CIM graduate returns to Cleveland with jazz, cabaret aspirations
Issue date: 11/20/09 Section: Focus
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"When people hear anything, their immediate reaction is to compare it to something they're familiar with," said Nilles, "and I'll be described as the 'female version of so-and-so,' which is unfortunate. But that's fair, I'll take whatever comparisons I can get."
Considering the direction that her music takes, combining resigned, smoky jazz with dark, Brechtian cabaret, the comparisons are not entirely unmerited. Even so, the manner in which she effortlessly fuses these two distinct moods results in a specific atmosphere, captured in her most recent album, 2009's The Off-White Album and Waltzes in the Key of Gypsy McGee.
Nilles didn't always picture herself a singer-songwriter, though. Having grown up in Chicago and taken piano lessons since the age of six, she eventually found herself studying piano performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music. While she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in piano performance, the experience left her wanting more out of life.
"I was just unhappy playing piano in this classical setting that revolved around merely recreating works from a specific community of old, dead, rich people," said Nilles, "and being in a socially and politically active place like Cleveland gave me a real need to be a part of the current world. I felt a great discomfort as a citizen."
Even as a CIM student, there were still few signs that pointed Nilles toward songwriting as a viable career option.
"I taught myself guitar at 18, just a few Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Ani Difranco songs," said Nilles. "Every now and then, a few of us would spend a weekend night in a practice room, playing songs on the piano. It was really a great release and time off from serious practicing."