The Kid Is Alright

Former child star Nikka Costa makes peace with her past.

Nikka Costa Music Hall, 500 Lakeside Ave. With Lenny Kravitz. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 26; $42.50/$49.50, 216-241-5555
Ahead of the curves: Nikka Costa was performing at - the White House with Frank Sinatra when she was still - in grade school.
Ahead of the curves: Nikka Costa was performing at the White House with Frank Sinatra when she was still in grade school.
She sang with Sinatra, opened for the Police, and even threw Sly Stone out of her house -- all before she finished elementary school.

Nikka Costa doesn't mind discussing those times today, but she does so with an air of pleasant detachment, almost as if she's talking about someone else. And maybe she is.

"I don't even think about those days, unless I'm asked about it," Costa confesses. "It just seems like it was a lifetime ago."

Unlike so many child stars, Costa has not only survived; she's thriving. And the Nikka Costa she'd rather talk about is not the one who was a huge Europop celebrity in the early '80s, but the funky rock 'n' soul screamer who's reintroducing herself to her fellow Americans as Lenny Kravitz's sweaty, sexy opening act.

Yet the showpiece of her new album, can'tneverdidnothin', is a ballad that bridges past and present with painful honesty. "Fatherless Child" deals with the death of Costa's father, the famed arranger and producer Don Costa, and its effects on the then-10-year-old singer.

"I didn't write it with the intention of releasing it. I'd never written about it before, but it's the 20th anniversary of his death . . . That could have had something to do with it," she muses. "I just wanted to get really, really vulnerable with it, so I said, this is gonna be for me, and I'm gonna be as raw as I can."

But after playing it for her husband and producer, Justin Stanley, "He said, 'Okay, we're setting up the piano right now!' It's obviously not sung perfectly, but it didn't matter. It was more about vibe."

The same is true of the rest of can'tneverdidnothin', her second domestic release, due next month on Virgin Records. The four-year delay between this album and her 2001 debut, Everybody Got Their Something, owes something to Costa and Stanley's decision to scrap one version of the disc, which lacked the gritty grooves they were after.

"I just felt like the first version was too poppy and too polished -- and honestly, our headspaces were just being too crowded with other people's opinions," Costa says. "So I just took a step back and thought, hold on, I'm losing myself here."

As the daughter of an in-demand L.A. studio pro, Domenica Costa spent her childhood surrounded by musicians who taught her the importance of individuality. Ol' Blue Eyes was her real-life godfather, Elvis was an admirer of her father's work, and houseguests included Sly Stone, whose piano noodling annoyed a five-year-old Nikka one night -- so she got rid of him.

But after she was invited onstage with the Don Costa Orchestra to fill some time at the end of an Italian concert, the audience's enthusiastic response to her rendition of "On My Own" convinced everyone that it was time for Nikka to enter the studio herself.

The resulting album was a massive hit overseas, and public mob scenes became a regular occurrence. At one point, opening for the Police at a concert in Chile, she performed before a crowd of more than 300,000 people. "I was totally freaked," Costa remembers. "But kids . . . kids just do it. They just cope.

"It was an insane, insane ride for an eight-year-old -- and for the rest of my family," she adds.

The ride ended abruptly when Don Costa suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983. Nikka was promoting her second album, Fairy Tales, which -- in an innocent twist turned morbid -- contained a song called "Stay Daddy Stay."

The tune, she recalls, "was just about him being out of town. Then he died, and the TV stations wanted to be exploitative -- 'Oh, can you sing 'Stay Daddy Stay'? And we had to argue and fight, and my mom was like, 'This isn't good for her.'

"And from there, I just didn't care anymore."

As a teenaged fan of Exposé and prefab Eurodisco, she would return to the music business briefly in 1989 with the album Here I Am, a collection she now describes as "Horrible. Horrible. Yuck." But on the resultant tour, she met the man who would become her husband and future producer, playing keyboards with the rock group the Electric Hippies.

"I met him, I fell in love -- then I had to graduate high school," Costa says, giggling.

She and Stanley would move to Australia, where they teamed up to plan her mid-'90s comeback with the album Butterfly Rocket. A bluesy rock effort that featured Roots drummer ?uestlove and fellow Soulquarian James Poyser, it was a big hit Down Under, earning frequent comparisons to another ex-child-star's coming-of-age.

Being mentioned in the same breath as Alanis Morrissette's Jagged Little Pill was no insult, Costa says now. "I actually would love to, like, sit down and chat with her about it. Because there's really not a lot of people who would understand what we've gone through."

It wasn't until her song "Like a Feather" was used in a steamy Tommy Hilfiger ad several years later, however, that Costa finally got some long-awaited American exposure. Even though as a kid she'd sung a duet with the Chairman of the Board on the White House lawn, none of Costa's albums had seen U.S. release. "And in the end, I am so, so glad that it turned out like that," she says, "because it saved my sanity or whatever."

Without a past of show tunes and synth-pop to live down, Costa started fresh with Virgin Records and 2001's R&B-soaked Something. Prince was one of many industry fans and later collaborated with Costa on the song "Silver Tongue."

As part of her current tour, Costa expects to face some former fans, too, when her can'tneverdidnothin' jaunt heads to Europe later this year. On the continent, many still remember her as an innocent preteen and even request old numbers, something she calls "bizarre."

"It's flattering, but at the same time, it's amazing how attached people are to this old stuff. I feel like saying, yo, can you not see that change is good?" she says, giggling again. "I mean, join us in some change!"

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