Alaska Native singer-songwriter Byron Nicholai has released a new album. “Ayagnera” was released on March 25. Two days later, it ranked among the top 10 new albums of the worldwide genre on iTunes.
In 2016, Nicholai was dubbed “the Justin Bieber of Alaska” a year after releasing his debut album, “I am Yup’ik.”
Nicholai has since moved to Anchorage from her home in Toksook Bay, a Bering Sea coastal village on Nelson Island. He works with a remote producer. “One of the main reasons I left Toksook [Bay] in Anchorage is so I can get faster internet,” he said. “I feel like it would ruin my momentum a bit, because sometimes I’d love to work on a track, but having internet issues would just erase that.”
It took more than two years for Nicholai to create the 13 new tracks of “Ayagnera”. He recorded it entirely in his bedroom in Anchorage and it caught the international attention of Rolling Stone India websitewho recently presented the album alongside four other young global artists.
The songs are almost entirely in Yugtun, the indigenous language Nicholai grew up speaking. He also uses traditional Yup’ik music as inspiration. “I always grew up drumming and dancing,” Nicholai said. “And just the song behind the drum, where it’s just that singular beat, you can transfer that into a completely different song as long as you keep that beat. And having that unique beat as we sing and dance helps create those songs.
Music is how Nicholai keeps his Alaska Native language alive, and he said it’s also an experience in modernizing traditional Yup’ik music and dance. He said a lot of the album involves a mix of emotions. He sings about his own struggles, the struggles of others and his family. The genres he uses to express his feelings in songs are just as mixed as his emotions.
“All the time I was doing, I was recording a song based on how I was feeling at the time,” Nicholai said. “I have a few rap songs in there, I have a few R&B songs. I have songs in there that sound like pop, and I have a song in there that sounds like electronic dance music.
Nicholai will perform for fans in Bethel this weekend.