Sound Check: Nia Simmons—From Afro Blue to Going Solo

If you caught the hit show The Sing-Off  before it went off air, you couldn’t help but catch the jazzy vocals of the a cappella group Afro Blue. The Howard University-based group won fans over multiple weeks as they crushed their competition with their pitch perfect harmonies, stylish image and flawless arrangements. Rising singer Nia Simmons, one of the original members of Afro Blue when she attended Howard University in the early 2000s, couldn’t contain her excitement to witness the success of the group.

“Words can’t fully express how happy and excited I was to watch these talented young men and women perform on TV each week,” she says. “They represented themselves and Howard University so well!  I’m so proud to be an original member of a group that represents music excellence and will leave behind a rich legacy that will continue on for many years to come.”

Though not a household name yet, Nia Simmons is poised for the stardom that greeted the recent incarnation of the group Afro Blue during their appearance on The Sing-Off. Her debut album A Songbird’s Journey, slated for a fall release, has a bevy of soulful ballads that showcase her effortless vocal range and demonstrates her homage to the classic sound of R&B.

“I’m definitely an R&B soul artist at heart, with a touch of jazz,” she says.  “My style is mellow, but there will be a good mixture of smooth ballads, funky up-tempo songs, and a few surprises in between.”

With musical influences that include Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan, Nia credits Lena Horne as a fashion influence and plans for at least one Grammy win in her future. With talent and an upbeat persona to boot, there’s no doubt that this gifted songbird will be on the lips and minds of many very soon.

Read more to learn about Nia Simmons in this SoulTrain.com exclusive interview.

SoulTrain.com: Nia, thank you for taking time to talk to SoulTrain.com. Tell us first about your new CD that is dropping soon.

Nia Simmons:  Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to talk to you and the readers.  I’m very excited to release my debut album this fall titled A Songbird’s Journey.  The process to get to this point in my life and music career has indeed been a “journey.”  With every triumph and failure, through joy and pain I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person.  These lessons have played a part in how I portray myself as an artist.  Each song on the album represents an experience I’ve been through.  I’ve enlisted the assistance of a few of the DMV’s finest producers, musicians, and songwriters to help me bring this project together.  This album will also showcase my own lyrical and composition skills as well.  The first single will be “Living for Today”; written by yours truly and produced by Rick White from the band guiltypleasures.  The follow up single was written and produced by Derrick Marquis Smith and is entitled “Wonder Why (Love)”.

SoulTrain.com:  This is going to be your first CD, but you’ve been singing for almost ten years, first recording as a member of the first incarnation of the a cappella group Afro Blue. What took you so long to decide to drop a solo album?

Nia Simmons:  According to my mother, I’ve actually been singing since I was a baby–before I could even talk.  I would have loved to release an album prior to now, but without money it was not an option.  So following graduation from Howard University my focus was on finding full-time employment.  I was successful in gaining a position in the federal government.  Over time my focus shifted from music to advancing in my government career.  I still continued to sing in church choirs and with a few local groups/bands honing my skills as a background vocalist and vocal arranger.  It wasn’t until about five or six years ago that I really began marketing myself as a solo vocalist.

I have worked with producers in the past, the first time being when I was 19.  Back then, I didn’t really have a clear vision or direction of my own of what I wanted to do musically.  And I soon discovered that I wasn’t fulfilled going along with someone else’s vision either.  I just feel like now is the perfect time to make this album happen.  I’ve matured and grown personally and artistically to the point where I’m confident that the musical path I’ve chosen is the right one for me.

SoulTrain.com: How did your work with Afro Blue impact your musical sensibilities?

Nia Simmons:  Becoming a jazz voice major at Howard University was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  When I started working with Afro Blue in Spring 2002, I was blown away by how adding a couple additional notes to a basic chord can totally change the feeling, tone, and color of a song.  The vocal arrangements we learned were technically challenging, but sounded amazing after a lot of rehearsals and practice.  We worked hard, but it was by far one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my life.  I have to thank Professor Connaitre Miller for having the vision to create this jazz choir and for selecting me to participate in it.  The experience definitely grew me as a musician and challenged my approach to singing.  It helped to further develop my ear for harmony, and encouraged me to think outside the boundaries of a basic melody to create a more interesting vocal experience for the listener.  Ten years later, Afro Blue is still going stronger than ever.  The group has won multiple music awards, shared the stage with nationally and internationally acclaimed artists, performed at prestigious venues, and gained a worldwide fan base as contestants on NBC’s The Sing-Off.

SoulTrain.com: As a new solo artist, who are some of the artists that have been influences on your style and music choices?

Nia Simmons:  Growing up in the 80s, there was no artist bigger in my eyes than Whitney Houston.  To this day, I credit her for inspiring me to be a singer.  Other influences would follow to include Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Yolanda Adams, and Jill Scott to name a few.  I love what each of these artists brought to the music world, but it took a while for me to realize that I needed to find my own voice and not strive to be a carbon copy imitation of someone else.  Once I got that lesson, my vocal ability evolved from there.

SoulTrain.com: You are noted for your classy stage performances and your attention to glamour in how you present yourself. What role does your presentation—how you look—influence your musical choices?

Nia Simmons:  Great question!  Presentation is very important to me.  The goal is to enhance the performance experience.  Plus I love makeup and admit to being a shoe fanatic, so it gives me an excuse to shop!  Again, Whitney Houston is one that I looked to and credit for my classy, sophisticated image onstage.  Whether she was singing a ballad or a party tune, she always looked stunning.  I also love the timeless glamour and elegance of artists such as Lena Horne and Diana Ross.  But whether I’m in “after 5” attire or casual denim, the goal at each performance is to entertain the people and look good doing it.

SoulTrain.com:  Who are some of the artists you’ve worked with that have pushed you most musically?

Nia Simmons:  In 2011, I had the pleasure of reuniting with Afro Blue as part of a reunion choir.  We performed with Grammy Award winning artist Bobby McFerrin at the DC Jazz Festival.  He was gracious enough to sit down for a Q&A session with us.  During this session, he shared a little bit about his evolution as an artist.  He stressed the importance of finding your own unique voice to share with the world.  It’s okay to be different, because that’s what is going to make you stand out and be noticed.  This left a lasting impression on me and has challenged me to think about how I express myself artistically.

SoulTrain.com: So, it sounds like you have been taking to heart points that influence longevity as an artist. Ten years from now, what would you like to be doing musically?

Nia Simmons:  Ten years from now, I would love to be a full-time established and respected artist with a few Grammys and other accolades earned.  I would also like to help develop other artists coming behind me to be well-equipped for a successful career in the music business.  Finally, I believe the greatest accomplishment of all would be to do for my hometown, Alexandria, VA, what Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Chuck Brown did for DC.  I want to put Alexandria on the map of the music world.  Some of the greatest vocalists and musicians I have ever heard were right in my own community.  And I’m so thrilled to be including a couple of my Alexandria musician friends on this album.

SoulTrain.com: What do you have planned for us in the coming months?

Nia Simmons:  My focus in the coming months is on completing my album and performing around the area to promote it.  Also, I recently made my return to acting and would love to participate in some more theatrical productions.

SoulTrain.com: You sound like a full year is planned ahead. So, as we come to the end of the interview, and since you are on SoulTrain.com, tell us what episode of Soul Train you enjoyed most and who was on it…we’d love to hear it!

Nia Simmons:  Any episode that aired featuring Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson, I was glued in front of the television!  I appreciated having Soul Train available to get a little bit of the live experience with my favorite artists and also see the latest dance moves.  Even though I can’t dance, it was still fun to watch.

SoulTrain.com: Finally, is there anything that you’d like to tell our readers about yourself that you haven’t shared yet?

Nia Simmons:  Thanks for taking the time to read this interview to find out who Nia Simmons is.  I hope something stands out to intrigue you to check out my music.  I’m just thankful to have the opportunity to use my gift.  I definitely have to thank the people who would ask me repeatedly, “When are you going to record a CD?”  Well, I’m glad to say that the wait is soon over!  Please visit www.niasimmons.com and sign up on the mailing list to be the first to know when the album is available for purchase. Other online spaces are:

Facebook: facebook.com/niasimmonsmusic

Twitter: twitter.com/niathesongbird

Liberated Muse: liberatedmuse.com/profile/niasimmons

YouTube channel: niaisthesongbird

SoulTrain.com: Thanks again, Nia!

Nia Simmons:  My pleasure! Thank you so much.

-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a longtime music writer based in Maryland with her family. Check her out at KhadijahOnline.com.

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