Listening to the swirling, terraced vocals of Odeya Nini is like having raw human emotion hurled at you with no filter. When she sings, Nini is mindful of every part of her body as a force of expression, from the positioning of her spine to the way the airflow hits her soft palate. The key is in the breath, she told me in a Zoom interview the day after her latest performance with Wild Up, the free-spirited Los Angeles ensemble with whom she has performed for years. “The voice is like a skilled surfer, but you need those really amazing Pacific Ocean waves; you need your breath to be really solid so that your voice can do its thing.”
An Israeli-American dual citizen, Nini was born in the Bronx to Yemenite Jewish parents who had emigrated from Israel in the 1970s. Growing up in New York, she would go to the opera with her mother, whose emotional resonance with classics like Turandot was an early inspiration. She started playing the piano in second grade, but soon fell for theater, “my first love,” she told me. “That plays into where I am today because so much of my work is embodying and taking on different characters. But they’re my own; it’s not an act.”
In 1997, when she was 16, Nini and her parents moved to Givatayim, near Tel Aviv. After studying theater at Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, she was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces for 21 months — service is mandatory for all Israeli citizens 18 or older. But she found a way to make the best of the two radically different experiences: Serving in the shaken-up world of the early 2000s, she paid close attention to human nature in a way that might inform her future acting career. It was also the beginning of her life as a musician; she spent nine months in an army band performing on many bases around the country. Back on her base, she would report armed with her guitar and darbuka, an Egyptian drum, and perform Israeli songs with a fellow guitarist soldier. It was a pivotal moment: Realizing how connected to her voice she was, she gave up acting and moved back to New York at the age of 21, and enrolled in the New School’s jazz and contemporary music program.
One of her professors was Gerry Hemingway, a former sideman in Anthony Braxton’s quartet, who introduced Nini to new kinds of improvisation that eventually helped develop her vocal technique. In a class, Hemingway had his students record sounds from everyday environments — like the creaking of a door — and then explore their instruments through unidiomatic ways of playing to emulate those sounds, sometimes using color scores or graphic notation.
“That was really transformative because with any challenge I had with my voice — like if I was running out of breath — I could follow my own rhythm and listen in a different way,” Nini said. “Whatever came up, I would turn that into something musical. I could improvise with texture and the shape of my mouth to get different kinds of sounds, which took me away from notes, pitches, melodies — that tradition. I found a whole world of sounds that I could make.”
Nini prefers to perform in intimate settings, her mostly wordless vocals radiating a transcendental spirituality informed by her experience as a yoga teacher for 12 years. Sometimes she mimics the ups and downs of conversation, or channels the chirping and ululating vocals of Meredith Monk, one of her major influences. Other times she really embodies the sounds she’s making, getting on her knees and contracting her body to reach a deep, harrowing tone, if that’s what it takes. It allows her not only to sound authentic, but also to reach for extreme pitches without hurting her larynx.
A Middle Eastern influence balances the savagely unconventional sounds she often creates; you can hear a fluid mix of Tuvan throat singing and the ghost of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. “Every time I sing certain kinds of Middle Eastern modes, if I try to emulate the sliding and different ornaments in those modes, it feels so right in my body,” she said. “It’s in my blood, part of my ancient history.” The result can be palliative and even restorative, a kind of soul healing that is at the heart of the ongoing project, I See You.
A cross between social project and performance, I See You was conceived as a way of reigniting human connection at Wild Up’s solstice-theme festival Darkness Sounding, in 2021. For each one-on-one performance, Nini visited people who had signed up and sang for about five minutes, from a safe distance, accompanying herself with the drone of a shruti box, an Indian instrument that uses a system of bellows. During each performance, she would try to hold people “within my energetic sphere,” she told me. “If we allow ourselves to be seen and to see each other, within the first minute our ego is gone, our guards are gone, and it’s just two humans facing one another.”
While Nini’s first two albums — Vougheauxyice (Voice, 2014) and Voice Bath (2021) — document a career throughline of vocal improvisation and healing mediation, Ode (2022) is a leap forward. The wild and earthy new album is made exclusively from live takes and overdubs of her voice, except for an electronic drone and a crystal bowl in the middle tracks. It brings out a clearer sense of direction, even when there is pure improvisation, than its less self-assured predecessors. Sometimes guided by what she loosely describes as roadmaps, Nini arrives at distinct sections that trace the outline of each semi-improvised composition.
In “LaLa,” the serpentine opener, a single syllable set to a syncopated rhythm speeds up and gets warbled. When the voice strains, you hear overtones that turn into an electronic buzz. Nini then slows down into a pained wailing; she can take on a girlish crooning, or coo like a baby, alternating with raspy grunts from her chest voice. But there are also islands of sweet, hummable lines that resonate across space. “Ode” is an improvisation on the Yemenite song “Dala Dala,” which Nini learned from her grandmother. It is a sorrowful intonation from the depths of her range; Nini keens with an emotional pointedness that penetrates the core of human distress — a feeling that only the human voice can express.
Out October 7 on Populist Records, Ode captures something of Nini’s spiritual healing practice. Some have called her an oracle, a label she rejects. “I never marketed myself as this is what I do; I was just doing my art, my interdisciplinary experimental vocal thing, but I just couldn’t ignore all those other elements that are part of it — the spirituality and energy that I was feeling and communicating.”
“I want people to feel my music,” she added. “How do I create a performance that is an experience where people respond with a feeling, not a reflection of what they heard but what they felt?”
She’s now looking to reach people 90 and older, who might be near the end of their lives. In October 2021, Nini sang for Regine Verougstraete, a friend of a friend, as she lay in her deathbed. She died of breast cancer three days later. “I believe that sound can explain to the beating of my heart what my words cannot,” she wrote for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, inspired by the cathartic experience.
Whether she’s helping someone let go and die in peace, or aiming to transmit a smidgen of healing through human connection, “it’s very important to me that I know why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she told me. “When I’m in that space and I’m improvising, it becomes very clear, even if the words don’t come to me when I’m performing. I embody that intention and that clarity.”
To celebrate the release of Ode, Nini will perform at the Philosophical Research Society (Los Angeles) on November 1; and at the Tenri Cultural Institute (New York City) on November 9.
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