Brother of Six60’s front man MatiuNiko Walters was first introduced to local music audiences by Universal Music NZ as ‘NZ’s newest singer-songwriter’ with Moving On, back in June 2019. A Covid-19 impacted year later, Escape was released as the lead single for his forthcoming debut album, a soulful track with an electronic twist that certainly meets his record company’s assertion that he has a penchant for ‘making beautiful sounding music above anything else’. Richard Thorne talked with him to find out more.

For a relatively new artist, the sound of Escape is effortless and assured, the chorus in particular showcasing a real vocal talent, matched with evident songwriting chops. There’s no trick to Escape’s immediate intimacy according to singer-songwriter and guitarist Niko Walters.

“I think it’s just an authentic song, we weren’t trying to force a story at all. There was a feeling we wanted to convey and that came through with the lyrics and delivery, and then the music came together to match that as well. So it just happened organically. The guitar notes at the start open it up and help to set that emotional tone.”

That mid-tone jazzy warmth of a hollow-bodied electric guitar is a frequent element in his music, though Niko says a Fender Telecaster is his instrument of choice.

“I’ve got a few. I mainly bounce between an American Pro Tele and an Epiphone Les Paul, but I often use a friend’s Gibson ES-339 in the studio.”

And there’s no jazz in his background, in fact no traditional guitar training, or history of lessons.

“The way I learnt guitar was through having a big family who passed an acoustic guitar around, playing chords and singing. They happened to be more jazz chords than whatever. I just like that hollow-bodied sound, it’s a bit more thick and rich sounding as opposed to rocky, twangy sound. It’s just a personal preference.”

Actually Niko’s far from hung up on equipment. He uses a clean amp he can’t quite recall the model of when asked, and rather than a bank of pedals admits to favouring the ease of amp modelling software. Maybe that’s because he is still feeling his way towards the kind of music he will be making into the future – it’s evident that he’s working through a variety of genres with his debut release.

“Yeah, massively! I’ve been experimenting a lot with genres at the moment and that definitely comes through on the new album. I really like to play with the space between real organic live sounds, natural instruments, and blending that with electronic instruments and sound, playing with that kind of spectrum.

Escape is a good example of that, with the blend of electronic and organic. There’s lofi synths in there, which sound kind of like a Rhodes keyboard with a lot of effects on them, and the drums start quite natural, then get more electronic as it goes on. And then there’s real pop stuff in there as well. Yeah, it moves around quite a bit.

“A more acoustic song like Moving On for example, I prefer to keep it way more organic, live drums and a cracking snare. Something more electronic or alternative I like to thicken it out, with a bit more of a reverbed snare, and maybe an electronic drum sound.”

Along with the evident musical variation is also vocal experimentation, as confirmed by the just-released second single Not My Neighbour, a song more closely affiliated to hip hop than soul or pop.

Not My Neighbour is an interesting one, I’d call it an obscure love song!” he laughs. “We basically wanted to write from a different angle, to get experimental, treat it almost like a movie or something. Then bring that to life sonically. To have some fun, write a love song but put a more interesting spin on it.

“Vocally Not My Neighbour is dynamic, in the sense the chorus is quite high in range, but the verse and pre-chorus is almost rap, a lot more spoken delivery. Whereas a lot of my songs to date have been a lot more traditional soul singing sort of style. So yes, vocally the delivery changes quite a lot, and it was something I definitely wanted to play around with.”

He can’t remember exactly which month, but says his signing to Universal happened in about March last year. Possibly that’s because it was all quite a surprise to find himself cast as an ‘artist’, and back then he’d not long returned to Aotearoa after a two-year OE mostly spent in London.

“I’ve always written songs and played the guitar and produced myself, but just privately – only for fun as a hobby – for friends and family. When I was living in London quite recently I had some time off in between jobs, so I just decided to spend the two weeks I had free going hard out writing a bunch songs. I put together a mixtape, probably about 15 songs, all under two-minutes… more just sort of soundscapes. I released those on Spotify and Apple Music and Youtube and stuff, and my friends and family kind of got around it. Then it went a bit wider and got cut up by a couple of people.

“I was surprised at how well it went, not that it blew up or anything, but I got a little bit of hype which was cool to see. When I got back to NZ and chatting to people I met up with Matt Kidd from Universal, and it started from there. A few writing sessions and we decided that we had something going and to give it a shot!”

The 30-year old newly minted artist laughs at the observation that his major record label alignment is an opposite approach to the fiercely independent one taken by his older brother Matiu with Six60.

“It wasn’t like a purposeful move for me, or for him,” he explains, a little bemused. “I hadn’t thought while I was in London that I’d sign to a label with it, and I also think it wasn’t his view when he released that EP down in Dunedin years ago, that he wouldn’t deal with a label. It’s not like he’s anti-label, or I’m anti-independent, it just the way it worked out and what suited our different circumstances at the time.”

One advantage of being signed to a major label is backing, and his album which is expected in September 2020 received NZ On Air project funding in September last year. Another big bonus of label association lies in songwriting workshops and collaborations, several of which he has already enjoyed. The tracks on his forthcoming album songs are all songs he’s written however, started either on acoustic or electric, or sometimes keyboard, though he says he’s not very good on keys.

“I like the start most, the concept work for a song. I’ve probably got thousands of little demos, which are just ideas, like a guitar riff with a hook. I think it feels a bit more like work when you are finishing a song and really going over it to put the final touches on it. I’d far rather be just jamming and coming up with melodies I like, and hooks and core concepts – I love doing that!”

Lyrical content doesn’t seem any trouble to him either. The rhyming is unforced, his songs flowing in a natural, somehow very Kiwi kind of fashion.

“I’ve always liked writing lyrics and not put too much pressure on myself in writing, so what has come out was meant to come out (without wanting to sound too clichéd!) I think as long as it flows, and sounds good, it doesn’t need to be like a technical rhyme. I value the lyrics making sense and telling what I want to tell over, say, watering down the lyrical content for the sake of having a good rhyme!”

Made with the support of NZ On Air.