NIKI vividly recalls coming home from school when she was 9 or 10 and turning on the TV to an episode of E! True Hollywood Story on Taylor Swift. “Upon seeing that I was like, ‘Mother, I must,’ ” she says with a laugh, knowing then she wanted to follow a similar path. “I was like, ‘Oh, people can write songs,’ and I wanted to try that.”

Soon after, she got her first guitar. By the eighth grade she wrote her first song. And by 15, she won a contest (arranged by Taylor Swift and ice cream brand Walls called Ride to Fame) to open for the icon in her hometown of Jakarta, Indonesia, which inspired her to launch a YouTube channel where she started posting covers and originals.

Growing up, NIKI (born Nicole Zefanya) says her Saturdays were for jam sessions at home, during which “nonblood aunts and uncles” would come to rehearse with her mother, a church singer, for Sunday service. “That’s where I learned how to harmonize,” she says. It was in that same house, sitting in her childhood room, that she first met with 88rising, her future label home. While joking one day with a producer friend and fellow Indonesian artist Rich Brian about landing one of her songs on the then-fast-rising label’s YouTube channel, she thought, “Yeah, right. That’s never going to happen.” Yet she couldn’t shake the idea, and the next week, Rich Brian — already signed to the label — called founder Sean Miyashiro to set up a Skype meeting. 88rising agreed to distribute NIKI’s first few singles and the following year, in 2018, officially signed her to a record deal.

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NIKI photographed by Alex Harper on July 22, 2022 at ASH Staging Concept House in Los Angeles.

By then, she was attending college in Nashville and gigging at local coffee shops with the same songs she had shared on her channel, before eventually scrubbing them from the internet. “It was this weird transitional phase, where I was about to debut as NIKI and I was figuring out, ‘Well, what do I like?’ ” says the singer. While she ultimately carved a lane for herself in pop-leaning R&B, she recalls “core memories” of her songwriter friends gently questioning the pivot, often asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to put out your other stuff?”

NIKI sat with that question through the pandemic in Los Angeles, where she moved after college. She started combing through the same pink journal she has had since 2013 and listening to her bank of songs on Evernote. Then, she began reproducing a handful of them, and, feeling particularly inspired by the 2021 release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version), debated embracing her folksier singer-songwriter roots. “I remember talking to my friend, [pop singer-songwriter] Maisie Peters, and I was confused about, ‘Who am I in music? What is my sound?’” says NIKI. “I was talking about all these old songs and she was like, ‘That was you, though. You liked those songs at one point.’ It was this ‘aha’ moment for me. Even though I’m like, ‘I would never write that line now,’ shifting the perspective of, ‘Well, that was authentically where you were when you were 17,’ is very freeing.”

The result is Nicole, NIKI’s second full-length, out Aug. 12 on 88rising. After releasing back-to-back EPs in 2018 and 2019, NIKI launched her debut album, Moonchild, a genre-blending project that proved her interests and talents extend beyond R&B, in 2020. Nicole now comes amid a hot streak for 88rising, arriving soon after its artists performed on the Coachella main stage in April as part of the festival’s first label-curated set. NIKI, who along with Rich Brian became the first Indonesian artists to play the festival, says the rehearsals felt like High School Musical. And in June, labelmate Joji scored a surprise top 10 hit with his ballad “Glimpse of Us.” Ollie Zhang, NIKI’s co-manager (alongside Miyashiro) and 88rising’s head of artist development, wouldn’t be surprised if ballads make a comeback: “People want to feel those feelings and not pretend like everything is OK right now. I think that kind of songwriting, that type of emotional depth in music, is timeless.”

Nicole is filled with such aching ballads and reflective odes to her teenage years — her friends have called the album’s accompanying music videos “weirdly triggering.” As a whole, it’s a stunning time capsule that NIKI believes she only could have made, and have had the confidence to release, now. She says reworking songs she wrote as a teenager taught her the power of production, calling the process “the saving grace of this record, because I wouldn’t really have the guts to put [this music] out as just a guitar and vocal demo.”

It’s why she tapped an intimate team of collaborators, including Jacob Ray, Tim Anderson, Jacob Reske and Ethan Gruska, to help mold the album’s warm and inviting sound. “I’ve been listening to a lot of other artists and looking through song credits,” she says. “If I like something, I’m like, ‘Who worked on this?’ Ethan, for example, works a lot on Phoebe Bridgers’ stuff, and [her album Punisher] was so life-changing for me. It’s comparable to when I was listening to Taylor [Swift] in the sixth grade.”

Zhang sees Nicole as striking a similar chord. “The thread that connects all of [NIKI’s] music together, and is why people who know her love her, is the songwriting — and this album has that in spades.”

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NIKI photographed by Alex Harper on July 22, 2022 at ASH Staging Concept House in Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 6, 2022, issue of Billboard.