Back in April, we predicted that Nico & Vinz‘ “Am I Wrong” would be a future hit - and we were right! Their international smash peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the highest-charting song from a Norwegian act since 1985′s “Take On Me” by A-ha. Ever since then, the rap/pop duo has made a big name for themselves in the U.S. and around the world.
Their debut album, Black Star Elephant, was released in September and features songs like “When The Day Comes” and “In Your Arms.” The vibe of the record is completely different than anything happening in music today, due to its roots in African culture that are mixed in with emotive pop.
I spoke with the duo about their new album, their transition into the U.S. market and their love for Africa. Read on to see what Nico & Vinz had to say in our Q&A below.
So how did you two first meet?
NICO: We met in 2009 through a mutual friend who introduced us, because he used to be in a group with me previously. I went to Africa to play soccer and go to school for a year, and I came back and he had made a song with Vinz. He suggested the two of us should get together and felt we had a good chemistry. It was natural for us to form a group because we have the same vision and goal - it just worked. At that point, our group name was Envy. We changed that up last year to Nico & Vinz to have something more unique and personal to launch to the world. And the guy who put us together is now our manager.
Your sound has a lot of influence from different genres, so what did you listen to growing up?
VINZ: A lot of stuff, varying from the African music in our households to West Coast gangsta rap and reggae music. So I think all those influences and our backgrounds definitely carry on in our music.
You started as rappers, so why did you move to a poppier sound?
NICO: We’ve always sung, even on our rap songs we sung the hooks. So we’ve always been familiar with melodies. We had a process where we had to figure out who we wanted to be as artists. So we took all the different things of who we are and put that on the sound. We have those African roots, the urban background and the Scandanavian pop vibe to us because we’re from Norway. We do have some songs on the album where we rap, so we didn’t totally put that on the shelf.
What was your experience transitioning from Norwegian audiences to America?
VINZ: We grew up listening to and watching a lot of American culture, so we had that coming over [here]. But I think there are transitions anywhere you go. The U.S. is much bigger than Norway, so that was definitely a thing that we dealt with in the beginning. But for the most part, it was pretty smooth.
So “Am I Wrong” was my jam all summer long! Did you expect it to become such huge hit?
NICO: Not in the beginning. When we first made it and listened to it in the studio, we weren’t sure at all if that was the single we were going to go with. We invited our friends to listen to all the songs we had and everybody was pointing at “Am I Wrong.” They weren’t sure if it was going to work on radio, but they liked the song. The reason why they said that was because it’s so different from anything that’s out there. Then we released it in different markets - we started off in Norway and spread it out across Europe and saw that people were gravitating towards it. So that’s when we realized [the song] could actually become something. Then when it came out in America, it just blew up like crazy!
Did you feel any pressure to follow up with “Am I Wrong” with your new single, “When The Day Comes”?
VINZ: No, I think more than anything we were just excited to keep going. Now with the album out, it was more like a relief to make people see who we are. The response we’ve been getting is crazy, so I’m very grateful for it.
A lot of African-inspired sounds are on Black Star Elephant, why did you chose to include those influences?
NICO: We first we shot the music video for “Am I Wrong” in Botswana, and we stayed there for another week to record music. We were just experimenting, and what came out of it was really good. And we are African, so for us it’s a cool thing to include that in the music. With the video, we wanted to show a nicer Africa than what’s being portrayed in the media. That was important to have something that was us.
VINZ: With this album, instead of having a bunch of songs put together, we wanted it to be more thematic and tell a story. So we had this idea of the story taking place in a small village in Africa. The Black Star Elephant [character] starts off with the question: Am I Wrong? He’s feeling like the world is too small and wanting to see more. After that, the song shows him experiencing more things. Then the album reaches a place where reality hits.
Listening to the album really makes you feel good, so was that your goal to have so many positive messages?
NICO: This album is a conceptual one, so the state of mind that we were in was positive. This world is not an easy place and everyone has their own problems, but we wanted to figure out how to turn that around and focus on the light. That whole vibe is throughout the album.
VINZ: When you listen to the album, it starts off positive because the character is naive. Halfway through, a song called “My Melody” talks about AIDS. So he realizes that life isn’t easy as he thought. At the end of the album, there’s a song called “Thought I Knew” which is about losing a person and losing hope. So there’s a lot of different emotions, but the overall feel is positive. I don’t think it was forced, I think it was us just being us.
How do your family & friends back home feel about your success?
NICO: They’re super proud, it feels like all of Norway is proud. It’s not usual to see two Norwegian guys doing this. When we get the chance, we always go back and spend time with them.
I know you’ll be joining Usher on his European tour next year, are you excited?
NICO: It’s going to be cool since we did the Bruno Mars tour like three months ago, and it’ll probably be the same vibe. Just being on tour on a big bus, playing in front of 20,000 people in arenas every day. It’s super inspirational and motivating to be able to do that, and then see the headliners’ show after. We try to learn as much as we can from those experiences, it makes us want our own big tour.
A lot of great music comes from Scandinavian countries like Robyn, Kygo, Stargate, Say Lou Lou and Royksopp. Are you proud of that?
VINZ: A lot of those artists are Swedish, and Norway doesn’t have that same strong pop music. We had A-ha, but that was 30 years ago. But it’s cool to have stuff finally happening in Norway on the music scene. There are a lot of artists [there] who have that international appeal, especially in EDM.
Do you have any artists or producers that you’d love to collaborate with in the future?
NICO: I’m interested in working with Rick Rubin and see what he could do. I’m also a huge Kanye West fan; I like his production. It’s always fun to choose someone totally different from you and see what can come out of it.
Nico & Vinz's new LP Black Star Elephant was released on September 16.
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