Nikki Lane gracefully flings herself into a high-backed chair and lifts her long, toned legs so her feet rest on a ledge in one of the famed recording studios at the Jimi Hendrix-founded Electric Lady Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village.
She’s a study in relaxation next to her blue jean, t-shirt wearing producer Jonathan Wilson, who smiles in greeting before he swivels his chair back to laser focus on the backing musicians working on Nikki’s new album scheduled to be released in 2016.
“I failed chorus,” she says with a laugh just moments before she sits on a plush couch to talk about her road from her native Greenville, SC, to a fashion career in Los Angeles and New York before turning her attention to music. “I talked too much. I still do! And I was talking during the choir and she didn’t like me. She disliked me enough to not want me to be there. She didn’t want a smart-ass, back talking kid in her class.”
Ironic that those same qualities — combined with mega self-confidence, killer songwriting skills, and a bewitching stage presence — won her 2014 album All or Nothin’ critical acclaim and found her as a nominee for the upcoming Americana Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year Award. It’s easy to understand why. In this age of vanilla-flavored country music — mixed and whipped to mimic the latest radio hits — and sterile artists, 31-year old Nikki is a mix of Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and model Kate Moss. Oh, and she’d like to be a Playboy centerfold, too.
For now, though, the sassy songbird settled for talking about her work ethic, her music, and how a recent fan encounter gave her a new shot of enthusiasm for her work.
What prompted you to drop out of high school, pack your stuff in a trailer and move to Los Angeles? I don’t know many teens that are that brave!
My family had this theory if I left school everything was fucked. I dropped out to prove a point. My grandfather proved a point too. I didn’t get the car he promised he was going to give me [if I graduated]. So he made his point, too.
Did you start songwriting and singing in LA? Is that why you went there, to follow that dream?
No. I wrote about 10 songs with a friend of mine at the time, I worked at [high-end clothing store] Fred Segal, but then I got a fashion job in New York. I am not the kind of person who sits and daydreams and thinks, “One day I’ll be famous. They will pay me just to be here.” Fuck that! I wanted to do something tangible with my hands. Everyone in my family is very hard working. And I wanted money. When I was a little kid I did side jobs because money could buy me the things I wanted, like Mystic [wine coolers].
You might be the first musician I’ve interviewed who has said money is as important as art.
Why is it so bad to make money? I think it’s a cop out. I was talking to some guy the other day and he said “I couldn’t do anything else besides music.” I was like, “That is absolute bullshit. You play an instrument that no one else can pick up and play. So you can’t do anything else? You couldn’t be a mailman? My mailman is dope but you can do that. You decided to skip out on having a real job and play music. What you said is fucking ridiculous.” I need to make money, the right amount, the fair amount. I don’t understand why artists say they are not about that. It is about that. Your landlord thinks it’s about that.
You chose the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach to produce your last album. Now you have Jonathan Wilson (Conor Oberst, Father John Misty). That seems like an unusual choice.
Probably. But what defines an unusual choice? Dan was an unusual choice. I like working with different people all the time and that’s interesting. That’s the thing about producers, it’s fun to create a song. We create it from nothing. Jonathan doesn’t pretend to know anything definitively. That’s really good. I like working with someone who wants to find the best approach — as opposed to working with someone who is always telling me what to do. That happens in studios.
Did you write all the new songs?
We’ve [recorded] 11 and I co-wrote three, all with guys on Music Row. I get annoyed as shit that they consider themselves songwriters and not performers. These guys are so cute and good at writing and singing and they are smart.
What is it about performing that you really enjoy?
As annoying as I think my job is when [I hit rough spots], there are things that make it worthwhile. I was really stressing the other day. I was in an antique store and this girl says, “Are you Nikki?” and she wanted a picture with me. I looked like a wreck but that was fine. It felt good to be recognized, have her ask. I will suck it up a bit longer because [if I had any other job] I would never be 2,000 miles away from home and meet some girl who is geeking out over a song I wrote. When that happened I thought, “Ok, I can do for a while longer.”
I know you loved working at Fred Segal in LA and you’ve had some prestigious jobs in fashion. Is it fair to say you’ve left that behind for music, at least for the foreseeable future?
Who knows? Honestly, the reason I am doing it is that I’m stuck riding out this wave I’m riding. It’s fun now…but I could make a record people could decide they don’t want and then they don’t come out to see me perform. And if that happens, I’m out. I have a lot of other things I’d like to do with my time. I devote my time to making circles around the country to see my fans. That’s my job. If they weren’t there I wouldn’t go. There are a lot of other things I want to do.
NIKKI LANE’S TOP FIVE ALBUMS
“Remember the Traveling Wilburys? This is the closest comparison you could make to this band’s second album. It’s hard to pick a favorite in this eclectic bunch: Deer Tick’s John McCauley & Robbie Crowell, former Black Lips’ guitarist Ian St. Pé, Dead Confederate’s T. Hardy Morris, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Six Finger Satellite’s Bryan Dufresne.”
LIONS AND LAMBS
Cary Ann Hearst
“Plenty of people already know and love Shovels and Rope, but this record of Cary Ann’s, produced by Butch Walker a few years back, lit a fire under my ass to start playing more music. Easily one of my favorite singers I’ve ever heard.
“They’ve made three of four records now, but this first record from Nashville’s Natural Child changed my thoughts on the town I had just moved too. Not only do we have great country music, there’s plenty of rock and roll. These guys are still my favorite Nashville band to watch play.”
DREAMING MY DREAMS
“Our favorite tour song to cover is ‘Waymore’s Blues’ on account of this one line: I got my name painted on my shirt, I ain’t no ordinary dude I don’t have to work … This is far and away my favorite batch of songs anyone ever put on one record.”
“If I could have put out a debut album like this… Well, life would be a lot different. J.J.’s lyrics and delivery just seem to be effortless, song after song… My favorite – ‘Magnolia.’”