Singer-songwriter NJOMZA lies in the realm somewhere between pop, R&B, soul and EDM. “I just do what I feel,” she says. Hailing from Chicago and attributing her success to Mac Miller, the 24-year-old is currently celebrating her new home at Motown Records, bringing her infectious ballads to new audiences around the world.
Tucked away in North Hollywood, the “Me & You” singer has been living in Los Angeles for nearly five years now, spending the majority of her time in studios working on her craft. In fact, her most recent EP, Vacation, accumulated more than a million streams in less than two months.
L.A. Weekly sat down with NJOMZA at the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood to discuss being the first artist to sign to Mac Miller and how she plans on making him proud each and every day.
L.A. WEEKLY: What was the inspiration behind your name?
NJOMZA: I’m 100 percent Albanian. My name is actually Albanian — people always think it’s my artist name. It’s not a super common Albanian name but it’s common enough. It actually means a fresh bud of a flower, before it blooms. It’s the new bud, so it means something fresh, something new, something youthful.
You’re from Chicago — how does that play into your life and career?
I’m from Streamwood, which is a bigger suburb outside of Chicago. Very eclectic, all sorts of people. I was influenced by all types of people. I was never the person that stuck to one group of friends or had a solid “This is us.” I don’t wanna say an outcast but I kind of was. I was friends with everybody. I would just hop around in other groups. That played a big role in the person I am — I can adapt pretty well in most scenarios.
How important is it to come to L.A. as an up-and-coming artist?
It’s not that important. Really, artists need to focus on getting their city to fuck with them first. I came out here and kind of rushed out of Chicago only because Mac Miller was here. He was like my main person. Plus, he was funding my studio time at the time [in Chicago]. He had a studio in his house, so I was like, “Oh dude, I’m just gonna live in L.A. and record out of your studio.”
If you are an up-and-coming artist, it doesn’t hurt to be here. It helped me tremendously because I was constantly meeting new people and in new studios. Just as a studio rat, sometimes not even my sessions. I would just be like chillin’, watching other people, but that’s how you meet people and build other relationships. Honestly, it’s not the worst thing to do.
You were the first to sign to Mac Miller’s label, Remember Music. How did he affect your life/career?
He literally changed my entire life. I was just doing YouTube covers at home. I had dropped my first song that I had sent him. I was like, “OK, let me send any demo I have.” I had three songs, and I immediately emailed them. The first time he spoke to me, I was like, “Listen to this!”
How did he reach out?
Literally a week after the Best Day Ever mixtape came out, I posted a cover of “I’ll Be There” that he wrote for his mom. The next day, someone messaged me: “Mac’s best friend (Jimmy) posted your song on his Facebook!” At the time, I was a fangirl. I was like, “Oh shit,” and immediately went to add him. I was like, “Yo what’s up, did Mac see it?” He was like, “Yeah Mac saw it.” Mac ended up following me on Twitter, and I met him that next week. They played a show at the Rave. I was like, “I wanna come,” and they were like, “We’ll put you on the guest list.”
After that, I didn’t leave them alone. “Mac, check this song out!” I sent him “Ridin’ Solo,” the first song I dropped as a solo artist. He was just super about it. He was like, “You wrote this? How old are you?” I’m like, “I’m 17!” All these blogs were picking it up. He saw me doing all this shit on my own, he was like, “No no no, you gotta join us. You gotta join the crew.” Then he made me a part of Most Dope.
You meet so many people who say Mac influenced their career, but to actually have such a hand in your own career...
Honestly, without him, I wouldn’t have any of this. I probably would find one way or another to get into the music industry, but because of him — literally everything that I have. Me moving to L.A., meeting all these producers. Even being able to step into the room, I always had one foot in already because of him. I got to be like, “I’m with Mac Miller.” He changed my life for sure.
How did you deal with his death? That struck everyone...
Everyone took that really, really horribly. I’m still dealing with it. I was thinking about it this morning. Someone sent me his tweet from four years ago, it said: “So proud of Njomza, she’s gonna be a star.” I just got mad emotional. I don’t think I’m ever gonna be OK with it. It came as a shock. That was the last thing I expected, the last call I expected to get.
Who was it that called you?
My manager. It’s the first time I lost somebody that was so close to me, so played a part in my everyday life. It’s a learning process for me, too, trying to cope with it. It’s really sad. I just know that he wouldn't want me to give up. That’s the one thing. All these small victories, I think of Mac — like, “Yo, thank you.”
What was the dynamic in the studio with him? Because he was so musically inclined...
He’s so incredible. He’ll play the bass, the guitar, the drums. It’d literally be me, him and an engineer, facing each other like, “OK, this is what we’re gonna do on this song.” He’d start playing a little guitar riff, I’d start playing with lyrics, then he’d give me the next lyric. It was a very fluid experience. I’m not comfortable writing with so many people, I like to write all my music myself. I’m getting a lot more comfortable with it now, but he was one of those people that I didn’t care. ’Cause he challenged me, always. Literally, he was music. He lived it and breathed it. All he could exude was that, that’s all he cared about. People don’t really know the depth of how talented he really was.
I read he said your name wrong on purpose on national television.
When they were filming that show on MTV, Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family, that was one of the first times I came out to L.A. I came down, they were like, “Yo, we gotta film for this TV show.” I had no makeup on, in sweatpants, like, “I hate everything right now.” He was like, “All right, bring in the cameras!” They ended up using it for a commercial break preview that was actually on TV. It was literally him like, “This is my artist, Nee-Jawn-Za.” I remember looking up and being like, “I can’t even stand him right now.” I already deal with that so much. But it was funny, he was always joking.
Greatest piece of advice he gave you?
He would always remind me that it was about the music. I got really lost a lot of the time, just with everything else that comes with the industry. The pressure in just being a human, we all have insecurities. He always told me: “It’s about the music. It’s about creating something so people can feel. At the end of the day, this is what's most important — that’s it really.” I try to remember that as much as possible.
You just released your Vacation EP. Talk about the creative process and how long it took you.
"Sad for You" was me getting out of this toxic relationship, which was actually happening. I was in this space where I was freed of that negative energy. I needed to go inward and find myself, so I immediately got back in the studio. I never leave the studio, I’m there all the fucking time. Mac actually helped me figure out how to put a body of work together. He was really conceptual. I studied him. Vacation came easy for me. I immediately had the word, the color. It was pink last time, now it’s gonna be blue, The ocean’s blue, the sky’s blue, I wanted these songs to be more free-spirited and sonically, more vacation-esque.
The “Me & You” visual — talk about bringing that record to life.
That song is obviously a happy love song. A cool little vibe between two people. The lyrics are pretty forward: This person can be the happiness, or I could be the vacation that you need. Vacation isn’t set on putting all your eggs in one basket. It’s really exploring yourself, exploring other people. It was perfect for it to be in all these different countries with different men from that area, but ending up at the "Lonely Nights" at the end. It’s me really discovering everything in my head, so it all comes back to me in my own brain.
I love how you can tell a story in your music videos.
I really love it. I would rather do that than just perform it. I like to make little mini movies.
Do you ever want to get into acting at all?
Oh yeah. I’ve actually done theater my whole entire life, since I was a kid up until high school. People don’t really know that. I got the lead for this musical my junior year but I was playing soccer, I was working to get money to pay for studio time so I could make songs. I had no time for it. I had to let it go, but it definitely gave me a passion for performing. I would love to be in movies, that would be a lot of fun.
What is it you want fans to get from your story?
It’s cool, I kind of have a rags-to-riches story — even though I’m not at the richest quite yet. I come from Kosovo. My parents fled this war with Serbia, then I was born in Germany, then I lived in the Bronx, then I lived in Chicago. A lot of people don’t get to have the opportunities that I got to have, including my family members that are still over there. Hopefully, my fans get strength and perseverance. You gotta fight through the mud. You have to believe in yourself more than anybody else.
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Congrats on Motown. Talk about that journey and your decision to sign with them.
Thank you! Mac actually let me off his deal — yeah he let me off the deal before he passed away. It was something we both agreed on. I was like, “Look, I have these people interested in me. It’s a really cool opportunity, would you care if I took this step?” He was totally, completely supportive of it.
I’m gonna cry.
Trust me, I know. It’s so weird how the world works, because it happened right before he passed. It’s just insane to me. He was just an amazing person. My managers, Barry and Zeke of SinceThe80s (through Motown), brought me this situation. Motown has been so amazing. It’s new still but it’s been a beautiful experience. I absolutely love the entire team here.
What can we expect at the L.A. show at the Mint?
Just a good live show. I have an amazing band who are absolutely incredible. I’ve been rehearsing and practicing. I want people to walk away and feel like they were a part of something that’s gonna be a lot bigger than what they know now.
NJOMZA performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21, at the Mint.