God is Nikka Costa's co-pilot. In performance Costa is jarring and frenetic. Hers is a freak-show discourse on musical exorcism. She's nasty with all the shimmying, mic-stand manipulation and Janis Joplin-style stomping.
During a fish-out-of-water, thrashing performance of "Like A Feather," Costa, in one of her first television appearances, destroyed the audience of The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn.
"There's a lot of rehearsal," she says of her live self from a cell phone from a Los Angles freeway, "and then you just leave it to God."
There was a collective "Who the hell was that?" thought balloon suspended above the crowd at the Kilborn taping.
The comparisons have been plentiful and all over the musical map: Prince, Aretha Franklin, Joplin, James Brown. She is closer in raw sexuality to Steven Tyler and Prince and exudes the assured retro stylings of Lenny Kravitz. Musically hers is a gumbo of Sly and The Family Stone, stadium Rock gods of the 1970s and even Otis Redding.
But, all flowery comparisons aside, there is that Voice.
Costa's has the low-range lilt of Sheryl Crow's at its prettiest with the rasp of Chaka Khan's at its nastiest. As white girls go, Costa is what Sandra Bernhard would sound like if Bernhard could really sing like she thinks she can.
"I think that it's fine for people to do what they have to do to explain you to other people. They're all people I really admire and respect," Costa says. "It's not like they're saying, 'She sounds like Tiffany, Kajagoogoo or Debbie Gibson."
She breaks into a refrain from the MTV vaults.
"Too shy shy, hush hush, eye-to-eye," she sings in a mousy voice that is the antithesis of her real singing voice.
She giggles at herself for making the reference and/or for remembering the lyrics and dating herself. She also jokes about her age, saying she's "about 100." Pressed, she'll only admit that she is in her 20s.
"I was frozen in the '70s and they thawed me out for this record," she says.
It is a defense mechanism against pigeonholing. Unlike most of the record company cut-outs who burn our retinas with flash and style, Costa's got substance to back that thang up. And if you think Costa just appeared, you couldn't be more incorrect, though you'd be forgiven because she was jump-started via a marketing campaign made in public relations heaven. Thanks to Tommy Hilfiger and an ad campaign featuring "Like A Feather," the commercial last summer saturated MTV and VH-1.
We knew Costa. We didn't know Costa.
Costa is the daughter of Don Costa, the late arranger/composer/conductor who worked with Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Barbra Streisand, Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra, Nikka's godfather. As a young girl in Los Angeles she chilled at home with Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones and Sly Stone.
All that musical DNA floating around sunk in. She was born in Tokyo and by the age of 8, had recorded her first album and was opening for The Police in Chile.
After Fairy Tales, her second non-stateside release, Don Costa died. She took four years off, then recorded a third album for a German label. We may be just getting to know her, but music fans Down Under knew her when.
Costa moved to Australia to wood shed. Signing with the Australian label Mushroom Records, Costa recorded Butterfly Rocket, a straight-up Rock disc that landed her a Best New Artist nomination at the Australian Recording Industry Awards, the Australian version of the Grammy Awards. There could be a case for a career-wise comparison to Alanis Morissette, that other wailing white chick who had teen-aged fame and who later re-emerged to mow everybody down.
However, Costa never delves that deep. It's music and it's not that serious. She's just a rocker, a woman who might play the corner biker bar every Friday in those barely-there ass-cleavage pants.
But don't get too excited.
She's doin' it for herself, not for you.
"When women show cleavage, it's no big deal," she says when she's asked the umpteenth time about her pants. "The minute you show some ass cleavage it becomes column-worthy.
"It's totally unintentional," she continues. "It's just me doing my thing. I feel sexy when I'm onstage so I don't feel like I have to compromise that to be taken seriously."
And she has been taken seriously, by peers, listeners and critics, alike. This year alone Costa's been onstage with Beck, Nelly Furtado, Jill Scott and Wyclef Jean, among others. She opened for Erykah Badu and was invited to perform at Prince's annual Paisley Park celebration.
There's something that hints of higher acceptance and street credibility when a white artist who emanates soul is embraced by black Soul artists. Costa calls it "amazing and really inspirational" to have held the stage with Badu and Scott, black women at the forefront of deeper Soul music.
"Erykah Badu has this really amazing sense of theater," Costa says. "It's amazing how she's brought herself along and hasn't lost who she is. Jill Scott is like bare bones, no theatrics. She just sings — and sings incredibly. Anytime you perform with performers that incredible, it's truly inspiring."
Perhaps soon other singers will be singing the same tune about Costa.
NIKKA COSTA performs Monday at Top Cat's with Miranda Lee Richards.