“Who are you to say what I should do with my body? Last time I checked, I don’t belong to nobody.”
This is a line from Nikki Yanofsky’s new single, “Big Mouth,” a sunny-sounding retro pop earworm packed with feminist themes. It’s a million miles away from her No. 1 hit, “I Believe,” the Canadian theme song for the 2010 Olympics that catapulted the then-16-year-old to superstardom. But Yanofsky doesn’t so much see the song as a radical reinvention of her or her musical styles. She began her career at the age of 12 as a jazz vocalist, after all, mining the songbooks of strong women like Ella Fitzgerald. Rather, Yanofsky sees “Big Mouth” as a public celebration and affirmation of who she’s always been.
CBC Music spoke with Yanofsky in person at the Vancouver office to discuss her work as a songwriter, her grief over losing her mentor, how she deals with people who make the mistake of underestimating her because she’s a woman, and of course, her big mouth.
It’s always refreshing to have a song that positions agency and self-confidence as its central theme.
Yeah. I think it’s so important to have that, especially for younger listeners. Like, I wish I had a song like “Big Mouth” when I was that age because I was always a big mouth. I always spoke my mouth. I was always very opinionated and thankfully, I grew up in a place with friends and family that always encouraged that but it would have been nice probably to also have someone that I liked listening to being like hey, you, you keep this about you.
Growing up with Alanis Morissette was actually pretty vital to my existence as a human, just to feel that permission to be angry and the full availability of that spectrum of my feelings.
I loved Alanis Morissette! My mom was obsessed with her, she was huge when I was in kindergarten. I was literally a kindergartener singing, “Isn’t it ironic?” and stuff and being like “I got one hand in my pocket.” I had no idea what I was talking about. Mom was like, “Just say the peace sign line, not the cigarette one.”
Someone like Justin Bieber has really grown up in a lot of public ways right in front of us. We’ve seen every sort of stumble and triumph. But you have been able to sort of sidestep that.
Well, I’m nowhere near as big as Justin. I feel like that probably plays a part. People really only tune in for my music, which I’m actually really happy about. It’s kind of exactly how I want it. I had a very normal life.
You’re rarely labeled a songwriter very often. Does that bother you?
No. I feel like the conversation is sort of shifting because I was more of a singer when I first started. It takes people like a good year, or two years, to sort of catch up and imprint in their brain. Like oh yeah, she also writes songs because when I started, [at] 13, 14, I wasn’t writing songs. I was just singing songs, older songs that have been around way longer than I have and I feel like as I’ve come into my own and sort of gotten to know myself as a person, I realize I have a lot to say.
I’ve gotten to work with a lot of real amazing songwriters and my biggest mentor actually was a man named Rod Temperton, who, he passed away two years ago, but he was like my best friend. Like once or twice a week, I was always sending him my music as I was working on it. He wrote “Thriller,” “Rock With You,” “Off the Wall,” like some of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits along with “Heatwave,” “Always and Forever,” “Boogie Nights” and “Groove Line.” He’s my favourite songwriter of all time by far and he was also just the best man and nicest man ever and I definitely feel like I owe him a lot in terms of my growth as a songwriter, and also to have the confidence to really identify as a songwriter and call myself that because I feel like that takes something, too. Like it’s one thing to write songs, that’s what I do. It’s probably my favourite part about what I do. Especially with “Big Mouth” and this new album that I’m working on. To be able to really hold that and be confident about that is like, it feels good and hopefully it will change the conversation a little bit.
I’m sorry about the loss of your friend, though. That’s really hard, especially when it’s someone that you so closely hold as a mentor as well.
Yeah, it was definitely the worst day of my life by far. But you know, I’m just lucky that I even knew him, he was a very, very special person.
In terms of sort of the writing for this album, can you sort of, to give us a preview, can you maybe map out the sonic influences for it or writing influences for it?
For sure, yeah. I think writing-wise, I’ll always say Rod is my biggest influence because he really taught me about how every single part in a song needs to have a place and needs to have sort of intention. That’s why I feel that a lot of this music I’m working in now. It doesn’t feel cluttered, you know what I mean? Every part has a place. I wanted the album to make you want to dance and have fun and that’s why I feel like “Big Mouth” is a very good start and window to what to expect just because it’s very light and very fun and even though it’s kind of a women’s anthem. I want it to be all about female empowerment and believing in yourself and confidence.
I really liked the video. In terms of making space, you have this really inclusive assortment of dancers in terms of size and ethnicity. Why is that important to you?
It’s so important to feel represented. But to be honest, it was more like I wanted girls that seem to have that “It” factor, having that confidence. Watching their audition tapes. I looked at a bunch of women and they were all amazing. They represented what I wanted to convey. And I didn’t want it to feel too forced. I didn’t want it to feel contrived. I just wanted it to be like a bunch of friends having a good time and we all became friends. We hung out that whole day. It was a 12-hour shoot and at the end, it was, like, “Hey girls, you were great, thank you so much, you’re done, you can go home.” But everybody just stayed. We all just hung out and nobody was in a rush, we were all just having a great time on set and dancing and just being ourselves and I feel like the song, that day I was like OK, it’s doing what I want. This is the first time it’s kind of being heard and people are relating to it and all the girls that day were like, "Oh I love this song, it’s so much fun, I want to dance to it all day." That’s what the goal was.
That must feel so good.
Yeah, it was great. And the woman who directed it, Emma Higgins, again, it was really important for me to have an all-female cast and also I pulled from the Nancy Sinatra video “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’” because back then, that song was so apropos and needed and kind of done in a way that it almost tricked the public. People didn’t even realize what they were listening to until they were like, "Ooo, this is a feminist anthem." And when you see that video of all those women behind her who are wearing short skirts and high boots and not giving a shit, just being themselves, I was like, I want to reference this. So that scene in the video, my video with the blue background and the risers, that was definitely inspired by the Nancy Sinatra video.
Have you ever been told you’re too loud?
Yeah, for sure … I have had definitely experiences, especially in this industry, it’s a very male-dominated industry. you just got to find the right people because there are good people everywhere. You just got to look for them and sometimes it can get a little discouraging when you have to look a little harder than you should but there are definitely good people out there. But that being said, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve had writing sessions where my ideas sometimes get discounted because I am a woman. Because men that I’ve been working with have had issue taking direction from women and those are people that I work with once and I never work with them again.