Interview by Judy Sloane
Everyone who has been blessed to see Niki Haris sing at Agape is well aware of her dynamic presence and inspirational and transformational vocals. The daughter of Grammy nominated jazz pianist Gene Harris, Niki grew up in Middle America, Benton Harbor, Michigan. She was college educated in Southern California. Niki then pursued her singing career in the usual amusement parks and clubs in the California area. This dynamic woman has since gone on to work with a multitude of recording artist ranging from Pop, R&B, to Jazz. Her live performances and recording experience reads like a who’s who of the music world. With names such as; Ray Charles, David Sanborn, Patrice Rushen, Michael Sembello, Leann Rimes, Michelle Branch, Santana, Kylie Minogue, Luther Vandross, All Saints, Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders, Stanley Turrentine, the Righteous Bros., Julian Lennon, Anita Baker, Mick Jagger, Whitney Houston and Madonna.
Her vocal film work is also featured on the soundtracks of Whoopi Goldberg’s “Corrina Corrina”, DreamWorks “The Big Green”, “Coyote Ugly” with Leann Rimes, and Disney’s “Anastasia”. She has also recorded multiple television themes as well as co-writing and performing 2 new songs for the Fox series “Dark Angel”.
Although her career has focused on singing and dancing, choreography and acting are also a part of her immense career. After choreographing the MTV Awards for Madonna, Niki helped stage scenes for Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” as well as choreographing for the television series “Melrose Place”. Lead appearances in Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” and featured artist on the HBO special “Sandra After Dark” as well a roles in Al Pacino & Robert Deniro’s “Heat” have led to public awareness and a desire to strengthen her acting career. Niki continued to strengthen her singing career while touring with her father and promoting their albums, “Down Home Blues” and their inspirational CD “In His Hands”. After her father’s untimely passing in January and the release of their live CD, “Jazz Alley Cats”, Niki resumes her love of jazz and carries on her father’s legacy.
This talented artist leaves no stone unturned, and with 18 years of recording & touring with Madonna, Niki was once again called on the road for her “Drowned World Tour 2002” as well as being featured in her Grammy nominated music video “Music”. All this while promoting her own tour and smash single, “Dancefloor” remixed by DJ/Producer Junior Vasquez.
After completing 2 tours back to back Niki quickly went into the studio to record her new dance CD “Total Love” as well as a new live jazz record “Live in Switzerland” recorded in Zurich, Switzerland and a live gospel record “The Beginning” Recorded with John Barnes at Innersound studios. Niki has since given birth to a beautiful baby girl Jordan and continues to promote her music and career. Niki also continues to record new product and create new avenues to show her many diverse musical colors, in 2005 she has completed another Gospel CD “Live at Agape”, A Jazz CD “Live in Bern Switzerland”, Toured Europe (Switzerland, Germany, Scotland) with her Jazz Quartet, Live Dates as Featured Vocalist with RUFUS (who’s former feature vocalist was Chaka Khan), Gospel Concerts throughout the U.S as well as she continues to be a favorite in Dance Clubs & Pride festivals around the World. In Music Niki Haris is known as a renaissance woman and in life.
Niki continues to share her gifts throughout the years by performing at a multitude of benefits for AIDS, Cancer research as well as Camp Harmony for inner city children. She is also a strong supporter for the Music in the Classroom program and RAAD, Rockers Against Drunk Driving. She diligently lends her time in serving and is an annual participant in the Season for Non Violence.
With all this, Niki has concentrated on her songwriting as well as pursuing acting and singing and continues to be a focused and dedicated, multi talented artist.
I spoke with Niki about her incredible career and her upcoming performances at Catalina’s Bar & Grill from May 10-12 (6725 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood - 1 block east of Highland – Reservations: 323-466-2210)
Q: Your father was a Grammy nominated jazz artist, do you think it was inevitable that you would go into music too?
A: Actually I didn’t think it was inevitable. My sister was definitely a better singer than me. She’s since passed away, 36 years old of cancer. I always felt that I would be a teacher of history. If I was going to be an entertainer at all, my mom always thought that I would have a show like Carol Burnett or Tracey Ullman, because I was the character woman in the house. I was the youngest and always the nut.
Q: Then how did you get into music, did your parents encourage you to play an instrument?
A: Actually no, I ended up going to college to study history and everyone knew me as Gene Harris’ daughter, so I just automatically started being around a lot of musicians as my friends. I would go out with them when they were playing, and one night somebody needed a singer, and they were like, ‘Do you know this song, because we need a singer, our singer didn’t show up.’ And before I knew it I was making money as a singer. And then I ended up doing a gig with this lady by the name of Patrice Rushen, she had a hit out by the name of Forget Me-Nots, that was one of my first records and that led to Flashdance with Michael Sembello, and that’s how I got into pop music. By my third year in college it was like, okay we want you to go on the road, and I had to make a choice to continue to pursue my dreams of being a teacher or to make money (she laughs). And fortunately, or unfortunately, for the kids, I opted to make some money.
Q: When your friend said, ‘We need a singer,’ you were just able to step in?
A: I knew a lot of songs, my mother loved gospel music, my mother loved R & B, and I knew all the jazz songs from growing up in the jazz clubs, because I would watch (my dad) from the kitchens and see him playing with Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan, so I knew all those songs. It was kind of second nature for me to do that stuff, and because I had that history I could jump into shows, because I knew a lot of music.
Q: You’ve never had a singing lesson?
A: I could always sing, even in school. I came from what I consider really phenomenal singers. In my town if you didn’t sing like Aretha Franklin you were a mediocre singer.
Q: You toured with your father and recorded several CDs with him. What was that experience like for you and what do you feel you learned from him?
A: It changed my life because I was doing it at the same time that I would be out with Madonna. When I would come home I would always go on the road with him and do all the gigs with him, and actually sing the music that I wanted to be singing, but was making a better dollar with Madonna. And eventually, by the time I got pregnant, I knew that it was time for me to really do what my soul was calling me to do. And also at the same time I had found a home at Agape, so just being able to sing that music on a regular basis was really making me challenge myself to trust that the universe had something else for me.
Q: You just said, now you could sing the music that you wanted to sing, what is that?
A: Ultimately I would say what I like singing is any song that inspires people to be better. When I’m singing in a dance music genre, if it’s inspiring people to be better and to be more loving, then I love singing that at that time. I love singing my inspirational music in church settings too, because I watch how it transforms people’s souls, and I’ve gotten tons of e mails and I have people come up crying at the end of the services, or telling me how my inspirational record has ministered to them, and how when I sing Someone Needs a Prayer it helped them though periods of the lives. All I can say is that it’s not a particular genre of music, but if the song that I’m singing is inspiring and uplifting, I want to sing it.
Q: What’s your favorite song that you sing at Agape?
A: Wow, my favorite song that I sing at Agape is whatever song I’m singing at that moment probably, I try my best to really be in the present. I love Someone Needs a Prayer, but I also love To God be the Glory. I love singing that song because it reminds me of where I come from, and the rock that I come from. Rev Michael talks about the Master Teacher, those are my Master Songs; those are the ones that taught me that no matter what I’m always being held. I love singing simple things like Blessed Assurance. I love singing Stevie Wonder’s As. Clearly Someone Needs a Prayer is an inspired song that really resonates with people, because so many people do need prayer. It has helped so many people.
Q: You’ve done collaborations with such incredible artists, is there one that stands out to you?
Luther Vandross was very sick when I sang with him, I did one of the last BET specials he did, and he was very, very ill, but that was important to me. I did one of the last duets he did for his last record, and I’m so glad that I got to do that with him. And the song was called I Surrender, so it was like maybe he knew something.
Mick Jagger was a great experience, it’s not something I’d want to do every day, but it was an experience (she laughs). When he did his solo record, I did his solo tour.
Singing live at Carnegie Hall was amazing with Nancy Wilson. It was a tribute to Billie Holliday, and I remember coming out of my dressing room and looking to the left there was Billie Holliday’s picture, it was her dressing room that I was in. I stood next to Nancy Wilson on stage, and just looked at her and she was like, ‘I can’t believe we’ve come full circle,’ because she had a picture where she’s holding me in her arms when I was a little baby. So that was an amazing event.
But so many of the people that I want to sing with are dead. I can’t do a duet with Louis Armstrong, I would love to. I guess through the miracle of technology I could, but it’s not the same as standing in the recording booth with him. But when I think about who I recorded with, probably Ray Charles is one of the ones that makes me go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that.’ I feel really, really grateful for everything. When I think of who I still would want to work with, the living legends, I want to do a duet with Tony Bennett - that is one of my dreams.
I’m so glad I got to see both sides of the coin in the music business, as far as the really highs of what the world says are the highs, from flying in private jets and never having to go through customs, and being in the best hotels, and everyone saying yes to you, to really hoofing it, just doing (smaller venues) or churches and seeing that you can inspire on so many levels that it doesn’t have to be a big spectacle. Sometimes the spectacle can take away from what you’re really trying to say. I would also love to be able to work with a symphony. That would probably be my next dream, to really do it on a super grand scale that way, as opposed pyrotechnics and tons of dancers and all that. When I did Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center with Nancy it was amazing, but I would like to do it just under my name. The Philharmonic would be beautiful, and I’m just going to claim that one day that will happen.
Q: You sing with so much emotion, has that always been easy to tap into when you perform?
A: Wow, well, my ego would like to think, ‘Of course I always sang that way,’ (she laughs), but (it happened) when I knew that I was transitioning out of the Madonna situation, and when I got pregnant, probably even before that when I had my accident and injured my legs, and I had to learn how to walk again. Rev Michael was by my side, and they were talking about cutting my foot off, and Rev Michael was like, ‘No, we don’t need to be doing that. We can pray this one.’ And we ended up saving the foot. I had seven operations on my leg trying to rebuild the foot. At that point I was really considering myself more of a dancer/singer, because my main gig was Madonna, and I knew something was changing for me then. If I was going to dance again, I would have to really work hard at it, but part of my soul was saying, maybe you don’t have to do this; you can trust that the universe has something else for you.
Q: Do you remember the first time you came to Agape and what that experience was like?
A: Oh yeah, it was a Wednesday night, they were still on Olympic, I was still living in Culver City. I went there with Stephen Bray, the writer of the play The Color Purple, he used to be the drummer for the Agape house band, and I knew immediately that I loved this place. I moved to Northridge, and that’s when I really knew I must be committed because I was doing that trek all the time, Wednesday nights and Sundays. I knew it was the place, whatever I had to do I would do to get there, it was home.
Q: What is your most memorable moment singing with the choir?
A: One of the most magical things with the choir was the Ford Amphitheatre, it was right before the 4th of July, and we were doing sound checks, going through Someone Needs a Prayer, and all of a sudden this huge big black thing went over us, it was the Stealth Bomber. I thought, ‘Is somebody mad at us? Is God trying to tell us something? Is that one of God’s angels? What’s going on here?’ First the sky went black with that thing and then when it left the sky was a huge blue with the sun coming through, and it was so beautiful, and I thought, ‘I just love this place, I’ll do anything that gets me to be here.’ Half the time when I do my jazz gigs, there’s ‘Agape’ in the house.
Q: You work for a lot of charities including AIDS and cancer research, and you also work for Season for Non-Violence – what is it about that ministry at Agape that pulls you?
A: Proactive-ness and the idea that they build leaders there. I’ve watched so many people transform, including myself. When I go home I love the fellowship, but because of the way the churches are still teaching in some of those small towns, and even here, it’s rhetoric now for me, it feels like kindergarten and I don’t see transformation. Agape teaches transformation, and with that transformation comes a charge and a challenge to yourself to take it out into the community, and people at Agape are proactive. Some people call it freaky, some people call it airy-fairy, some people call it pie-in-the-sky thinking, but I know more people who have taken it upon themselves to go, ‘You know what? I’m going to write that book,’ or, ‘I’ve always wanted to make that jewelry, and I’m going to take a chance.’ It releases some of people’s (negative) beliefs, I don’t think I can. And you know what? If I think I can, I know I will, I’ll try. That’s what I want instilled in my daughter, because I think so much of our culture tells us that we can’t or that we’re not good enough, or if you only live here, then you can. It’s so much more than that when you go to Agape.
Q: You’re obviously contacted about doing tours and clubs dates all the time. I know you’re going to be at Catalina’s Bar & Grill, what is it about that venue or the tours that you pick that attract you?
A: I always play places that serve food, which means kids can come. That’s the main thing for me. I don’t do places that are just bars, because the point to me of doing the jazz is to keep our music alive, because it’s our only American music. And it’s my charge to keep this music alive, and to pass it on to other generations. But I can’t pass it on to other generations if the kids can’t come. I can keep singing Nat King Cole songs all I want to, but if the younger generation isn’t hearing them, what’s the point?
Q: Have you played at the Catalina’s Bar & Grill before?
A: Yes, I played there with my dad before he passed, it has great food. It’s a new venue now, but they’ve been there for years. Please tell everyone at Agape to come as a pre-Mother’s Day gift to themselves.
Q: What else have you got coming up?
A: I’m the new face of Visa, I have a national commercial running right now. I’m their Fairy Godmother teaching everyone how to use their Visa card. I’m singing Downtown, it’s running on a regular basis. You can go to youtube.com and look at it if you want to. I have a dance single coming out in July called This Time. All my CDs are in the Quiet Mind Bookstore, I have five jazz records there, I have two gospel records and a dance record, and they are all inspirational.
Q: What is it about Agape that keeps you coming back?
A: Fellowship, because I grew up in a very, very small town. My mom’s from D.C., and when she got with my dad he moved her to this little small farm town in Michigan. I always felt safe going home, even now I can go back there anytime and people who aren’t really your cousins are you cousins, women who aren’t really your aunties are you aunties. To this day we look at each other and we know we’re not blood cousins, but that’s my cousin. And that’s the feeling that I get with Agape. My mothers are my mothers there, my sisters are my sisters there, and my daughter has aunties and uncles that are so loving, that’s why I want to raise her in that community, because she has fellowship there.
Q: You said you came from a small town. Do you ever worry about the Agape community getting too big?
A: Rev Michael’s a rock star now. That’s what happens when you get on the Oprah machine – get ready. Please let it get bigger! People can’t be afraid of it getting big, we want it to get big; we want this thought to get bigger. We want this to be the norm, as opposed to the fear. You want to be with your kind, but you want that thought process to spread so that the world looks like the world you want to see. What makes people feel so comfortable at Agape is that this is the way we want the world to look, so then we can’t be afraid of the world coming in!