How do you become a pop star if you dread singing in front of an audience? Kiara Nelson confronted her fears and overcame stage fright in order to follow her dreams. Now the Finnish-American singer is spreading the message of positivity, confidence and mental health awareness through her catchy and playful r&b tunes.
Kiara Nelson was sure she would become a star. All she had to do was to hit the studio with a producer she'd met, record a song and upload it online, she thought. Now, five years later, Nelson laughs at how naive she was. Yes, she was definitely sincere and maybe also gullible, like teenagers tend to be. Things just don't always happen as expected, at least not when you're trying to reach Rihanna's level of stardom overnight without the help of a record label – from the Finnish suburban city of Espoo.
She got a good start, though, for a self-released single. Nelson's debut got coverage and airplay from the Finnish broadcasting company's youth media YleX. Zara Larsson and Dua Lipa were mentioned as references by journalists. The Knocks, an EDM duo from New York, asked Nelson to join them on stage for a song while supporting Justin Bieber on his Purpose World Tour for two nights in Helsinki.
"I remember having a horrible stage fright and went through all the worst case scenarios in my head. What if I faint, for example? All my fears and doubts vanished as soon as I got on stage", Nelson recalls.
"There I was. Nobody in the audience knew who I am and yet they screamed, shouted and were having fun. I'm never going to forget that experience."
Nelson released another single which didn't get the same attention. Her creative honeymoon with her first producer was fading, she now sees it. She didn't become a star, and the first phase of her career was over. Nelson disappeared almost as swiftly as she emerged.
All in the family
Kiara Nelson was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Soon after that, her American dad and Finnish mom divorced. She was only a couple of months old when her mother moved back to Finland with baby-Kiara. They first moved to Kotka, a southeastern port and industrial city, where they lived with her grandparents before finding their own home at Espoo, in the Capital Region of Finland.
Nelson spent her summers in Texas, where her father had moved to. But for her upbringing, she credits the strong women she's been surrounded by.
"My mother, my grandmother, my aunts. They are the most important people in my life. One of my aunts is like a big sister to me, we are best friends. My grandma flew to Berlin when I signed a record contract there, she wants to be present in every step of my career."
Nelson acknowledges her family as her biggest fans and says that they've been supportive all the way. It must have been hard sometimes: Nelson always knew that she wanted to be a singer but there has been times when she was too afraid to sing in front of anyone. When Nelson was younger, her grandmother used to say that God will take her gift away if she doesn't use it and sing. Even though she meant well, Nelson was frightened by it.
I remember having a horrible stage fright and went through all the worst case scenarios in my head. What if I faint, for example?
Nelson has been told that she sang before she talked. Singing Britney Spears' Toxic on a karaoke machine at the age of five is her first vivid memory. Britney changed her world. It represented pop music in its purest form for her. Nelson says she's gotten similar earth-shattering experiences from first Rihanna and then Ariana Grande.
On seventh grade she found the courage to perform, her first time in front of an audience not made of her relatives. Soon she sang on every occasion at school. But the next year she messed up the lyrics to a song once and some of her school mates laughed at her. Nelson went back in her shell and stopped singing even in front of her family.
It wasn't until she met her first producer Milos Rosas and booked a studio, that she realized she just has to start singing again.
"I had no other options. I did not want to give up on my dream."
Kiara Nelson says that the first years of her career were important. She learned a lot about the music business and the creative side of it: writing music, working in the studio.
"I realized rather quickly that this is going to be a long journey. I learned through trial and error and grew up both as a person and artist, musically."
After things had cooled off with her first producer, Nelson started working by herself. She participated in a songwriting camp in Berlin led by Belgian DJ and composer Henri PFR, known for his work for example with Robin Schulz.
"Working without a team can be challenging. There's a lot of disappointment involved in meeting new faces every day and writing with different people. I just wanted to find the right people around me."
Nelson had a day off during the camp and decided to go see her friends. By coincidence songwriter Andre Nookadu and Matt James, the other half of the producer duo M-22, were also present. They wanted to hear what Nelson was working on and she showed the Brits a couple of her demo tracks. Before they left James asked for Nelson's phone number. He said he was interested in working with her.
Nelson went back to the camp and brushed off the 10 minute encounter with Nookadu and James as nothing more than a polite small talk and casual networking. Turned out it was a pivotal moment in her career. Couple of days later James texted Nelson and asked her to come to Manchester and work with M-22.
"I was sitting in an airplane and thinking nervously what I was about to do. I literally met him for ten minutes, I knew nothing of him. Then the first song we did together blew my mind: this is the sound I've been looking for, this is what I want."
Consistency is the key
Kiara Nelson signed a deal with Sony Music's Four in Berlin and an exclusive producing deal with M-22's Matt James and Frank Sanders, who she now names her best friends as well. The second phase of Nelson's career started with M-22's poppy house track After Hours.
"This felt like a big leap even though it wasn't the first track I had released. But it served as an introduction: this the new Kiara, this is the direction I'm heading towards."
Since then Nelson has released three solo singles, Adore You, Kisses for Breakfast and Red Handed. All of them written with M-22 and the latter in addition with the help of Andre Nookadu. You can hear echoes of Nelson's childhood heroes from Britney to Christina Aguilera but also hints of her affection to American pop r&b of JoJo and Ciara. Amped up with production values of 2020's her music is playful, danceable and catchy.
"I've struggled with mental health issues my whole life. I want to assure that it's ok to not feel ok"
Nelson sings about relationships from a feminist point of view: self-confidence and empowerment are the messages she wishes to convey. Her next releases are going to expand these themes to mental health awareness: openness and acceptance.
"I've struggled with mental health issues my whole life. I would've benefitted from a role model such as Billie Eilish when I was younger. I want to assure that it's ok to not feel ok. It's still a learning process for me as well."
At the moment Kiara Nelson is struggling like the rest of us, waiting for the world to open again. She's not dreaming of instant stardom anymore. Consistency is the key to success, she knows it now.