Although she had been a member of goth-leaning Bay area outfit Crimson Scarlet and some even more obscure anarcho-punk bands, Riki (a.k.a. Niff Nawor) appeared virtually out of nowhere in 2020 with her self-titled debut on the esteemed Dais label. One of our favorites that year, it mixed a bevy of synth pioneer influences with a touch of the ethereal and Riki’s equally enigmatic lyrics, sung in a breathy voice in both English and German. Released upon the bleak pandemic landscape, it was a salve of musical escapism.
In 2021, Riki followed up her debut with the equally stunning Gold. Created in collaboration with Telefon Tel Aviv’s Joshua Eustis, the album showed many of the same influences but broadened her scope. As shimmering as its namesake, Gold veers between the sultriness of the sax-laden “It’s No Secret” and “Florence and Selena” to the lush brilliance of “Marigold.” It is an album that transcends its synthetic DNA to be truly emotionally affecting.
With the pandemic purportedly receding, Riki has finally been able to tour and I was able to catch up with her at a recent stop at Cleveland’s Grog Shop opening for Choir Boy.
What’s it like playing shows and being on the road?
The last time I toured was three or four years ago. I don’t know if I really want to sleep on floors right now. It’s intense because I really don’t have a lot of stamina. We’re four shows in, but I’m sure I’ll get back into the swing of it. It’s still so much fun.
What’s it like to be in a room full of lots of people?
At the beginning, it seemed insane, like The Twilight Zone. But now I’m used to it. I got used to it really quickly. The world has changed and done a whole flip. A lot of us were so diligent, but now that we’ve gotten permission, it’s like we never have to wear a mask again.
In general, it seems like the pandemic has really had an effect on you because the first record came out right before everything shut down, so you weren’t able to tour.
Yeah, we had a release show for it then I had one more show that was like the last hurrah. It was already starting to feel weird. I think I actually got Covid at that show. It wasn’t full-on symptoms, but I had a weird rash and some other symptoms.
But yeah, I didn’t get to really tour for the first album, but I am fine with that. I am playing the songs now, and honestly, I like to take my time with things. If something’s not within my control, I am fine to chill for a minute. If it’s something that’s my choice, I will push and make things happen. But if there’s something I can’t do anything about, then a little procrastination is okay.
Did it push you to find creative ways to promote the record? It seems like your videos probably took some effort.
I was writing for a lot of the pandemic and my identity kind of shifted. I challenged myself to do things stylistically that I might not have done before just because I didn’t have a social niche. I might have been a little confused, but I learned a lot about myself. I think everyone did when confronted with isolation. You have to face some uncomfortable things. All in all, it was really positive for my creative output, even though there are things already in some of the videos… like that’s not how I would wear my hair! But I didn’t know, I was by myself.
Let’s talk about identity. When that first record came out, the way the press release read was that Riki was the project of visual artist Niff Nawor. So what’s the separation between the two and do you see this as a project?
I do because I don’t see it fully as me. In real life, I’m very low-key. It’s very much me, but it also channels certain energies. I look at it as a project, as an outlet that I wouldn’t otherwise have. And visual is a huge part of it, as well as music obviously.
So tell me about your visual art.
That’s my background. My mom is a painter and I come from an artistic upbringing. Both of my older siblings are also amazing artists. We grew up drawing and painting. The best way for me to achieve the aesthetic I’m trying to get is for me to do it myself. I have some technical skills to do it and it’s a lot of fun for me.
Has music started to take more precedence over visual art or do the two work hand-in-hand?
If I wasn’t doing music and making Riki and all the things that go along with it, I wouldn’t have done things like experimenting with film. It gives me an outlet for things like costuming and other things that I have always been interested in. It’s a platform for me to do more and explore more, and I actually have an audience that is looking at it.
Did you always intend to do music? I know you were in that band Crimson Scarlet. Was that a happy accident or were you actively looking to do something musically?
It was a happy accident when it comes to who I met through it because those people ended up being very instrumental in how my music panned out. But since I was a little kid, it was something I’ve wanted to do. I was very obsessive about listening to music and worshipping musicians and wanting to be like them. Crimson Scarlet wasn’t my first band, but it was the first band that I toured with and had some people excited about it.
Were the other bands similar musically or were you doing death metal or something?
My first band was probably closer to death metal! It was like an ambient metal thing. I grew up in Portland and there’s a lot of that kind of stuff. Then the next two were noisy punk stuff. For those, I wasn’t really contributing creatively. I was like the trained monkey on bass with someone showing me what to play. It was pretty frustrating as it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. However, I was so excited to be playing shows and to be part of a band.
So were you at home tinkering on things on your own while you were doing that?
Yeah, I was, but I didn’t really start writing my own songs until around the Crimson Scarlet phase. That’s when I got more confident and had more technical skills with synthesizers and programming so doing something on my own wasn’t out of my reach.
Backtracking a bit, going back to the pandemic, you actually made Gold during the pandemic. Were you and Joshua working remotely or did you actually get together?
We did get together. Luckily, he lives in Pasadena and I live in Hollywood. We were very comfortable. Josh is married and has his household, but I wasn’t seeing any other people besides them.
You were part of their Covid bubble?
Yeah, we bubbled for sure!
Being in such an insular situation, do you think it seeped into the record musically or lyrically?
Absolutely, musically in the way I was describing about the stylistic choices. In a way, I was much more free because I didn’t have any sort of pattern. It was like whatever goes, and Josh is very open-minded. Working with him was a lot of fun, and we did whatever ideas struck us. Lyrically, a lot of the songs are directly pandemic-related. Like “It’s No Secret” is about trying to live with things that are difficult, but also trying to remember cycles happen and things will change. Spring will spring again even though it’s winter and dead right now.
How would you compare your process for making the first record with making Gold?
Making Gold was a lot more open. The demos that I made for both records were both pretty fleshed out. The first record was more straightforward. Gold was more of a creative collaboration with Josh. It was more like we were in a band.
And have you seen any carryover from Crimson Scarlet?
I usually don’t hear about them, but I still keep in touch with the singer. But the last two nights, I’ve had people tell me they’ve been following me since Crimson Scarlet, which is especially weird for out here. It was a time and place kind of thing.
Obviously, I don’t know what to expect tonight or how you’re going to present the music, but is it challenging playing live?
I love playing live. It’s so much fun. I’ve been doing backing tracks just because I want to be able to perform. At first, I thought it wasn’t going to be fun for people to watch, but I tried playing with a band and it’s totally different. I love playing with just me because I get full control of expression, and I get more into it because I don’t have to worry about technical stuff.
You were saying that Riki is somewhat of a persona, but do the songs come from personal experiences or…
Fantasy? There is certainly an element of fantasy. If it was straight-up personal stories it would be kind of banal. But yeah, some of the songs are fiction. Like “Napoleon,” for example, I didn’t hit the dance floor with Napoleon. “Marigold,” I wasn’t in any kind of love relationship like that when I wrote it. I just thought it would be cool.
I like the video for “Marigold.” Was that an homage to Madonna’s Gaultier look?
I was working with a big crew on that one. It was an interesting experience because a lot of the stuff has been very DIY where I am in control of everything. Of course, I still approved everything, but it was more of a collaborative effort. Gaultier was an inspiration for the stylist who made that dress. The video turned out very stylish.
You mentioned needing to be in control. Is that generally your MO?
It’s been a life-long struggle. I’ve gone through phases of being very soft-spoken. Maybe women, in general, don’t want to say no or push their agenda. So it’s been a journey for me because I have such a strong will to have my way with this project and art in general. Maybe it’s part of the reason I was into punk because of the outlook to be outside the status quo and be able to say no. Meanwhile, I was still agreeing to things.
Obviously, everybody tends to point to the ’80s when it comes to your music. Is that an accurate reference point for you?
I think my music is so steeped in the music that I love and have grown up listening to and have explored on my own that it would be hard for me to do something that doesn’t sound somewhat ‘80s-inspired. But I don’t think it’s like ’80s worshipping, I just have those sensibilities.