It was written in her genes. Born the daughter of an Italian mother (a classical pianist), and granddaughter to an opera singer, it was only natural that Niia Bertino (aka Niia) would inherit both a love of music and of the theatrical. In fact, despite being well on her way to fame as a bonafide pop singer, it seems that Bertino’s life has always seemed to cross paths with that of film.
Bertino grew up watching Italian cinema and absorbing their scores. One might be surprised by just how fluent the 28-year-old Bertino is in her knowledge. As we chat, the slender, model-like chanteuse starts rattling off names of directors and composers: Sergio Leone, Morricone, Argento, Barry …
Excitedly, I share with her my own fascinations with film scores, mentioning that Thomas Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk, is behind the score of the deeply disturbing (and equally controversial) French film, Irréversible. Bertino exclaims that the film is actually one of her favorites, pointing to a tattoo on her arm of one of the film’s proclamations, but in Italian of course: “IL TEMPO DISTRUGGE” (“Time destroys everything.”)
Surrounded by opera and jazz from a young age, her adolescence was unsurprisingly marked by a fever for the arts: while most girls skipped school to go the mall, Bertino was skipping class to go play classical piano. She remarks, “It’s always what I wanted to do instead of homework. I would skip class to play piano in the chapel, which was, like, so dorky.”
There was never a moment where she contemplated a career in anything but music, and yet it wasn’t really a conscious choice either, she tells me. It just never occurred to her to do anything else, at least while growing up. Not only were her mother and grandmother both performers, even her extended family had trained at Juilliard. Bertino herself began performing from the age of 13, was invited to Berklee College of Music’s summer program at 14, and after graduating high school, found her way to New York to study at the prestigious New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music as a Jazz vocal major.
With friends constantly asking when she would be performing, Bertino, lamenting the fact that she hadn’t composed any original music of her own, ended up taking her obsession with John Barry (a frequent composer of James Bond scores) and turning it into pop-up vocal performances with her fellow musician friends backing her as a full 14-piece orchestra. Word about these nostalgic 007 happenings grew and somehow, eventually Bertino was discovered by none other than Wyclef Jean. “I met Wyclef at his recordings studio one night while I was scheduled to record a jingle for a commercial. I used to sing jingles to make money when I lived in the city and attended New School. It was one of those right-place, right-time moments. My session got canceled and he happened to be in the other room.”
Dropping out of school to go on tour with Jean as a backup singer, today Bertino is striking out on her own. Robin Hannibal (Rhye, Quadron) produced her debut EP, Generation Blue, and she’s now preparing for the release of her full-length, from which she recently released the single “Bored to Death”. Already, others are taking notice, with press in Billboard, the FADER, Complex, Vogue, Interview, and more, alongside collaborations with acts like UK artist, Tourist, under her belt.
Though Bertino is poised on the cusp of stardom, she still harbors an unabashed love affair with film and a school-girl like admiration of the soundsmiths behind their scores: “I’m very inspired and star-struck by composers. It’s very different from what pop-artists do.” We explore a few of her favorite films, scores, and the artists behind them.
Once Upon A Time In The West (Dir: Sergio Leone)
Cinema Paradiso (Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore)
Composer: Ennio Morricone
“I can only watch Cinema Paradiso like once every five years because it’s so sad. But I love Morricone because of his melodies—I think he’s the master of melody. It’s so effortless where he decides to take the notes, and somehow it’s just so beautiful. It’s so crazy because I’ve gotten some of his music to play on the piano and I’m surprised—it’s so simple, the things he comes up with, how simple the lines are, the choices of where he moves the notes. It’s so melodic, and in ways he’s always reminding me you can always be simple and make a really big impact, emotionally.” Bertino marvels at the timelessness of Morricone’s scores: “Film scores, the sounds, they can also get dated after a couple of years. [But] this is why I love Morricone—I can listen to his scores and still go ‘this is so good!’” Bertino ponders the magic behind it all, adding, “I’m always trying to figure it out—it’s nothing new, nothing different. They’re still using organic instruments—it’s just how they arrange it and what the melody lines are that are just so undeniably good. Like ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’. No one will ever beat that. Nope. ‘Bye!”’
The Hours (2002)
Composer: Philip Glass
“The Hours is such an incredible movie. The score was so upsetting and sad … it made The Hours even more painful to watch, just because it was so dramatic—all that tension.” It’s the space within all that tension that Bertino loves, explaining that Glass puts notes together in a way that rubs and builds discomfort. She hums a few purposefully dissonant notes as example, describing a scene within The Hours in which the women are baking a cake, adding that Glass is expert at triggering a slow-churning sense of anxiety within what are otherwise ordinary moments. In this way, she says, “he’s kind of like a modern classical composer.”
Out of Africa (1985) + Misc. James Bond Films
Composer: John Barry
“I love John Barry stuff. [His score] just went so well with the characters. It really portrayed characters while nowadays when you’re an artist you kind of have to create some sort of visual identity. And if the music doesn’t match it, or kind of contradict it in an interesting way, it doesn’t really work … John Barry is for sure one of my favorite composers.” When Bertino was performing her James Bond popups, she describes the response as interesting. “The audience is half older people—because they know the old catalogue, they know Shirley Bassey. While my young friends, they just want to come to a place where they can dress up—they don’t really know all the old, iconic Nancy Sinatra stuff.” She adds, “It’s cool to be able to mix up both kinds of generations and appreciate the music again in a different way. [John Barry] is for sure one of my favorite composers.”
The Pink Panther (1963)
Composer: Henry Mancini
“I used to live in the Lower East Side and for a few weeks, every night around 2am, someone would play the Pink Panther theme drunk on an alto sax on a roof closeby. It always reminded me how much I loved Mancini … But, not always at 2am every night on a loop.” Bertino recalls, “When I was in high school, I won this jazz award to go to this national thing with a bunch of nerdy kids in film and music. They were honoring Henry Mancini and nobody knew who he was but me. I was so excited! We got to sing his whole catalogue and everybody was like, ‘These songs are so lame!’ but I was like, ‘these songs are so iconic!’”
Under the Skin (2013)
Composer: Mica Levi
“The score for Under the Skin is just perfect. [Mica Levi] had restraint to know what not to do. She used strings in a way that, you know when a violinist goes like”—Niia interrupts with a Hitchcockian violin creak —“It’s more sound effect.” Niia goes on to further compare Levi to the great horror maestro, “She did a modern-day Hitchcock score. He was kind of the first director to use scores to master this, and in such a beautiful way. He would have three different versions before he picked the right one. So hers is like a 2013, relevant way of doing that.
Cover photo: Carlos Nunez
This story is also featured in Cinema Thread Magazine, Issue No. 1 here.