Yahoo! exclusive: Teen vocalist Nikki Yanofsky advises bullied kids to “Believe”

Thomas Bink
Daily Brew

Her voice was widely considered to be the best thing about CTV's Vancouver Olympics theme song, "I Believe," but jazz fans have long been singing the praises of 18-year-old vocal prodigy Nikki Yanofsky since her debut six years ago at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

With her second studio album set for release, the Montreal native talks exclusively to Yahoo! Canada News about the evolution of her voice, the lasting impact of "I Believe," and what it's like to survive high school as one of Canada's most famous students.

You have a new album on the way, but there's no specific release date. When should fans put a circle on their calendar?

I never like to commit to a specific date. I want it to be absolutely perfect before it's released and I don't want to get people's hopes up with a day and then I find out there's something I'm not completely happy with and have to change it. So I've just kept it kind of vague in that way just because I want to surprise people.

Any sneak previews you can reveal?

The most sneak peek I can probably give is the content. I've been keeping it very mysterious and under wraps and that's the whole theme of the album: mystery and a cool, old-style creepiness. It's really, really cool.

You've said in past interviews that you don't want to be classified as a jazz singer because you'd like to sing all kinds of music. Did you branch out into other genres on this new record?

When I say that I don't consider myself a jazz singer it's because jazz singer, in my mind is in a traditional sense, singing standards and that old songbook. The reason I shy away from saying I'm a jazz singer is that I think people hold you to that and I don't want to disappoint people by not singing what's in their head as what a jazz singer would sing.

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How important is songwriting to you?

It's extremely important. I'm a very expressive person. I've been writing poetry since the fifth grade. The first song I wrote was in the third grade. I remember it was called "The Fairies on my Purple Pajamas." It was very deep (laughs). I think songwriting is how an artist has their own voice. There are so many brands of artists that are more manufactured and that's totally cool if that's their thing. Me, as an artist, I'm more outspoken. I like to have my own voice.

Are you able to describe that voice?

I think to articulate what I am as an artist, I represent integrity and realness and at the same time a little bit of eeriness in my music and that goes along with the old-style sound that I have. But the biggest thing that I'd say is that I'm singing jazz to a new generation and this album is a reflection of that.

Two years in are you still feeling the impact of "I Believe"?

I definitely do get asked about it a lot and most people that know about me from that song are completely surprised that I sing jazz because they're like, 'Wait I thought you sing pop ballads.' It's been a huge blessing, that song. It's been a way to get my name out there especially because it's so beautiful and such a powerful message for charities like Sick Kids. It's been a lucky thing for me.

Speaking of Sick Kids Foundation, you've been involved with them for a long time. What's the nature of your work for them?

It's an important cause for me because it's hard to wrap your head around what these kids have to go through on a daily basis and they're so brave. I do whatever I can do for them. In this particular instance we're working with Swarovski Crystal and Yorkdale [Mall] and 100 per cent of the proceeds go to Sick Kids.

There's been a lot of talk about bullying these days. What was it like for you to be your high school's most famous student? Were the other students accepting or did they give you a hard time?

I got bullied really badly. I was 12 when I sang at the Jazz Fest and that's when the bullying started. People put gum in my hat four times to get it suck in my hair. They put it in my boots. I know who did it but they never got caught. In high school it continued for the first few years. I had my group of friends, but I would sometimes go sit in the art room during lunch and draw because I didn't want to sit by myself in the cafeteria. So I think that's part of the reason why I'm so vocal now. But I'm also really lucky I had the support system I had when I was going through that stuff.

It must have been strange to be straddling two very different worlds: the school world where kids were so nasty and the adult world where you were a nationally-renowned artist.

It was kind of strange going from the Olympics, singing in front of 3.2 billion people, to the next day going back to school, but it was normal in a way because it was all I knew. The kids didn't really treat me differently. I definitely got some more looks from people who hadn't known I existed before (laughs). But when "I Believe" came out people in my grade would sing it to other people in my grade who didn't like me, kind of rubbing it in their face, which was kind of funny but embarrassing. I had to tell them to stop!

Now that you've cleared that minefield, what would you tell kids who are also bullied for being "different"?

I always tell people it doesn't matter what others say about you because those aren't the people you want as friends anyway and you should let it be water off a duck's back. But at the same time I've been there and I know how hard it is to put that into action. It's almost like tricking your mind. You have to keep thinking it before you believe it.

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