Nikki Yanofsky has a habit of astonishing people. Usually this is how it happens: first, she bounds onstage in a club or a theatre, a petite teenage gamine in front of a greying, paunchy all-male jazz combo. She then snaps her fingers and counts off the introduction to a jazz standard. The moment her voice rings out, the venue echoes with the sound of dropping jaws.
The jazz world has celebrated many a prodigy, but none has been met with this much unanimous adulation or hope since Wynton Marsalis drew his first raves in the early ’80s. With her multi-octave range, impeccable pitch, increasingly rich tone, and unexpectedly soulful power, Yanofsky, who turns 16 on Feb. 8, has been wowing crowds in her hometown of Montreal since she was 11, playing guest spots at clubs with her father’s weekend-warrior cover band. As word spread, high-profile gig offers with professionals followed; she has headlined shows at jazz festivals from Montreal to Sapporo. Pop audiences are catching on, too, and this month, her star is set to surge: she sings the theme song for CTV’s Olympic coverage (a Céline Dion-meets-Chariots of Fire power ballad called I Believe), and the video will premiere during the Super Bowl.
Perched on a chair three times her size in the green room of Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre, just before a show, she thinks back, wide-eyed, to when she was informed of her Olympic duties: “I was fuh-lipping out! I was watching American Idol auditions, and these people are trying to make it, and they have so much talent. I’m like, ‘Why me?’ It was definitely a ‘pinch-me’ moment.”
Yanofsky has rather more talent than the average Idol contestant, as well as determination and a savvy management team. She’s also part of a digital generation for whom downloading has opened up an eclectic world, where the musical past is just as accessible as the present. She became enamoured of jazz when she discovered Ella Fitzgerald tracks in her iTunes library. “Jazz is an older music style,” she says, “but I don’t think that it only appeals to an older crowd. Some of my friends have gotten into jazz because I’m like, ‘Hey, check this out!’ I think good music’s good music.”
To promote her career, her father, Richard, president of the toy robotics company WowWee, bypassed record labels (“I did not want to burden my daughter, starting at 11 years old, with being a commercial entity,” he says) and set up his own artist development team, called A440. Some of the musical heavy-hitters invited to hear her perform were so impressed they became collaborators.
Singer-songwriter Jesse Harris, who penned Norah Jones’s breakthrough hit Don’t Know Why, first heard her sing at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center: “She totally blew away the room,” he recalls. Soon enough, he found himself in the Yanofskys’ basement in Montreal, writing songs with Nikki for an upcoming album, to be released this spring. “She’s not just a novelty act,” he says. “She’s just an artist who happens to be 15 years old.”
In some respects, Nikki comes across as a normal teenager: she loves to shop and has a “huge crush” on Robert Pattinson. But not many adolescent girls pen songs about their first relationships with the likes of Harris and Ron Sexsmith, and then write about the breakups with Wyclef Jean.
Her rapidly moving career, she declares, is strategized by A440 but entirely driven by her own desire. Like the athletes whose feats she’ll be celebrating, she says, “I know that sometimes you have to make sacrifices. Maybe one night you’re not allowed to stay up really late and go to a party because it’ll jeopardize your health, which will jeopardize your performance. I never feel like I’m missing out on something, because what I’d rather be doing is singing.”
At the end of her set in Mississauga, she swoops off to the wings and high-fives her mother as if she’s scored a winning goal. She skips all the way back to the microphone for her encore; so infectious is her energy her pianist skips along with her.
Yanofsky’s enthusiasm and conviction can even make a line like “I believe together we’ll fly,” in the Olympic TV theme, into more than just an earnest lyrical cliché. It’s easy to get swept along with the singer for whom the sky is, apparently, no limit. “I think the day you think you’re the best you could be in anything is a bad day,” she offers, “because it always continues to get better. There’s never a time when you can stop.”