An Interview With Niecy Blues

Michael McKinney speaks to the singer/thespian about being introduced to music through gospel in the church, singing as a form of release, being inspired by science fiction while creating her new...
By    January 10, 2024

Image via Joshua Parks

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When Janise Robinson was a child, they’d drive around with their older brother near the Texas border, filling the air with the sounds of chopped and screwed music. This wasn’t merely a way of finding new records: This was an escape. Robinson grew up in a strict religious household in Oklahoma, singing in their church’s praise team and listening to their pastors rip into secular music. They were strictly barred from listening to secular music, but they found ways through anyways, smuggling contraband in via movies, television, and car rides. They watched as much science fiction as they could, using ideas of far-flung civilisations and timelines as a way out of Oklahoma, if only briefly. Art can suggest entire worlds, and Robinson spent their childhood exploring them as deeply as they could: vats of cough syrup, long stretches of highway, chrome-coated spaceships, Hell.

Robinson no longer lives in Oklahoma. They’ve since moved 1,200 miles east, to the town of Charleston, South Carolina. They’ve been recording original work, as Niecy Blues, for a few years. Their work sits between all sorts of musical traditions—ambient and ancient religious music, dream-pop and gospel—but it is beholden to none of them. Their work is closer to Grouper than it is to, say, Kirk Franklin; in its slow, miasmic blur, it recalls the work of keiyaA and early FKA twigs. Their debut album, Exit Simulation, came out in November, and it is perhaps their boldest statement yet. Throughout, Robinson takes the transportive power of religious music and renders it a bit uncanny, singing in murmurs and blurs rather than the kind of soul-baring belting you might expect. Robinson’s religious baggage seems to weigh heavy, and Exit Simulation could only have come from someone steeped in the church. It’s the sound of light, and lives, refracting through stained glass.

One of the greatest joys of chopped and screwed music is among its simplest: It takes familiar idioms and instills them with a grand kind of unease, making every hurt sting just a little more and every emotion linger just a little longer. Exit Simulation does something similar with an entire sonic tradition, amplifying the sorrow that lies in the underbelly of so many gospel standards. Robinson’s relationship to music, in one way or another, has always been about other spaces and planes. It’s about dreaming up alternative worlds out of necessity; it’s about the long history of Christian worship in America; it’s about facilitating passage to Heaven. Exit Simulation is the sound of Robinson carving yet another escape hatch, bundling up centuries of history, and disappearing.

In the weeks following the release of Exit Simulation, we got a chance to catch up with Robinson, digging into the importance of escapism, how gospel informs their current work, the restorative power of collaboration, and lots more.

(Content Warning: this interview contains discussions about suicide and depression.)

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

You framed 2021’s “Bones Become the Trees” as a repudiation of organized religion. How intertwined were your early artistic experiences and your time in Oklahoma?

Niecy Blues: I think everything is intertwined; everything has led me here. [My] time in Oklahoma was a time of a lot of imagining. I did a lot of daydreaming, and a lot of wishing. To my knowledge, at the time, there weren’t a lot of resources in the town I grew up in. If you wanted to be a recording artist—it wasn’t really a thing. I remember local rappers and things like that, and if you were a gig singer, you could sing weddings. Nobody was ever, like, “This is a DAW. You can make your own music.” I didn’t know anything about any of that. My older brother is a musician, and he’s the one that introduced me to going to studios. It wasn’t that common.

To this day, some of my friends from Oklahoma are really excited that I’m playing at a bar—”Oh my God, this is amazing!” When I was younger, that was huge. You’d sing at church; you’d sing at weddings; you’d sing at special events; you’d sing the National Anthem baseball games. That was the scope of what could be done in Lawton, Oklahoma. I always had dreams of, “I would love to have a concert.” That felt very out of reach.

I always wanted to produce and make my own music; I always wanted to write my own stuff. I was writing; I just didn’t have anything to write to. Spending time at church really taught me a lot, especially in terms of vocals. I learned how to sing at church. I still remember the first time I learned how to belt. Shayla [Ashayla Reeves, the praise team leader at Niecy’s church] taught me how to belt in praise-team rehearsal. She was like, “You’re not singing out.” I said, “What do you mean, sing out?” She sat with me, and said, “Open your mouth.” I remember learning that at church, and then learning how sacred music was, and how important it was in that context. It was leading people to Christ, and it was opening the floor for spiritual healing. We were in charge of leading the emotional exchange that happens between people and God. That time in Oklahoma was very, very important.

Did you understand music as an explicitly religious thing?

Niecy Blues: Yeah. I wanted to sing secular music, and I wasn’t allowed to. I wasn’t allowed to listen to it, either. “You sing for God. You lead people to Christ. You’re not allowed to listen to any of that worldly music.” So my introduction to music was strictly through gospel, Christian contemporary [music], and things like that. Some country music would slip in, because [it] always had always had themes of Christianity laced through it. Outside of the church, I’d access secular music through film and television. That was my excuse to download things: “Oh, I heard it in a movie; it’s fine.” [laughs] I spent a lot of time being bad with my older brother. We’d drive around and pop in the latest mixtape that his friend made. At the time, I was around 30 minutes from Texas, so chopped-and-screwed was a big thing. He used to get all these chopped-and-screwed mixtapes and we’d ride around and listen to [them]. I’d be like, “We’re being so bad.” [laughs] But it was really helpful: I had someone who also wanted to expand outside of our limited scope together.

You said you were tied to explicitly Christian music. Was this an organizational thing, or family rules, or something else? Where was this coming from?

Niecy Blues: It was both. The church was always preaching against secular music. I remember being in youth group, and the youth pastor dissected secular music: “This is gonna lead you astray.” I remember seeing the church’s backlash when Christian artists collaborated with secular artists. Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary collaborated with secular artists, and the church was like, “They’re making secular music now.” It was a whole thing! There was a guy, Tonéx—he was a gospel singer, but he had an R&B flair to his music, and he was queer. I remember the church saying, “He’s going to Hell.” I remember having very clear examples of: “You are not supposed to sing that kind of music; don’t even think about it. You’re singing Christian music.” So I found my secular-learning Christian artists, and that’s what I stuck to. I toed the line as safely as I could.

Do you consider the music you make to be secular?

Niecy Blues: No, I don’t. My intention is release, and when I’m creating, I am connecting to source [and] to God. That is, for me, the purpose of music. What I was taught is connecting. In that sense, I would not consider it secular. I think the themes in my music are around healing, and restoration, and things like that. Those are very religious themes, too. So I guess I’m gonna say no, at least in this moment. That could change 10 minutes from now. [laughs]

Would the church agree with you?

Niecy Blues: No. [laughs] I want to say that I was in a specific bubble of Christianity, and there are a lot of those pockets everywhere. There are people who are more expansive, but I just didn’t grow up in a super expansive environment, in that sense.

I know someone who had a similarly strict religious upbringing, and it took her some time to find something new. I would imagine that, to a certain extent, it’s home. How did you find your way out?

Niecy Blues: I don’t know if I would frame it as finding a way out. To me, it was a taking and leaving of things. I spent a lot of 2020 thinking—like a lot of people probably did, when things paused—sitting, and feeling, and experiencing, and trying to make sense of things. I often say about myself that, sometimes, I have to go to an extreme to find the balance. I went to an extreme: “Throw all of it away.” Now, I think I’ve come to a place where I’m a little bit more eclectic with what I choose to engage with, in terms of religion or Christianity. I have my own spiritual practice. It has some things that might resemble things I did when I was a Christian. Some of those things still resonate with me, and I had to come to terms with that.

Last year, I was in a musical called The Color Purple. I did this play in the deep south, in Greenville, South Carolina, where it’s very churchy. Some of our cast were very devoted Christians, and one of the cast members was a minister. And I went to a sermon of hers, and that was the first time I had been in church in a few years. So I really paid attention to how I felt in the space, and what was going on. I felt like I could be at a distance from things and really make sense of what I felt was happening in the church space. I was like, “There are some things I like about this, and there are some things that feel so deeply uncomfortable for me.” I feel like I’m being othered in a lot of ways.

I mean, it’s a lot of guilt. It’s little things that make you feel like you are completely unworthy of anything. That’s a very big theme in Christianity: You are unworthy. You are unworthy of God’s grace. “Lean not on your own understandings” is literally saying you can’t trust yourself. I don’t agree with that sentiment. There are some things I came to terms with, and I took some things that still resonate with me. Some things I’ve got a different perspective on now, and I see them differently now. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely divorced from church. It’s deeply ingrained in me; it helped shape me. I will always think in a certain way, because my formative years were spent [there].

Talk to me about your headspace when you were making this record.

Niecy Blues: I think that, oftentimes, I’m not conscious of what is coming out of me until it’s done. Then I sit down, and I say, “Oh. I guess that was in there.” [laughs] I often reveal things to myself through music. I think that, in a sense, that can be tied to my relationship to religion: It’s this sense of, you put yourself [in the] back. God is first, and then it’s whatever the church needs. You are back here. I’ve developed that pattern of thinking, so music is a conduit for me to access myself [through]. So, oftentimes, I find what’s been in here after it’s done. I took some distance from my family during that time, and everything felt up in the air; everything felt like the picture cracking. I was like, “What is in all of this?” I was working on this record in that spirit, and so many things came out: How I feel about surveillance, how I feel about the church, how I feel about unaliving myself. There’s a lot.

Tell me about your writing process, then. How does that work? Based on what you’re saying, it sounds almost like a fugue-state kind of thing.

Niecy Blues: Usually, I’ll come in here and experiment. I’ll start with something and build on it. As I’m going, I’ll have a melody, and I’ll sing whatever words come out. Typically, it’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Then I’ll clean it up a little bit, but that’s it. I’d like to be a person who does a lot of revision, but I’m not. This process taught me a lot about that. When I’m writing, I go to a space where—people talk about these esoteric things, like the collective consciousness. I think there’s a place where a lot of artists go to and pull from. I think that’s why you see people saying, “I had that idea.” I think there’s a space we all can access. We pull different things in, and different things come through us, depending on the time or whatever space you’re in. That’s how I see it, and that’s how I feel it comes through me.

I was listening to this jazz artist, Abdullah Ibrahim. He came to a festival down here, and he was talking about how he creates. He imagines it like he’s walking through a door, or like he’s hearing a voice and he follows it. That’s his process: He just follows the voice. I feel the same way about myself; I’m not married to being in control. I’m just going with whatever is coming. I think I’ve learned that from church, too. When you’re singing praise team, when you’re leading people during praise and worship, it’s a following of that voice. You’re not in control of things. It’s becoming a vessel; it’s letting it come through you.

I’m curious if there’s a meaningful shift for you when it comes to working with gospel music—and its accompanying centuries of tradition—versus your original compositions. Is the framework different at all?

Niecy Blues: Singing gospel is a tradition. Its hymns and spirituals serve as a guide. You’re still able to follow that, and trust that. It’s something that has been ordered before you. It’s the same thing still: You’re following that tradition and letting that guide you. You’re following whatever the spirit of that is in that moment. There’s less of that [historical] framework, but the intention feels the same.

You’re still following those same principles that you learned on praise team.

Niecy Blues: A lot of gospel and spiritual music is improvisational. That’s how I learned to sing. I didn’t learn to sing through sheet music or anything like that: It’s hearing, and feeling, and going off what you’ve heard and felt and creating something on the spot.

Tell me about the science fiction you read while you were making the record.

Niecy Blues: I was reading a lot of science fiction. Of course, I was reading Octavia Butler, but I was also reading short stories, and watching science-fiction stuff, too. I remember reading Space-Time Collapse. It’s Moor Mother and that collective [Black Quantum Futurism]. I read that, and I thought a lot about timelines. At the time, everyone was talking about, “We’re in a simulation!” [laughs] So I said, “Everyone is using this word, but what does it mean to me?” At the time, I was making sense of feeling a lot of [suicidal] ideation. I thought, “I don’t think it’s wrong to explore what that could mean.” Hence: Exit Simulation. I didn’t necessarily get that title from one specific book or film; it was more a matter of collecting all the things I was taking in.

Had you read much science fiction before 2020?

Niecy Blues: Yeah, although I watched more than I read. There’s not a lot to do in Oklahoma: You can watch TV or go get on ice—meth. [laughs] I wasn’t gonna do that. That’s boiling it down; there’s other things to do. But I do have a lot of friends who ended up on drugs. I watched a lot of TV, and SyFy stayed on. I used to watch a lot of shitty sci-fi, but I loved it. I loved anything that would take me out of Oklahoma. Sci-fi was very outside of all things Oklahoma; it gave me a space to imagine different things. I was always interested in it, but I hadn’t taken the time to really sit down and read a lot of sci-fi until 2019. In 2020, I was like, “I might as well read all these books that I’ve always been meaning to read.”

I think about the connection between science fiction, religious music, and ambient-adjacent music, which I would sort of slot your work into: those, to me, are so often about transcendence. They’re about reaching towards something that you may not fully understand. Am I understanding you correctly that that sort of escapism was explicitly part of the appeal, at least earlier on?

Niecy Blues: Earlier on, it was probably about escapism. Like you said, though, it started to make more sense in terms of transcendence. It felt very Oracle-like: Is this what the future might be? This is even true politically speaking; a lot of that work can be considered political, because a lot of it tends to lean that way. So, yes: It started there, and my relationship to it changed a little bit.

Where is it now?

Niecy Blues: I guess I’m figuring it out.

That makes sense—the thing that initially drew me to this record is that it feels like it exists between a lot of different traditions and approaches. In conversations with folks, I’ve pitched it as something between the Cocteau Twins and Hildegard von Bingen.

Niecy Blues: I’m not even familiar with the second person.

She’s a composer and saint from the 12th century. I’ve always loved stumbling upon her pieces; I find a lot of beauty, and a kind of psychedelia, in ancient religious music.

Niecy Blues: It’s funny you say that, because I grew up studying classical voice. I sang a lot of Purcell. I loved Purcell, and the Baroque era [of composition]—all that Gothic-sounding and sad stuff, like “Dido’s Lament.”

What’s the appeal of it to you?

Niecy Blues: The sadness. I like that. The chords feel a little scary. To me, the more interesting parts of studying voice were these rich chords; they felt sad, and dark, and personal. It was interesting, as opposed to other choral music that you sang in high school. I felt like I could better connect to it because it felt more human to me.

You make it sound like the music that’s more intimately sad, or adjacent to some kind of lamentation, felt more human to you at the time.

Niecy Blues: At the time, yeah. The type of gospel we were singing in some of the churches I was in was about, “God’s gonna fix everything.” There were some songs that I really connected to, though. This is my connection to suicidal ideation: It’s such a strong theme in Gospel and spirituals. One song in particular, “Trouble of the World,” is a person saying, “I can’t wait to leave this Earth. I can’t wait to be with God.” That, to me, is imagining getting to check out of here.

Of course, when you’re talking about the conditions that Black people were subjected to, you’re talking about why they wanted to leave. You’re talking about why it’s so imperative that we imagined other places: In order to survive. In order to keep living, we have to think about what comes after this. Dying was a joy: “This is my release.” I connect deeply to that, as someone with depression and anxiety and things like that. Those things feel comforting to me, because they’re avenues for me to express myself and how I feel. In that sense, it feels human: I’m not forcing positivity onto myself. “I feel sad; I want to leave.” I’m imagining what I could feel if I was not in this shell on this Earth.

One way you could look at it is getting to see the Kingdom of Heaven, and the other is that you’re just dead. Did you notice that flip of the coin when you were doing praise music?

Niecy Blues: No. I was taught that suicide is terrible, and that you will go to Hell—no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s very contradictory, in that sense: On one hand, you’re telling me that if I want to check out of here, I’m going straight to Hell. On the other hand, you’re telling me what joy it is to die. So: Which is it? I spent a lot of time feeling guilty and shameful about wanting to leave. That was a very deeply personal thing. So, again, music was the avenue of expression: “I can express that here.” I sang these songs in school, and they gave me a way to move through those feelings in a safe way. I didn’t make the connection in church, though. We were taught that [church and school] were totally different things.

So choral music and your current work act as a kind of release valve, then?

Niecy Blues: Yeah.

I’m sorry, first of all. There’s a kind of beauty in that, I’d think.

Niecy Blues: Yeah, definitely. I always say, with my depression, my grief, [and] all those things: I am a friend to them. They come and visit, and then they leave. I don’t want them to stay too long.

At the moment, what names, scenes, or philosophies are you looking towards for inspiration?

Niecy Blues: There’s a book called The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching [of Hazrat Inayat Khan]. The beginning of the book talks a lot about reaching Nirvana and things like that; I’m still making sense of what I feel [about that]. But I’m inspired by it, at least, right now. I’m inspired by transformative justice and things like that: Radical frameworks, community, connectivity, healing, release. I deal with those things every day as a community organizer. They keep me motivated, and I think they keep me inspired.

Killing Time, by Fronza Woods, spoke to me a lot during this time, too. There’s a sample from that film on the record. I reached out to her to ask permission, and we ended up becoming pen pals! That was a huge moment for me: “Oh my God, Fronza Woods is talking to me.” That film, in particular, really inspired me, because it deals with themes of suicide in a funny way. It’s very silly. It’s a great short film.

When you say you have suicidal ideation, people are like, “It’s so sad.” Yeah, but this is something I live with every day, so it’s not that sad to me. This film gave me permission: “It’s okay that I think about this.” This was a Black woman writing about this and starring in this. That felt deeply connected for me. It was important for me to see that work, and it meant a lot to me. That film, alongside a few others [Suzanne, Suzanne; Back Inside Herself; The Funeral; Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification; and The Brood], was pretty key [to this record].

When you say you’re interested in healing, are you thinking of finding it, of offering it, or something else?

Niecy Blues: I don’t know that I personally can offer healing. I can be a vessel to it in some way, maybe through my music, or maybe through the community work that I do. But I think that “healing” is a very umbrella term. Healing for who? What does it mean? How possible is healing under today’s circumstances? How accessible is it, and for whom? It brings up a lot of questions like that, and I don’t necessarily have a lot of answers.

But I do believe in catharsis, and rest, and release, and community. It’s a question of, who can heal? Who can move towards that? I feel like that word—”Healing”—has taken so many different meanings and shapes throughout the years for me, to the point where I don’t want to use it. You know when a word has almost lost its meaning?


Niecy Blues: Yeah. That’s just turned into capitalism. “Healing” has been co-opted, but it’s also lost its form and shape over time. I don’t even know what word I can use, to be honest.

What’s something you recently came to learn about yourself?

Niecy Blues: I recently learned that I’m my biggest obstacle, with pretty much everything. I think it has to do with not understanding what I’m capable of. This album has taught me that: That I am capable of things that I didn’t think I was capable of. I just started producing a couple years ago; I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just here, you know what I mean? [laughs] I’m new to all of it. I’m new at playing guitar, even; I started learning in 2020. I am by no means even close to an expert, but I was my biggest obstacle before getting to that point. I didn’t believe I could do anything because I didn’t know anything, [but] you don’t have to know everything to do it. People have mentioned me alongside different artists, and I’m like, “I don’t know who these people are!” And that’s okay. I didn’t know about other genres, outside of what I knew growing up, until 5, 6, 7 years ago. I was like, “Ambient? What the hell is that?”

I’ve held myself back because I thought I needed to know more [in order] to do things. One day, I said, “I’m just gonna start and see what happens.” That’s how CRY came about: I said, “I don’t know how to play guitar that well, but I’m about to pick up this guitar and see what happens.” There were so many obstacles to getting this album finished—I didn’t think I was gonna get it finished. I was like, “I have to call this person to do this; I have to lean on this person to do this. I can’t do any of this.” But then it came to the point where those people I thought I could lean on weren’t there, so I had to figure it out myself. I had to move through the guilt, and shame, of not knowing things. [laughs] There’s that theme again.

I had to say, “How do I push through that [guilt] and just do it?” So I realized: It’s me that’s the obstacle. I don’t have to know everything. I’m a beginner, and that’s okay. I don’t know everything; I don’t know these artists or these genres; I don’t know the technical terms for this and that. But I can still create.

Congratulations on CRY—an April 2020 release date on that, especially if you picked up guitar that year, is brave.

Niecy Blues: I’d dabbled over the years in the past, but I never stuck to it. I like instant gratification, and guitar is not that kind of instrument. Over the years, I’d say, “I’m gonna try this,” and then I’d stop. I started trying seriously in 2020.

I’m curious what helped you push through those obstacles with Exit Simulation. Did working with kranky afford you more resources this time around?

Niecy Blues: Totally. kranky was a big support; Brian [Foote] especially. He was like, “Do you want to come out to my studio? You’re at the finish line: Just come out here! You can do it.” I went through some shitty personal stuff at the top of the year, and I found myself pretty stuck. It was like, “Sit and feel the things, but come out here in May and just wrap it up.” I had a lot of support from them; I had a lot of encouragement. My really close friends, Asiah [Mae] and Rich, were so supportive. I refer to Asiah as the doula of Exit Simulation, because I was going through so many personal things, and it felt impossible to move through them. She was like there every step of the way: “I’m coming over; you want to eat together?” That was so important for me to get to the finish point with this record, having that kind of support: That in-your-face “You can do this.”

When I went out to LA, most of the record was done. I had finished it here at home. But “Soma” was [still] barebones. If you take out the keys at the beginning, it was just that guitar loop, and I think there was a synth and my vocals. That was it. I thought it would be cool if there was a sax. I remembered that my friend keiyaA told me she used to play the sax. I called her up: “Hey, I’m in LA. I don’t know if you’re out here, but do you remember that time you said that you played the sax back in the day? Playing the sax on this.” She was like, “You find me a sax and I’ll come play.” And she did! We found the sax; she came through, and she laid down this amazing [performance]. I was like, when did you stop playing the saxophone? How have I not known you could play like this?

I thought that a flute would be really cool [addition], and so I asked my friend, Aisha Mars: “Would you be interested in playing the flute on this?” The song took a life of its own outside of me. I remember Brian sitting at the boards, and we were all in awe. None of us expected it to go any direction in particular, but the way they came in and played from whatever they felt was deeply spiritual. We were really sitting in that moment.

My friend Durand Bernarr lives in LA; he’s an incredible vocalist. He said, “Come through. I want to hear what you’ve been working on.” I played some songs, and I got to that song in particular, he was like, “AirDrop that to me.” Right there on the spot he started adding vocals. He didn’t even say anything to me! He just started layering vocals. It just happened that way. With William [Alexander] on the drums, one of my friends called in a favor: They were doing an art exchange, and they were like, “Hey, this needs drums. Would you be down to do some drums for this?” I really wanted Qur’an Shaheed to play keys, and it was a magical moment when she came in. She hadn’t heard the song yet, and she came in and started playing the piano. She’s playing, and Brian finally hits “play” on the track, and she’s perfectly in key. Everything she played went seamlessly into the track. Their help on that track—I can’t thank them enough for the work they did.

That moment also taught me: It’s okay to ask, even if I don’t know exactly what I want. You can meet me where I’m at, and we can share a space and a moment and let that guide us. It doesn’t have to be anything technical. I’d never led a studio session before, and it was a learning point for me, and it was also a reassurance that you can let the spirit move in this space. It can work out without it being very structured. I thought that’s how I had to be to make an album and lead a session.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Niecy Blues: I don’t know. [laughs] I have no idea. Honestly, I’m surprised this even happened. Next, I’m going to listen to that voice, follow it again, and see where it takes me. One of my favorite quotes, which I added to the record, is: “I believe I’ll run on and see what the end’s gonna be.” That’s how I feel.

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