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Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane
13 June 2014

Nikki Lane has called herself a country outlaw, and in many ways she is. All or Nothin’, the second album from the Greenville, South Carolina-born songwriter is country, but it’s certainly not the pop country you hear on the radio. Instead, Lane, born Nicole Lane Frady, sings songs that hark to a time where Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Loretta Lynn populated country music’s fringes, where forthright honesty was the mark of great country songwriting, where artists were never ones to pull punches or mince words.

Lane’s journey to All or Nothin’ was a somewhat circuitous one. Leaving home at 19, she moved to California to work in fashion. After then moving to New York to take a job with Marc Ecko, Lane became disenchanted with the world of mass market fashion, and she began writing songs. [Lane still designs her own merchandise and runs a boutique in Nashville called High Class Hillbilly.] An offer to make an album in Nashville yielded a now-unavailable album, No Room for Cowboys, which led to her signing with Iamsound and releasing her official debut, 2011’s Walk of Shame. With All or Nothin’, produced by The Black KeysDan Auerbach and out now on New West Records, Lane has found her songwriting and guitar playing skills having improved. Her old-time-country-chanteuse-in-hot-pants image and salacious lyrical bent (see All or Nothin’ ’s “Sleep With A Stranger”) have made Lane stand out among the few artists that are making true country music these days. And while she didn’t start out with a broad base of knowledge of the current genre in which her music seems to reside, Lane’s recorded and live performance belies this naiveté in engaging and musically spectacular fashion.

Lane took some time backstage on a stop of her recent tour to discuss her strange road to All or Nothin’ and what the future might hold.

What sort of music was in your home growing up?

NIKKI LANE: It was weird because I wasn’t super into music, or at least I didn’t know I was. I was in church choir. My family was separated. My mother listened to a lot of Motown and a lot of old beach music. And my dad was really into ’80s country. My next door neighbor, who was my best friend growing up when I was little, her dad listened to Pink Floyd and all the classic rock and we’d hang out in his house and head bang. My grandfather—when my parents separated, I spent so much time with him—was into mountain music. So I would go and try to learn how to play the dulcimer and listen to folk music with him. So I was just a byproduct of whatever room I was standing in.

Did your grandfather play music?

LANE: No. He just loved it. Last year he had heart failure, and I thought he was going to die. I went to see him at the hospital, and he was remembering the war or something and he was yelling. I was like, “Somebody go get a cassette player,” and we put in all the old folk music tapes. The lady said that it really soothed him, and a couple days later he was normal again. He was very soothed by music, but he never played. Nobody in my family played. My dad thinks he’s a songwriter. It’s pretty cute. He gets drunk and writes songs and leaves them on my voicemail.

I understand you got into more of the classic country that you’re more associated with, later.

LANE: Yeah, not until I was like 25.

How does that happen?

LANE: Well, it’s kind of from boys I had crushes on. There’s this guy Zach Cowie, who’s a DJ in California, and for Christmas, I gave him an iPod and he put a bunch of music on it for me and spoon fed me a lot of stuff that I knew about but didn’t know about. I was telling him I was thinking about trying to play music, and he was like, “Why don’t you cover Waylon Jennings’ ‘Dreaming My Dreams?’” And I remember listening to it and being like, “Who’s Waylon Jennings?” I wasn’t even aware of how great outlaw country was. I wasn’t even 23 at that time. When I moved to New York, I just got really into it. I found myself having spare time on the subway and just hitting like Colin Hare or Wizz Jones or Burt Jansch. But I couldn’t play that. They were all so talented. So when I started trying to play music, I was like, “Okay, what can I actually play?” I could play three chords, so that was Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, so I started playing those songs in the living room, trying to learn how to play. That was what really got me into it, understanding the simplicity. I grew up as a teenager listening to punk rock and rock and roll but it didn’t occur to me that it was easy to play that type of music, that it was just a couple chords. It just seemed so far over my head. Classic country was what showed me that I could do it.

It’s interesting that it came to you in New York too.

LANE: I think part of the reason I sound country is just my accent and the way that it comes out when I sing. It’s just what it is. I wish I could sing rock and roll, but it just doesn’t work. I don’t think I know how to strum fast enough. I don’t know how to swing my hair.

I understand you went to California first before New York.

LANE: Yeah, just before I turned 19, I moved out there.

You were trying to get into fashion?

LANE: Kind of. I thought I was going to go to FIDM [Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising] but really I just thought I was getting away. I realized I was about to finance a washing machine and dryer for my new apartment in South Carolina, and I freaked out and just moved. I can’t be stuck in South Carolina with a nice washing machine. When I got to California, I thought I was going to go to FIDM, and I walked the campus and it just seemed expensive and not really my thing. I’ve always had to learn things the hard way, like it or not. So I just started looking for jobs. My first job was actually as a nanny. And then I started producing fashion shows and making shoes. I was designing and making shoes, and having them sourced, and then I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand wholesale versus retail. I didn’t understand any of it. When I moved there, I kinda thought I was going to be an A+R executive. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought that meant I just had a credit card and I got to flirt with rock stars. And then, as I grew up, I started to figure out what all these jobs entailed.

What made you move to NY from there? I heard you got a corporate job.

LANE: I got a real job, yeah, working for Marc Ecko, the Rhino brand. I met the head merchandiser and the CEO, the people who ran the company, and I was so smitten with their business brain. In my mind, I hoped to own my own rock and roll Gap where everybody needs to come by their things. And the only way to do that was to learn how to mass produce. So these people really understood how to make a lot of product and move it quickly. And that seemed really alluring to me. I was still trying to figure out the machine and in doing so learn that I wasn’t really trying to make 60,000 units of something. I was trying to figure out how to make a product I would wear, which is more of a niche product and a little bit more made in the US, just because of quality and character. So again, it was a learning experience. Ultimately, the second I quit my job, I found myself freezing in a New York apartment and playing guitar and learning how to write songs.

So it’s not like you were writing that whole time?

LANE: No. I wrote some stuff in California, and my first show became my going away show, to move to New York. And I got there and was working a lot. I remember I got on Craigslist to look for somebody to play music with, because I had just moved to a new town and it seemed like the right thing to do. I’ll never forget, there was this one instance where I went up to the Bronx and I went to a loft to play music with a guy. There was dust on everything. I realized when I walked in that I was probably going to get murdered or something. The guy was so weird, and probably not even a musician. He was basically trying to lure girls over to hang. And I got really scared and texted my friend the address and was like, “I don’t know how this is going to go.” It actually went really bad, because we didn’t really hit it off. I left town, and he sent me an email and was like, “What’s up?” I didn’t get back to him, and then he sent me this really vulgar email, being like, “Don’t mess with me. How dare you play with my head?” And then he sent me a video of him clucking around like a chicken. I was like, “Oh my god, this guy is going to show up and chop my head off or something.” Then I was just like, “Okay, don’t go to Craigslist to find bands. Surely you know some normal people with guitars in town.” But I was a little insecure. I didn’t want to tell my immediate friends that I was trying to do it because I didn’t want to sing in front of them yet. I was a baby. I sang on a couple things, but I had to close my eyes or they’d have to make it kinda dark in the room.

Tell me about No Room from Cowboys ?

LANE: [Laughs.] Where is that?

I know you moved to Nashville….

LANE: I didn’t even live there. I got on Myspace. I found guys who would record it, Adam Landry and Justin Collins. They now do a lot of records. Middle Brother. They’re doing the T. Hardy Morris record. My pedal steel player that I just picked up is T. Hardy’s pedal steel player and he just finished recording that record. It’s really cool because I was kind of their first project. I sent Justin a Myspace message, and was like, “Hey I got some songs. I can’t really play music though. What do I do?” And he was like, “Come down here. We’ll make a record.” It was their test project. In six days and we recorded 10 songs, mixed them, drove to Loretta Lynn’s house listening to them, and I was like, “Oh shit, I made a record.” And that was No Room for Cowboys ….Ultimately the record got scrapped anyway. My label, when I signed at Iamsound, wanted to do a different recording. They didn’t want it to be too honky-tonk. And now it sits there. I’ve been talking to New West about how this record needs to come out. It’s not even bad. It’s just really country. There’s a lot of people who are going to enjoy it. But I didn’t know anything. They said, “We want to make a record and we want it to sound a little different.” And I was like, “Another record? We get to make another one? Perfect.” There’s a couple songs on Walk of Shame that are on No Room for Cowboys, that we re-recorded. And there’s the Gone, Gone, Gone EP that’s got “Western Bound” in its original recording and another one that we just kept because they were great. Again, there’s nothing wrong with them. I think my label was just nervous about it being too country. And like I said, I play ball. Tell me why. Let’s figure it out. It doesn’t need to be that country.

Was that the kind of record you wanted to make at the time, a honky-tonk record?

LANE: I didn’t even know. I just knew that I had some songs. My boyfriend and I had broken up. He was making a record. I didn’t want to be sitting at home while he was going down to Atlanta to make a record. I was like, “I’m going to make a record too.” So I went and made a record. And I now know, being a solo artist, your record is dependent upon a couple of variables—your songs, your producer, your musicians, your mixing. There are so many things controlling it. I didn’t know how to control what my record was going to sound like. I knew that I trusted these two guys to make 10 songs with their buddies for the limited amount of money we had. And that’s what we got. It sounds way better than what I would get for that amount of money today. I was impressed. I came home, showing it off. All of a sudden I wasn’t nervous anymore, because I knew it was good. I was embarrassed because I couldn’t play them like that by myself. My guitar skills hadn’t caught up. I had only been playing guitar about eight months. I just had this record that I made—that, to tell the truth, everybody else made, I just went in there and sang. Listening to my voice on that record is funny, because it’s a lot different. It’s gotten broader and warmer and more developed.

I thought that story about your boyfriend breaking up with you and you going down to Nashville to make a record was the story for Walk of Shame.

LANE: Well it became that, because that record No Room for Cowboys is what got me the deal that resulted in Walk of Shame. I sent the files to someone, and they were like, “Great, let’s go hammer it out and do it again.” Which is exactly what Adam and Justin told me what would happen. I didn’t think so. At first, I didn’t think anybody was going to buy it or pay for it, and then I thought they weren’t going to tamper with it, that they were just going to put it out. But this industry is all about curveballs right?

What did you know you wanted to do differently with the new record than with Walk of Shame?

LANE: I was hoping I could pick one producer, because the thing about Walk of Shame is that it’s split between Dave Cobb and Lewis Pesacov, who are two guys I met on the same day and fell equally in love with in their studios and in their environments. I went home and cried, because I had been writing for six weeks. I was really drained. I was really ready to put it out there and get it locked down, but I didn’t know what to do. I knew that Lewis had a strong amount of indie influence and Dave had a strong ability to pull off country records that didn’t sound like they were on the radio. I didn’t know what my direction was, so I just split it. And while that was awesome, I don’t think it was necessarily fair to anyone. For the credits, it took me forever to rein in how many people played in the various sessions and for the various tracks. It was like, “We can do this more easily if I’m more confident.” For me, it was like, “Who’s going to make this record that I’m going to be able to trust, all in, with the next step of my career.” After Walk of Shame came out, it went well as far as people were telling me, but I wasn’t living off of it, so I was on the fence about whether I even wanted to keep going. I needed somebody to revitalize that for me, and Dan [Auerbach] did that, because the second we started writing, I realized that all my inhibitions about co-writing, going out and trying to write with other people so I could learn chords, like a B7 or whatever, and just the ability to grow as a songwriter, I could get all of that from working with him. There was no ego. He was super chill. We had a lot of common interests. It was just really easy to hammer out a song in four hours. He was going to take care of the players, and the people he named were my friends, so there was no concern there. I just had to hone in on an image. He said, “You’ve got to know what it looks like, what it sound like, what it feels like, so I just started showing him references, and picking out outfits, trying to paint the picture what this project looked like. I knew that it needed to be a mix tape, because I wanted you to love it, I wanted my dad to love it, I wanted my ex-boyfriend to hate it. I wanted everyone to get something out of it. I didn’t want to pick one genre or one group of people who were going to be interested in it.

I thought your ex-boyfriend became your husband.

LANE: He did. He’s my ex-husband now. Poor rock and roll and its sacrificial-ness.

I guess what I’m still curious about is, Why Nashville?

LANE: Money. It’s Music City. Now 10 different people have learned this record. One, because I always joke about firing people. And two, I’m not making enough money. I can’t knowingly ask somebody to sacrifice the amount of income they need, to work with me. So I will have somebody play with me for as long as they have the down time, and then they’ll go off to play with somebody else where they’re making good money. And somebody else has to learn the record. So I needed flexibility. In New York and L.A., it was hard to get people to take the time to practice, because they needed to bartend four nights a week because they had $1,600 a month rent, so it all played into not only my money but my players’ money. If I wanted to take dudes out on the road from L.A. or New York, they were expensive, because their overhead was expensive. My background singer right now, she’s out because I hired her on the fly, but I told her, “I really want you forever, but not with New York prices.” Her place is four times what mine is. That’s just what it is. It’s just not conducive. Playing $1,600 bucks a month for rent, not counting utilities, not counting renting a van or whatever, and trying to tour just didn’t work. So I had to pick something. I wanted to go to Austin, I was interested in it, but four hours from Austin is still Texas, in any direction. I wanted the opportunity to be able to get out and go and not be stuck. And you know what, Nashville is blowing up. The second I got there—not that I did that—but the second I got there things started happening. It was just the right moment. I got there to test it out and I could have given up and gone somewhere else or bounced back to something I had already done, but the ball started rolling. Press started happening. I started working on photo shoots with people coming in town to shoot things. Features on Nashville. I got to be in them. I got to work on them. I was just like, “This works for me.”

Did Nashville fit the songs you were writing?

LANE: I guess so. But then again, I don’t really write about what’s out the window; I write about what’s in my head.

But were you thinking, “This kind of fits with my voice and …

LANE: Totally. Like I said, when I sing it comes out country, so of course it fits. But also Nashville is really welcoming to newcomers. Maybe not all of them. But I got really lucky that people were really supportive and there was no reason to change courses. And there’s still none.

Do you feel like you get pigeonholed in terms of what you sing or that the market for what you do is broadening into more of an indie base?

LANE: It’s interesting because my songs and production are too far left of center for country radio but they’re too edgy for some Americana stuff. So in a way, sometimes I wish I would get pigeonholed, right into the Queen of Country era. I have heard a lot lately about being an outlaw, which I brought up and thought sounded awesome. And being a bad girl. You always get worried about going too far in one direction, because I don’t want people to think that I only write songs about sleeping around or cheating or being miserable. But those are the moments when I feel compelled to write and are also the moments that I feel compelled to listen to somebody else’s sad song about that shit. I’m just trying to take a multilayered approach to those feelings. And if the lyrics are really sad, maybe the music sounds really happy. I think I’ve been able to avoid being completely pigeonholed. Maybe that would be great if you sort me right into a format. It would be easier to market me. It would be easier to find me a million dollars in one little corner that has that available. But the good news is that it’s coming about quickly and slowly. It’s getting bigger organically. I don’t want to be what your wife goes and listens to and you’re not into. And I don’t want your wife to hate that you going to my show. I don’t want full grown working white man Republicans from Alabama at a fundraiser to laugh when I sing “Sleep with a Stranger.” I don’t want them to be deeply offended, but I want to be able to go to L.A. and play in front of those kids and get the same reaction.

Have you found anyone who’s deeply offended?

LANE: No. But you get worried, like, “How should I approach this set—I’m talking about pot three songs in a row?” People don’t mind. It’s not like I’m being overtly offensive. If you can hear all those words I’m spitting out in 3 ½ minutes, congratulations. People are responding really well. It’s so flattering because again, I could still quit. Could quit at any moment.

So what’s next then?

LANE: What’s next is just keep going. Unfortunately—and fortunately, I guess—there’s no finish line. The record comes out and the new portion of your job starts. So I learn how to tour. I have my first headlining tour in June. My goal is to not play to an empty room. I’m terrified people aren’t going to come. So now I’m trying to figure out how to brilliantly promote myself and get even 40 or 50 people in the room at night. And that’s consuming a lot of time. As well as trying to figure out how to put a record out in the U.K. Everyone tells me they’re going to love me. I’d love to find out.

It sounds like your really involved in all aspects.

LANE: Oh yeah. I don’t have a choice. It’s my personal nature. I’ve got my nose in everything that’s mine. Even though I know that I’ve finally found a complete team and they all love me and they’re all working for me, at the end of the day, the truth is those people have a label and a management company and whatever, so that means I get 10-15% of their time. And I appreciate that, but I know that I’m the only person truly, truly devoting 100% of my time to what I’m doing. So I think I’d be a fool not to. It’s hard to get ahead in this industry. I know a lot of people who blame everything else for not getting ahead, and it’s like I always say, application of energy. I spend all my energy making sure that I’m not the reason it’s not working. If it’s not working it’s because people don’t want it. And if they don’t want it, I’ll just quit doing it. But it won’t be for lack of trying.