Nicole Richie: “I love music, I also love to laugh and wanted to blend the two”

In surprise 2020 news, Nicole Richie has released a satirical rap album as her alter ego Nikki Fre$h. Marianne Eloise meets her to hear more about her new brand of "parent trap".

The first episode of Nicole Richie’s Quibi show, Nikki Fre$h, opens with an absurd scene: Richie,  dressed in a full gown and wearing an obscenely large headband, strolls into a meeting with husband (Good Charlotte’s) Joel Madden and brother-in-law Benji. She wants to discuss her idea for a rap album, “conscious trap” that she can play to her plants. As the brothers barely contain their laughter, Richie, deadpan, explains her intention: “I want to make music about things that are important to me.” She calls her new genre “parent trap”, asking the question: “Why should I be deprived of having bass flowing through my body just because my peak time is 9am?”

The scene, however silly, is based in reality. Richie had wanted to make a comedy album for a while, and once she’d cemented the idea, approached her husband and his management company MDDN.  “Look, obviously, it’s very different when you tell your husband something at home to when you tell him something at the office,” she tells me over Zoom from their home in LA. “We share an office space, but I made an appointment with him and Benj and I set a time. I went dressed as Nikki Fre$h because I wanted them to see where I was coming from.” As she sets the scene, it’s somehow more ludicrous than the recreation: “I was the only girl in that room. I brought a Rupi Kaur poem and I recited ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ and I said: this is the inspiration for my rap album that I want to do.”

While the meeting went better in real life, with the brothers immediately on board, Richie sees the absurdity of it. “I definitely was able to step out of my body a little bit and appreciate how funny it was. I mean, these guys, everyone is all black, you know?” She laughs. “I’m in my flowing gown, reciting poetry.” Convincing the twins to play themselves was the more difficult part: “Joel and Benji don’t like to be on TV ever, but I just begged them to come and be on because I was like, it’s so funny and I can’t do it with anyone else.”

Richie rose to fame in the early 2000s for reality series The Simple Life, in which she and Paris Hilton traded in their lavish, socialite lifestyles to work regular jobs. Her life now is decidedly slower than it was in 2004, and since the birth of her children and marriage to Madden in the late 00s, she’s leaned into family life. Richie celebrated her birthday a few days before we speak, and it was a quiet affair: “I spent my birthday with my family and it was really nice. Intimate. I’m 39, so I probably would be bummed if it was my 40th birthday, but y’know,” she laughs. “We hung out at the beach. We were just together. My kids are back in Zoom school, and basically everyone just Zooms all day long. Even though we’re together all the time, we’re never together.

While her new career as a trap artist might come as a surprise, it’s the convergence of two paths Richie has been on: one as a mum and an edible gardener, and the other as a comedian, a skill she started refining as early as The Simple Life and perfected in later shows like 2014’s Candidly Nicole and 2019’s sitcom Great News. For the character of Nikki Fre$h, comedy music seemed like the best vessel: “I grew up on the Adam Sandler comedy songs and Weird Al Yankovic. I love music, I also love to laugh and wanted to blend the two,” she says. Often, her comedy is a send-up of herself: of her own interests, values, or fame. “I love making comedy, but I also love watching comedy. I’m able to appreciate stereotypes and exaggerations. I have a sense of humour about that, so I do like leaning into it,” she says.

The idea for the album came before the show, but she was looking for a way to draw a distinction between herself and Fre$h, a glamorous, heightened version of the woman sitting on Zoom wearing a simple vest and looking subtly put together. At that time, Richie was approached by Quibi, a new short form streaming service: “I sat down with Quibi and we were talking about developing a show together and figuring out what that was going to be and I really wanted to make a show around who Nikki Fre$h is. What is this? Is she sane or is she not?” 

To bring Nikki Fre$h to life, Richie worked with her Candidly Nicole producers and a team of family and friends, finding that the album and show came together simultaneously. She co-wrote the songs with songwriter Sarah Hudson: “I just love her sense of humour so much. Obviously she’s an incredibly talented writer, but I called her and was like, would you even want to do something like this? And she was down,” says Richie. The show  is made up of six-minute long episodes wherein Fre$h tries to solve environmental and wellness problems. At the end of each is an elaborate, high-production music video: “I was shooting the show at the same time and no one on the show was able to hear the music first because I was in the middle of making it,” she laughs.

Richie – daughter of Lionel Richie – has been passionate about music through her entire life, and it’s evident in the songs: genuinely listenable, pop-trap tracks with catchy beats and sharp lyrics that she’s proud of. Over six tracks interspersed with comedic voicemails of family and friends dissuading Richie from her mission, ‘Unearthed’ explores topics close to her heart: gardening, parenting, growing your own foods, crystals, climate change. ‘Drip Drip’, which she co-wrote with husband Joel Madden, is about access to clean water, while on ‘Bee’s Tea’, Richie raps about bees dying out. “I wanted to have a real message behind it,” she tells me.

Nicole Richie interview

“You would hope that [comedians] are coming from a real place, and for me, that place is really wanting to connect with nature in a world where even before the pandemic, we were going so fast and moving and just being wild animals all the time,” she says, showing me Zadie Smith’s recent collection of essays, Intimations, the first of which is about finding time to appreciate nature. Richie has been growing her own food for years, but she’s aware that it’s an idea people take some time coming around to, telling me a story about a time her friend baulked at the idea of eating an orange off her tree. She’s genuinely horrified: “Like, this has to have a sticker on it and come from the store for you to feel safe about eating it. That’s the opposite of how we should feel! I’m trying to flip the mindset.”

She’s impassioned about the causes she explores both in the album and show, talking about food waste and climate change with a fervor that, were she not so funny, might feel like a lecture. She’s hoping to sneak that very real messaging into fun trap songs, and while she’s disappointed that the album was released at a time when people aren’t going to clubs, she’s got hope for the future. “I love a nice trick. I want to swoop in to people when they’re wasted at a club. For the next album, I’m trying to swoop into people’s minds when they’re out dancing, you know? So they wake up the next day, and the lyrics to these songs are in their subconscious. They’re thinking, ‘I need to grow an orange, I don’t know why I feel that way, but I do.’” she laughs.

While Fre$h is an exaggeration, her preoccupations are the same as Richie’s. On ‘Parent Trap’, she gently pokes fun at the ways her own life has changed as she’s gotten older. She tells me that she likes talking about parenting, and when she first had her kids, she felt pretty lonely. “I was 25 when I was pregnant with my daughter and 26 when I had her. I was basically the only mom out of my entire friend group.” That’s changed over the last few years: “a lot of my friends are working moms, too, so it’s figuring out how to do all of that and knowing that we’re not perfect and we don’t have all the answers and we are just humans living in this insane world that changes every year, you know?” 

Nicole Richie interview

In conversation, she’s honest about the challenges of motherhood, especially right now. “It looks like I’ve got a nice setup, but if you saw, the table is in the middle of the room and I’m trying to find one corner where people won’t cross my path,” she laughs, but she’s reflective, crediting her children with changing her priorities, forcing her to take notice of the world. “It definitely changes everything, in the best way. It’s hard to put it into one sentence, but I would say now that they’re here and I know what loving something is and caring about something, I would say, I don’t know if I ever cared about anything before I had kids,” she adds, “It gives you this entire other perspective, like, you are responsible for these people and their lives and our lives together and what is that? What do I stand for?”

The album diverts into some of Richie’s less grounded interests, too, like on ‘Lil Gems’, a fun, Lady Gaga-esque track about the power of crystals. “Sometimes I’m around wild animals and I’m like, I need a smoky quartz to keep me grounded around this,” she laughs. Living in LA, the centre of wacky spirituality, Richie stays around very “specific” types of people who share her beliefs. I ask her what her most out-there conviction is, and she tells me that she sells fine crystals through her brand House of Harlow. “I source all the crystals myself, but I also sage them and charge them in the full moon. I have had a lot of questions about that, so to me it feels normal and it feels like the logical thing to do, but maybe you consider that wacky, so I don’t know. Charging crystals in the full moon is amazing. They really do feel clean after.” she laughs. 

Richie’s talent throughout her career, from The Simple Life to Nikki Fre$h, lies in her ability to laugh at herself and subvert expectations. She has a dry, quick humour, and at this point, she’s more than found her niche. When asked whether she’d consider doing “serious” music, she’s not so sure: “I’m really enjoying the music that I’m making. I was able to work with an amazing producer and songwriter, this has been an amazing experience,” she says, adding that she’ll be writing another album for season two. It’s refreshing to speak to someone so self-aware and so willing to play up who they are, and before we say goodbye, she offers me a sage bit of advice: “Amethyst supposedly stops drunkenness, so stay far away from that. Don’t take them to a club with you if you want to get turnt,” she laughs. Maybe the line between Nicole Richie and Nikki Fre$h isn’t so clear, after all.

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