clip that had Costa promoting PRO*WHOA topless, a black bar with her EP’s title covering her naughty bits. “What’s a girl gotta do to get her music heard,” she says in the clip.
“Honestly, that episode was really kind of an afterthought,” she explains. “It was literally seven minutes—we filmed it and it was over. And it wasn’t really thought of very much because it doesn’t really show anything and it’s not really a big deal. But, you know, in America, it became a big deal. We got censored and it was all in the papers and everything. Hopefully, people come back for, you know, the kind of funny episodes and the ones where we sing songs and whatever the channel provides.”
These days, the 39-year-old Costa knows she needs to do whatever she can to get folks’ attention. The rock/electropop-fueled PRO*WHOA was released independently, on her own label, Go Funk Yourself, which she runs with her husband/longtime producer Justin Stanley. After spending most of the last decade under the thumb of major label Virgin, which released her albums Everybody Got Their Something (a masterpiece—just sayin’!) in 2001 and Can’tneveverdidnothin’ in 2005, Costa prefers to release music on her own, without being scrutinized by label execs.
“I think, as artists, we should be left alone to an extent to explore and to see what will come of being left alone,” she says. “I think that there are so many artists that are kind of steered by these huge corporations and what direction they should go, what kind of song they should sing. I mean, it can get really down to the minutia, where you end up not even being an artist but just being kind of a puppet. And I think that’s why music—popular music—is so similar to each other and there’s not a lot of variety.
“I was always arguing and always coming up against obstacles,” she continues, “and so, creatively, being independent is a far better kind of choice/option for me, because it’s really—you can just do it, you know?”
However, being your own boss in the music industry can have its limitations. Without a major label backing you, you don’t have the tools—a marketing and promotional team, for instance—needed to get your music out there. “It’s a very difficult situation, because it takes a lot of money to get things out there, and, you know, I’m not a millionaire,” says Costa.
Not to mention that doing things on your own can leave you quite tired. This explains why she hasn’t done a follow-up to PRO*WHOA, which was supposed to be one of many EPs she would drop over time. “That was the plan,” she says, laughing. “We had a lot going on. I had a lot going on. We were touring and I was doing ‘the Box.’ And, basically, I just didn’t find enough time to kind of really sit down and get another EP together in time to fulfill that dream. I’m also a mom, so time is super-precious.
“Obviously, I have songs in the can that exist that I could’ve easily slapped on an EP and said, ‘OK, here’s the next one.’ But, unless it feels really, really right to me, I tend to prefer not to put anything out until I’m really super-happy with it.”
Nevertheless, she continues to go on tour and wow people with her live shows (although she says she’ll take some time off after this lap of shows). She also has famous friends who often call on her for her pipes. When he went out on tour last year, Prince often hollered at Costa to join him onstage, doing tunes like Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
“We’ve been friends for over 10 years now,” she says. “So, every now and again, I’ll get a phone call, you know—‘Come up and sing with me’ or ‘Open up for me’ or something like that. So, it’s always a treat and an honor. We always try to, you know, move things around to be able to share the stage with him.”
So, with friends in high places, her enthusiastic work ethic and an easily addictive YouTube channel, Costa is happy to have, if not a huge fanbase, a dedicated one. “I’m just doing what I can and getting it out there as far as I can,” she says. “And, hopefully, the fans search it out to an extent. And, luckily, I have a reputation for making great records and for having a great live show. I feel like I work really hard to do those two things so that when people do stumble across me, new or old fans, they’re kind of surprised by the quality and excited by the quality—and, then, they tell their friends.”
Nikka Costa performs Fri., May 25, 8pm. $21.50. With Anya Marina. Sellersville Theater, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville. 215.257. 5808. st94.com
PW's Music Issue 2014