Nilu Madadi crashed the local music scene two years ago with the underground hit "Sing for You." The YouTube video of her performing the sultry, breathy piano ballad at the Noise Coalition in Costa Mesa went viral, and flocks of new fans gravitated to a new, OC songwriting talent. But as all the newfound attention came to Nilu, she retreated.
"There was a lot that happened after 'Sing for You' that kept me away from my piano," she says. "I became a bit too critical of myself and my songwriting. It was pretty exhausting."
Long before the singer blew up, she threw up. At an early age, her mother had exposed her to Persian classical music and poetry. She remembers performing in a piano recital "when I was, like, 5," Nilu says. She was so nervous she puked. As she got older, the retching continued. "I sang for the first time in front of a few people at an open mic at Gadgetbox Studios in Santa Cruz when I was 21 and dry heaved before. I'm a mess." But for now, Nilu's nerves seem under control. When she recently graced stages at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa and the City National Grove of Anaheim, her long, slender fingers trekked across the piano keys as she crooned her emotionally charged lyrics, and between songs, she cracked jokes with the crowd.
Overcoming personal struggles during the past year provided the creative crucible for Dichotomy, Nilu's much-anticipated debut EP. The four-track effort is anchored by "Breakdown," a pensive piano ballad positioned to keep her musical momentum going two years after first gaining recognition.
"For me, songwriting comes most easily when I'm feeling an extreme," Nilu says. "I was in a real shit hole when I wrote 'Breakdown,' and the only thing I knew to do was to go to my piano and figure it out."
Climbing out of it through musical expression, Nilu and her band mates prepared to hit the studio. "We have worked really hard to bring these songs to life," she says. "As a band, we had never dissected those songs so deeply." The meticulous approach is evident. For the intro to "Someday," Nilu plucks an acoustic guitar before rocking out with a crunching chorus. Various stringed instruments accentuate Dichotomy's expertly crafted arrangements.
The debut recording also allowed her to return to the song that kick-started it all. Nilu brought "Sing for You" into the studio, layering vocals and changing pitches. "There's a way heavier climax and outro with the drums and guitar at the end that I think sounds super-tasty," she says.
"I'm definitely looking forward to people hearing other songs I wrote," Nilu continues. "I wouldn't want one song to define me as an artist, but I understand the concept that there needs to be one song for people to hear and connect to, and if they connect to that song, hopefully, they will take the time to listen to the rest of you."
Nilu is beyond that self-described intense period of confusion, inconsistencies and hyper-analysis, and she is ready for the next step.
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"It took me a minute to leave all that behind and stay present with what was important," she says.
Nilu performs with Yellow Red Sparks, Asleep At the Gate and Hicks Canyon Band at the Constellation Room at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Thurs., Jan. 16, 8 p.m. $10. All ages. For more info on Nilu, visit www.nilumusic.com.