Riiki on Stanning Beyoncé, Moshing, and Writing Music in Her Car [Q&A]

Riiki's sipping an English breakfast tea she insists I don't pay for, talking about launching a pop career in the peak of a global pandemic. While it's an understandably daunting prospect for any young artist, Riiki's focused on the positives. "We’re going to see a lot of artists people may not have heard of," she says of the increased focus on New Zealand music - no international popstar is playing here soon unless they want to quarantine in a Hamilton Novotel for two weeks. "But that’s really cool," she adds, "because there’s so much talent here."

One such talent is herself. Riiki launched her solo project last year, making mellow pop that makes you want to exist in a perpetual summer. Last year's High Heights is a bass-driven bop that showcases her knack for infectious melodies, and was inspired by watching seagulls fight over a chip. Her latest single, "Share Your Luv", hears her honey-glazed voice sing about monsters lurking in the dark and someone not caring enough. The track's undeniable groove makes even that subject matter sound fun.

Riiki may be new, but the Wellingtonian has been honing a collection of skills since roughly the time she could walk. She can sing and dance and act. She plays piano, produces, and caught the performance bug when her parents convinced her to enter a talent competition in a mall. She had a stint in an indie rock band during high school, but the decision to go solo came while gaining a music degree at Wellington's Massey University. When a friend and fellow student asked her to play a showcase three weeks away, she swiftly pulled together a set, a backing band, and the all-important popstar name. "I'm not going to advertise myself as Raquel Abolins-Reid," she laughs. "So long."

On an icy Wellington day sliced with horizontal rain, we sat down with Riiki to chat about stanning Beyoncé, getting sweaty in a mosh and writing music in the car.

Ones To Watch: So you got your start in shopping malls?

RIIKI: Ohhh, you’ve been digging. (Laughs)

I did a little Google.

Yeah, I started doing mall competitions when I was about eight years old. Mum and dad were like, ‘Go on stage with your brother, it’ll be so cute.' So we entered this talent search in Porirua mall, and did it every year, all the way through primary school. Then I was like, 'Noo, I’m too old Mum! I don’t want to do this!'

Did you win?

I remember getting to the finals of things, but never won.

Their loss. So that kick started everything?

I think it kick started loving to perform. I’ve always been into the performing arts. I started dancing from a young age, about four years old. It’s weird 'cause when you’re young you don’t know what you love more, but dancing was my main thing growing up. Then I tapped into the singing world, and was like, 'Oh my god I love this too.’ Then I started acting, and was all - Productions! Shows!

All the things! What dance did you do?

I went to a couple of dance schools, started doing jazz and ballet. And then at intermediate I started a new dance school with my best friends doing hip hop.

When did you decide to give music a proper go?

I did the band thing in high school. We made indie rock, which is funny because people are like, 'you don’t make that now,’ and I’m like, 'Noooo.’ But writing as an individual artist probably only started second to last year of school. And then I kind of didn’t want to do anything else. But I had heaps of mates who did comms, or law, and go to Dunedin [university], and I was like no no no… Not for me.

Weren’t keen on going down and drinking ten kegs?

No… I kind of went through a stage of being like, is it dumb to do [music]… Not dumb, but in my head I was like, I feel like i should be doing something that I know is gonna get me a certain job.

Yeah, there can be an unspoken pressure to finish school, then get a degree, then go and get a normal job. Which is dumb in itself. Was choosing music a hard decision?

I only made it hard on myself. My family and my friends were like, just do it. I probably scared myself a bit. But I couldn't can’t imagine myself sitting in an office, or doing anything else. So I was like, I’m going to do it.

What’d you grow up listening to?

I love Beyoncé, she was my main childhood person. And still is - but when I was young I had all her merch and everything, it was crazy. I was like - you dance, you sing, you act. That’s the dream.

Triple threat.

But it’s really changed, because I have two older siblings and one of them is really into the whole hip hop scene, and my other one is really alternative, and into the rock scene. And mum loved jazz, dad loved funk. So there’s a lot of different influences I’ve been around. Also, I think a big part of it is actually dancing my whole life, and being really involved with the hip hop world there. And now it’s a big mush of everything. I don’t know, it’s so hard. I could pull out Spotify…

Who was your most listened to Spotify artist last year?

Ooo, Toro y Moi. I love Toro y Moi. I think James Blake was second.

Pop music's so broad these days, and encompasses so many genres.  Do you feel like that’s more of a thing you can do now - that there’s less of a pressure to be more conventionally 'pop'?

Genre blending is almost becoming a bit more trendy now, and I love that. Just make whatever the fuck you want. But I think sometimes there’s maybe a bit of pressure, especially in the pop world. Something about this whole commercial music thing, and this whole making money thing… I don’t really know how I feel about it. I only really want to do music stuff if the forefront is having fun and creating what I like to create. And if the other stuff comes, then that’s awesome.

How do you go about writing songs? Do you start with lyrics or melodies, or just humming away in the shower?

Sometimes my ideas come to me when I’m driving, and I’m like no no no, focus on driving. Mums already told me off about it. But I think a lot of the time, I’m inspired by an emotion, then go straight to writing the instrumental first before lyrics. I kind of treat it like a diary. I don’t go in with the intention of like, 'Ok, I’m going to write a song today.' I’m like, 'Ok, I  feel this, let’s go write a song.' Get it out.

How was lockdown for you, have you been writing stuff?

I mean, no one would know, because I've only released three songs and haven’t done a whole lot of performing yet, but I have got quite a big collection of tracks I’ve been working on. I’d like to put an EP out. And shows, now that we can.

You’re going to be one of the first artists to be performing in live venues! Safely!

It’s crazy, people will be able to mosh and stuff.

We can get sweaty and touch a human.

It’s exciting.

Are we going to get dancing in your live shows? Tight choreography?

(squeals)

Please say yes.

It’s funny because on the D-low i’m like, that’d be sick. But on the outside I’m like, nah girl. I’d turn up to my first gig and start doing it and everyone would be like, 'Who is this girl?!' That would be a dream eventually. But for now we’ll just get to know people.

What's on your music bucket list?

I think a lot of my main bucket list things are collaborations with people.

Who’s your number one?

I'd love to work with Toro y Moi. Really random, because our music's so different, so I don’t know if it would ever happen. Same with Tom Misch. And I have a major girl crush on Dua Lipa. She’s so hot. I think an opening slot for someone like her would be fun.

Bring Dua to New Zealand.

She was supposed to come! There are so many people who were supposed to come.

Do you think that there's more eyes on NZ music now the rest of the world's basically shut off?

100%, I’m really excited about it.

Who're your local Ones To Watch then?

Jack Berry, Nic & Reuben… They go under this thing called Garbage Records. Then there’s a lot of alternative bands, like Mermaidens… I'm so bad at remembering them all. But there's a lot of great stuff.

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