Oscar-nominated Alfre Woodard chooses to call herself an actor rather than an actress, because "actresses worry about eyelashes and cellulite, and women who are actors worry about the characters we are playing." Adapting that comparison for a discussion of female musicians, let's say that a pop diva is more concerned with her looks and image, while a serious artist focuses on the quality of the music she's creating.
Which makes funky soul sister Nikka Costa problematic. She's a hottie and she works it, but she's also got chops -- thereby defying the human need to slap on a label and get going. And though Costa, who is in her late 20s, is married, it's clear she has minimal potential for becoming a minivan-driving soccer mom: She's got a luscious booty that's almost always swathed in low-slung hot pants, along with a wild mane of red curls and a voice the size of Camelback Mountain.
Costa has said that her record label, Cheeba/Virgin, would rather she didn't mention that she's married, because "if you're married, guys won't want to fuck you, and then they won't buy your record." Which raises the question: Would they have said that to Costa if she were a man? "Oh, yeah!" she exclaims. "I think that Hollywood and the record industry think that they can sell a single artist a lot more easily if the fans think that they have a little chance. They always try to hide that shit. They try to hide it if you're homosexual. There are many artists [who] are homosexuals who take their best friends to premières to make it look like they have a date. So they cover all that shit up to make you more marketable."
Judging from Costa's publicity photo and some other media snaps, that's about all Virgin is concerned about covering. If you hadn't heard Costa's record, you might suspect that she is trying to compete with Shakira and Lil' Kim and Britney in a contest over who can bare the most flesh. A quick cruise through a recent issue of Rolling Stone (the one with you-know-who and her bodacious ta-tas on the cover) yields these results: Britney in bra and panties, barely covered by a diaphanous baby-doll dress; Paul McCartney fully clothed; all the men of U2 and Linkin Park fully clothed; Staind's Aaron Lewis fully clothed; J. Lo in a skintight half-shirt and microshorts. Anyone else detect a trend here?
Costa gets a bit defensive when asked whether she feels pressured to look a certain way.
"I feel sexy when I sing; I feel sexy on stage; I like dressing up. I'm not really conservative about my body; I don't think it's a big deal. Americans are so conservative. And I'm secure enough with my music that I don't feel like it detracts from it. I'm confident enough with it that I don't feel like I need to prove a point by not showing anything. It's fun. I'm a girl; I like being sexy."
Fortunately for Costa, the music is what separates the women from the girls. "Britney Spears is trying to say, 'I'm growing up, I'm becoming a woman,'" Costa explains. "She's not trying to say, 'I'm growing up, I'm becoming a serious artist.' She has a great body, but that is her main thing. It's not like her music is her main thing. There are definitely artists who are more music-driven, and there are artists who are more image-driven. There are songwriting-driven artists, and there are interpreters. You know, they don't write their own songs, but they sing other people's songs great."
One listen to Costa's most recent release, Everybody Got Their Something, should make it clear which camp she belongs to. While Britney was molesting reptiles on stage and thrusting her rear end at the world, Nikka Costa was busy writing and recording a funktacular, Janis Joplin-flavored record that doesn't need any T&A to boost sales. On Everybody, Costa and producer/hubby Justin Stanley manage to blend rock, funk, hip-hop, blues and R&B influences without sounding overly busy.
"I definitely wanted to make a record that had a lot of different moods on it, a lot of different styles, because I don't know anybody who listens to only one kind of music, and I get really bored when I put on a record and the first four songs sound exactly the same," says Costa. Mission accomplished: The first three tracks are a whirlwind tour through funky R&B ("Like a Feather"), sensitive modern rock à la Fiona Apple ("So Have I for You") and earthy soul that screams with near-metal freakouts (the aptly titled "Tug of War").
It's Costa's use of her early funk influences that results in the most exciting aspect of her music, though. Those in the know contend that funk is a dead, grievously overlooked genre. No one is making true funk anymore; even funk stalwarts George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars have become the next jam band for politically correct noodlers. "I've listened to a lot of soul music -- Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and that kind of stuff," says Costa of the state of the funk. "It probably didn't get its full run. It hasn't lasted like rock has, but I think it's morphed into other areas, like hip-hop uses funk a lot -- everyone's sampling James Brown -- so it's kind of living through another genre now. I don't think it's dead; I just think it's living through other things."
While Costa isn't trying to resurrect the '70s funk sound, she is certainly paying homage on cuts like the title track, as well as on "Hope It Felt Good" and "Some Kind of Beautiful." After all, this is the woman who, in her girlhood, came home one afternoon to find Sly Stone (who guests in her record's horn section) sitting at the family piano.
Stone isn't the only musical celebrity Nikka hung around with as a child. Her father was Rat Pack composer Don Costa, who worked with Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. He remained Sinatra's producer into the '70s, and when Nikka was born in New York in 1972, Ol' Blue Eyes himself was named her godfather. While Sinatra never made Ms. Costa a professional offer (although it would certainly have been interesting to hear her on one of Sinatra's Duets records), he and his peers probably gave her a solid foundation in show business.
Costa's career was launched when she was 5 and paired up with Don Ho for one of her father's Christmas releases. By the age of 12, she was retired. In between, she made a few albums overseas and opened for the Police in Chile at age 8. Her father passed away when she was 10, and she gave up performing soon afterward. The early retirement strategy -- along with the fact that her fame didn't spread to American shores -- is what Costa reckons kept her from living up to the stereotype of Child Star as Fucked-Up Washout.
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"When I was famous as a kid, I was only famous in Europe and South America," she says. "So when I came back to America to go to school, I was like a totally normal kid. I would go to school and be like everyone else, and then I'd go on tour and have this other weird kind of life. And I also took a lot of breaks. I stopped for a few years, then went back into it, stopped again. I kept making sure that I was digging the situation, and any time I wasn't, I left it, and I think that kept me sane."
When, as an adult, Costa decided to give it another go, she took the unorthodox route of honing her talent in Australia (husband Stanley is Australian). There she lived and gigged relentlessly for about five years, facing picky punters night after night and earning success the hard way. It culminated in an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Awards) nomination for best new artist; then she scrapped it all and came back to the States.
"If you spend four or five years being the most successful thing in Australia, when you come to America, nobody cares. You have to start all over again. So I was at a starting-from-scratch point, so I figured I'd start from scratch in America." Fortunately for her marriage, Stanley was ready to start over again in the States, too.
Which brings us back to the conception and release of Everybody Got Their Something, which, in its half-year of life (it came out on May 22), has had tracks featured in a Tommy Hilfiger commercial and the film Blow, and has earned Costa tours with the Black Eyed Peas and a spot on the Coachella Music Festival roster. Now she's headlining a tour -- supported by another charming newcomer, Miranda Lee Richards -- which would seem to indicate that Virgin is impressed and has a lot of faith in her as a performer. Everybody is a strong American debut from an equally strong rising star. Still, one wonders if we'd be hearing so much about Nikka Costa if we weren't seeing so much of her.