The Rumpus Interview with Nikki Lane

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Rarely do musicians arrive on the scene as fully formed as Nikki Lane. Her full-length debut, Walk of Shame, on Los Angeles-based IM Sounds, reveals a performer with the confidence to move fearlessly between genres while retaining her own singular identity. An American from the South who moved to Los Angeles and then New York City to achieve actualization as an artist, Lane eventually settled in Nashville, away from the coastal centers of cultural production. In that respect, she embodies the conflict many artists, writers, and musicians experience as they try to deal with the cost of living in contemporary America. In conversation, Lane proves unfailingly generous, entirely willing to discuss her process as a songwriter and what she’s learned from collaborating with other musicians and songwriters as well as the life experiences that led to her becoming a professional musician. Though she seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, her enthusiasm suggests she’s the kind of person who creates her own opportunities, and she seems thoroughly aware of the various contexts that have shaped her as a musician, contexts that have informed the way she presents herself in song and in visual media, all of which has contributed to her putting her own unique stamp on contemporary Americana.

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The Rumpus: You grew up in South Carolina, and you live in Nashville. In between, you lived in Los Angeles and New York City. I was wondering if you could talk about how you got from one place to the other.

Nikki Lane: I lived in South Carolina until I was 18 years old. I was working at a bar called Bubba Annie’s, and I decided I wanted to move to California. I’d never been to California. I just knew that people I knew in rock and roll said it was cool. I packed up my car, and me and my girlfriend Krista, who just wanted to go on vacation, drove to LA. I got out there and saw the Pacific Ocean and realized I was in for a rude awakening. Nevertheless, I lived there for five years. I moved to Redondo Beach. I was working in fashion. I had my own shoe line. Four or five years later I talked my way into a job in New York City. In New York, I worked in denim for four years. Once I signed a record deal, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to work sixty hours a week on top of being a musician, so I knew I couldn’t live in New York anymore. Nashville seemed like a good place to get a country band together.

Rumpus: Can you talk about your influences? What kind of music did you listen to growing up, and what got you started writing your own material?

Lane:  When I was young, I listened to what my parents listened to. My mom’s into Motown, classic 60’s radio pop, and my Dad was into 80’s radio country, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Aaron Pippin, stuff like that. I remember trying to win CDs on the radio using the phone. The first CD I won was Celine Dion. Once I was 16, 17, I was rebelling against my mom, so I tried to listen to punk rock and pop punk. I was religious, so I listened to Christian punk, too. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I developed my own personality. Once I was out there, I got into going to Coachella. I had never listened to bands like Morrissey or the Smiths, and I was hanging out with dudes who listened to them. Then I found the Nuggets collection of 60’s psychedelic rock. Once I realized what I liked I went and bought the entire Standells catalog, the entire 13th Floor Elevators catalog, the entire Yardbirds catalog. At first it was psychedelic and rock, and then I got into stuff like Waylon Jennings and Neil Young. I remember the day I first heard Neil Young; I remember what everything looked like, what tennis shoes I was wearing. It just blew my mind.

Rumpus: Have you always been interested in country and rockabilly?

Lane: When I lived in New York, I was writing alone. I knew the chords D, A, and G. People would say, “Country only plays three chords.” All right, I’ll learn a Loretta Lynn song. When I started co-writing and meeting people and learning stuff, it became a lot easier to see that I could still get what I was looking for and throw in a couple of extra changes. All I really did was keep playing what I taught myself to play, which was country songs, and start hanging out with people playing different types of music, and trying to fine-tune what I liked about it. I like to co-write, but I’ll co-write with somebody, and it’ll just be polar opposites. I’ll be like, I do not like the kind of music this guy writes, but maybe he’s taught me some chord that sounds crazy awesome that I never thought to use. You can draw something from a lot of people, and I think that’s all that really started to happen with me, is I just allowed myself to work with a lot of different people and try a lot of different things. That’s what the record is. It’s all the little secrets that I tried to get from other people.

Rumpus: Do you tend to write by yourself, or do you tend to collaborate?

Lane: I’ve gotten to the point where if I feel like I’m stumbling across something, I save it to go write with someone else, and I’ve been battling with that. I’m trying to do this song over the next couple weeks that I want to write by myself. I like writing with people so much, that it’s almost like I don’t want my song to miss out on something I didn’t give it. But I also feel like I have to try write on my own because the majority of the first record that was never released, I wrote all by myself. There was very little participation from anyone, while on this last record, almost every song was co-written, and I like the new record better than the old one just for the sake that I was able to branch out and have songs like “Gone, Gone, Gone,” that aren’t one hundred percent country but still sound country. It’s hard for me to want to write alone again because I don’t want to write only country. You have to keep pushing yourself to try different things, so you don’t get stuck. Maybe I’ll write the next record on a keyboard, since I don’t really know how to play that, so it’ll be like learning all over again.

Rumpus: Do you have specific people you like to collaborate with?

Lane: I’ve probably written with 20 people, but I’ve found three I feel comfortable with. You don’t want their contributions to be so different than yours that you don’t feel like it’s your song. But also, you want to be willing to try something embarrassing and weird, and sometimes writing a melody sounds awful the first few times. That’s the benefit of writing alone; you can wail and whine and sound as awful as you want trying to find something great, and no one’s going to look at you like you’re nuts. I think sometimes to find a really brilliant melody, you have to do something weird that doesn’t always sound good the first time. But I have found people. There’s this guy Chris Lindsey. I wrote four songs off the record with him, and I know if I have a good idea, he’s going to help me write exactly what I want and not change it based on the fact I don’t know the chords to put under it.

Rumpus: Do you feel like you have unique access to the kind of music you play because you come from the South? Do you feel like country music is more a regional or an American music?

Lane: I don’t know if you can even call it American anymore. I found this girl Lindy Ortega. She sounds almost like Dolly Parton. She’s from Canada. People just kind of get into a certain lifestyle and a certain set of influences, and that makes things accessible. There are people that live in Australia who are listening to deeper country cuts than I am and sometimes sound more country than I do when they sing. I feel like it’s natural for me because I have a real twang when I talk, but there are people from all over that are so heavily influenced by it that it’s just seeping out of them. I think it’s good; the more the merrier.

Rumpus: When you write a song, do you start with the music, the melody, or the words?

Lane: This morning I had a co-writing session at nine in the morning with this guy I’ve been writing with, trying to write some rock and roll songs for fun. He was noodling on the guitar, and I wrote what became the first verse. And then he said, “Okay, we’ve got to write the second verse,” and I said, “No, now we’ve got to write the bridge.” And he was like, “What?” It doesn’t normally come exactly like that. I just try to roll with it. I feel like if I had too much of a set formula, then my songs would all sound the same. There are a lot of people, and I’m not going to name names, but some of my favorite musicians, when it comes down to it, a lot of their songs sound the same. I want to make songs that are reminiscent of what’s happening to me at the time. Sometimes I’ll be in the car, and I’ll hear a melody which will end up being the chorus of something, but then I’ve got to take it home and write the chorus and figure out what should come right after it. This song that I wrote today, we’ve got to go make up the rest of the verses for it. We accidentally made up everything else, but we don’t have the storyline. I wrote what the song was about before I even knew what it was about. I feel like you have to wait and see how the first part of the song comes to you, and that dictates how you’re going to finish it.

Rumpus: Do you sit down and write every day? Are you disciplined about it?

Lane: No. The first record I wrote, I wrote the whole thing in a month. It was winter, and I locked myself in the house, and I wrote this record; that’s just how it happened. The second record, I flew all over the country and met with people and talked about different things that were happening, and I co-wrote it. But for me, when I’m working, when I’m traveling all the time, there’s so much going on, I can’t write. I finished the record in February. I haven’t written a song since April, until last month, when I started talking on the phone with someone about co-writing. I don’t feel like I had writer’s block. I just didn’t have anything that was busting out of me that I had to say. Now I’m committed to doing it, and I’ll probably hone in on it and get really into it around the record, and then I’ll be like, I’m not writing for a while.

Rumpus: Do the people you write with tend to be other musicians? Do they tend to be professional songwriters?

Lane: Of the people I like, one is a songwriter, and the other two are musicians. Chris Lindsey, the guy I wrote “Walk of Shame,” “Coming Home to You,” “Save You,” and “Book of Life,” off this record with, is a professional songwriter. That’s what he does; he writes big country songs all day long. When I met him, I was nervous. But what made me like writing with him so much is that he thought it was cool that I was like, “No, they’re probably not going to play this video on CMT, so I’m just going to write this the way I want.” He’s such a good facilitator. I’ll be like, this is my idea, but then he will give me a line, and it won’t sound like something unlike I would say. Sometimes you’ll be writing with somebody, and they’ll pitch you something, and you’ll say, I would never say that. I’m not co-writing so that somebody can teach me my sound. I need somebody that can help me find my sound, so I have to work hard to find people that are helping me do what I like and not showing me what they think I should do. A lot of songwriters are really just co-writing because they wish they were making records. They’re writing for themselves, but they figure if they write for other people, it gives them twice as much exposure. I want somebody that thinks it would be fun to help me dig in and figure out what my record should sound like.

Rumpus: You wrote your album while you were living in New York, but you recorded the album in Nashville. How did you find the musicians on the album?

Lane: I wanted to make a country record. People in New York were like, great, we’ve got a studio here, down the road. I was like, no, I’m not going to make a country record in New York. I’m going to make a country record in Nashville. I started calling studios, and they were like, great, you’re going to bring your band down? Do you need a producer? Do you need an engineer? I got on MySpace. I found this guy, Justin Collins, who was in three different bands, and I liked the quality of the recordings on all these projects. I wrote to him and to various other people; I sent probably 10 different emails, and I said, I really like your project, I’m trying to make my own record, and I have no idea what I’m doing; what are your thoughts? Probably seven of them didn’t write back because who wants to answer an email from a weird girl who doesn’t know how to play guitar and wants to make a record? But a couple people wrote back and told me different options, and Justin was one of them. He said, well, my friend makes my records, and I have a band that sounds like it would be good for your backing music. Do you have charts? I was like, what are charts? He was like, never mind, we’ll make the charts. I sent them these 10 tracks I’d recorded myself on Garage Band. There was no rhythm to them because I was very poor at strumming guitar. They learned them off these dime store demos. The week I went to Nashville, we did 10 tracks, and I came home with a record. All of a sudden, when people would say, you’re a musician, I would say, no, not really, but I have a record. I was one step closer to being able to say I played music. The rest just kind of snowballed. I got a band in New York and then accidentally got a record deal. Finally, after I signed my record deal, I would say I was a musician, not until then.

Rumpus: Was it a difficult transition starting to play live? At what point did you start playing out?

Lane: Right when I got home from making the record, I started playing live. Those were just small gigs. People would say, we’re having a birthday party, there’s two bands playing, do you want to be the third? I started saying yes. I got to open for this Canadian band called Blue Rodeo at the Mercy Lounge, and there were a couple hundred people there. I was like, Oh, it’s more fun when there’s a couple hundred people. It kept making me want to push a little harder. I went this summer on my first tour. We drove to California and back and played our way across, and people were like, oh, you guys were great, you must have been doing this for years. No, this is the second time I’ve played outside the city I live in, which makes us really late in the game. I should have been touring for the past couple years, but I wasn’t. Now I’ve got to play catch up and get good at guitar and get out there and get some shows. I’ve probably played 200 shows so far. I’m a baby.

Rumpus: Your video for “Gone, Gone, Gone” refers to a number of classic country videos. It seems like your experience in fashion also influenced the video. I was wondering if you could talk about the process of planning and shooting it.

Lane: Obviously, I’m on an indie label. We don’t have big budgets for videos. The director, Jared Eberhardt, came out, hopped on a plane and crashed in the back of the office in my house and said, “I want this to be really mellow and reflective of you.” I would have had people come in with all kinds of clothes if I had the budget because I think it’s fun to dig through other people’s clothes, but he was like, we’re going to take stuff out of your closet, and being that I love to buy crazy amounts of clothes and hate to leave them behind, I had all these things. He was like, do you like the old Loretta Lynn videos? And I was like, of course I do. He’s like, well, what do you think? And I was like, look at this ridiculous yellow dress I have. It was very organic. We just kind of combed through my house and picked some cool outfits. He was like, do you know how to ride a moped? I just kind of laughed because I’ve got scars all over me from riding stuff. The way I grew up, my dad thinking we should have been boys, I can drive almost anything. I don’t really know anything I can’t, backhoe, bulldozer, all kinds of weird stuff. He has an asphalt paving business, my dad. So I was like, moped, no big deal. We just honed in on all the things that were accessible for very little money and tried to make them look cool. It’s almost more fun that way. I’ve worked as an assistant on a lot of big production things, and they haven’t always looked as cool as I think our video does because no one was holding a gun to our head. We just challenged ourselves to have fun.

Rumpus: You said when you recorded your first album, you went back to New York afterwards. How long after that did you move to Nashville?

Lane: A year and a half. I made the record in the spring of 2009. I went home, and for one year, until February 2011, I was just working my butt off at a bunch of stores. Then I went on vacation to LA in 2010, and I went to one meeting which I thought was just a handshake to be nice to this miscellaneous girl that was a friend of a friend, and I ended up getting a record deal with IM Sounds. It just kind of happened. We stumbled across each other and thought it was a good match. Six months after I signed the deal, I couldn’t work. I was trying to travel and do everything the record company needed me to do, and you can’t live in New York and not work. You can, but you’re going to need a different dad than the one I’ve got. You’re going to need a bigger bank account.

Rumpus: How do you find the music scene in Nashville? You’re a country artist, but you’re on an indie label. Your appeal doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily to mainstream country audiences.

Lane: I moved down here, like, game face. In my mind, the style wasn’t as good, the people weren’t as cool. But I wasn’t coming down here to make friends. I was coming down here to make a career out of music. But when I got here, I found more musicians whose music and whose personalities I enjoy than I did in New York and LA combined. Not only is there an awesome scene here of old school country throwback and rockabilly and garage rock and punk and whatever else, but they’re real musicians. In New York and LA, they’re real musicians, too. Don’t get me wrong. But they’re paying 2000 dollars a month in overhead, so they’re practicing one night a week. In places like Denton and Austin and Seattle and here in Nashville, people’s responsibilities are a lot lighter. These kids, they’re touring all the time, they’re playing music all the time, and they’re going to shows and hanging out because there’s not a lot of stuff to pay for. It’s so refreshing to see an actual music scene, not a music scene where all the participants have to go to day jobs.

There’s less to do in a place like this. I do get bored. But then I’m like, oh yeah, on Sunday, I go to LA for a week. And next week, I go to New York for a week. I can go party, like, true Hollywood style in Hollywood next week and then come back and live my normal life. It’s the best of both worlds. I feel a little spoiled right now.

Rumpus: What are you listening to now?

Lane: There’s this band from Nashville I’m crazy about called Natural Child. I throw their record on all the time. There’s this guy in the UK named Pete Molinari. And old stuff like Flamin’ Groovies and Gun Club. All the time, people turn me onto new things. Any new band I can find where I can listen to the whole record and be pleased for the whole hour or 40 minutes or whatever, that’s what I get turned onto and stick with.

Rumpus: Do you associate yourself with a particular genre?

Lane: I try to say I’m acid country. Some people go, don’t try to steal Gram Parsons’ words because he was cosmic country, but I thought of that on my own. I love country, but I love psychedelic and grunge and rock and roll. I’ve met people that I’ve worked with that have been like, oh, you’re 100 percent Tammy Wynette. No, I want to be Tammy Wynette on acid. I love country, but I love rock and roll, too. Just because I have a twang, I don’t want people to think I’m only into country. I guess it’s a little bit Americana, because I feel like I’m just about as American as they come. I’m just trying to steer clear of being in a box but also trying to be aware of what I am, which is a weird country singer.


Tom Andes has published fiction in Witness, Natural Bridge, News from the Republic of Letters, the Akashic Books Mondays Are Murder Flash Fiction Blog, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans and can be found here: @thomaseandes. More from this author →