Nikka Costa's upcoming album, Nikka & Strings, Underneath and In Between, her first full-length album since 2008's Pebble to a Pearl, isn't due out until summer, but we have the first taste of the record with her cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U," which is a nod to both its author, Prince, and Sinead O'Connor's 1990 version of the song. For her new album, Costa teamed up with a string quartet to record an album's worth of material in a single day, with minimal overdubbing. We caught Costa in the middle of her morning yoga session to talk about recording "Nothing Compares 2 U" and her history with the song as both a performer and as a fan. For more on Nikka & Strings, Underneath and In Between, visit her Pledge Music page.
AllMusic: How far back do you go with this song, did you first hear Sinead O'Connor's version in 1990?
Nikka Costa: It was such a huge hit, and she had such an amazing energy, she was this new, gorgeous, emotional, cool woman, a powerful woman with vulnerability, and I related to that. And the song itself was so simple, and it can be about anyone, it doesn’t have to be a love relationship, it can be whatever. I was always moved by it, and I’ve always loved it, I think it’s one of the great songs of our time.
AllMusic: Back then, were you the kind of person to dig into the details and find out who had written it?
Costa: I totally wasn’t, I was pretty young, I was part of the MTV generation and just obsessed with the video and thought she was so enigmatic and interesting, and I became a big fan of hers. I was already a fan of Prince.
AllMusic: Did it blow your mind when you found out?
Costa: Totally, and then you dig into his catalog and find out he also wrote “Manic Monday,” and the list keeps going.
AllMusic: How did you decide what sort of approach to take with your version?
Costa: We were playing a residency in L.A. with a string quartet, and it was on the list of songs, it was like, “Oh, I love this song, I’ve always wanted to do it, how can we flip it?” I wanted to keep a cool hump on it, so it still had some good funk about it, but obviously I wanted to keep the emotion, and the strings were the perfect way to marry that with what I’ve done in the past, stylistically, so it’s a bridge between that and this new record. It always went over really well.
AllMusic: Since you recorded the whole album in a day, where did you slate this one on the agenda?
Costa: I was like, “OK, let’s get a little warmed up before this one,” and by the middle of the day, I was ready. We’d been playing the song live while Prince was still alive, and I was looking forward to playing it to him when we finally recorded it, and unfortunately he passed away, and then the song got a whole other emotional meaning for me, personally, and for the world. So to sing it and record it, it changed, and it became harder and heavier for me. It’s very emotional, I felt like he was in the room when we were recording it.
AllMusic: Are there any overdubs or is everything we hear what was happening in the room that day?
Costa: The only overdubs were the choir that comes in. But it was top to bottom, on the day, and since we had so much to cover, we literally did each song three times and didn’t even go in the room to listen to make sure we got it, we just stayed where we were and said, “That felt like the one.” We had producers in the control room who could tell us if it felt good, but we just went on feeling. When we played it for the choir, we hadn’t heard it in a while, and we said, “Wow, this has a special power to it.” It’s the one that we go to first to play to people.
AllMusic: Was it a big moment when you first heard the finished product?
Costa: For me, personally, it’s very special, and I’m really proud of it. It moves me every time I hear it, I feel like we recorded something special. The song itself is already halfway there, and it’s really coming from a place of pure respect, and I feel like that comes across, and we did it justice. I’m super proud of it.
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