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Nikki Jean: Friends In High Places

For her solo debut, <em>Pennies in a Jar</em>, Nikki Jean reached out to the songwriters who have inspired her most.
Courtesy of the artist
For her solo debut, Pennies in a Jar, Nikki Jean reached out to the songwriters who have inspired her most.

Nikki Jean got her first big break as a featured guest on Lupe Fiasco's 2007 album The Cool, but now she has stepped out on her own for her solo debut, Pennies in a Jar. On it, she collaborates with the likes of Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon and Carole King, among others.

Working with those veterans might seem like a stretch for Jean, who is still in her 20s. But she tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that she was first inspired to become a songwriter by an even older luminary: Irving Berlin, whose 100th birthday celebration she watched on TV as a kid.

"Even being 5, I already knew 'White Christmas,' I'd already heard 'God Bless America,' " she says. "He was immortal — he was 100 — but these songs were so fresh and alive, and it was so important to be a songwriter, obviously, because they had this big event. And that's when I decided I wanted to be one."

Jean says the roster of collaborators on Pennies in a Jar represents a dream come true. The experience, however, was not without its challenges — particularly in the title track, co-written with Burt Bacharach.

"It was the first time I was really exposed as a writer. Up until that point, I had been collaborating with people, and we would write the melody together. We would write the lyric together," she says. "With Mr. Bacharach, it was the first time where he was like, 'OK, I wrote the melody, you write the lyrics, and we'll see what you have by yourself.' And I was just pacing the floor in my apartment, like, 'How am I going to do this?' "

Jean says the song finally came when she let go of the ambition to match Bacharach's talent.

"I just stopped thinking of it like that," she says, "and was like, 'Just write from your heart — but really good.' "

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