Nikki Lane Starts Her Walk To Fame: An Interview
The South Carolina-bred, Nashville based singer-songwriter Nikki Lane is coming out of the gate at a gallop with her critically lauded and listener adored album Walk of Shame. Here, we chat about dessert parties, nag champa, and making music videos as a form of revenge.
ELM: What are you up to today?
NL: It’s my friend’s birthday today, and we’re having an all-dessert party, so I’m making a much of things. And I’m getting ready to have a flea market for the weekend that I put on. I work on the weekends, not the weekdays.
ELM: Are you in South Carolina right now?
NL: No, I live in Nashville. I was born in South Carolina and moved when I was 18.
ELM: Do you like Nashville?
NL: I love Nashville. It’s a really good music community and the rent’s really cheap. I need to live somewhere inexpensive, so I had to choose between Nashville and Austin. I like Austin too, but it’s a little more landlocked.
ELM: Did you have trouble finding your musical niche as you were growing up?
NL: It didn’t seem that important. I wasn’t conscious of how important it might be in my life. I listened to a lot of it. My mom was really into Motown, and my dad was really into early nineties’ country, and my next door neighbor’s dad was into Pink Floyd. But I was really interested in the outdoors, like four-wheelers and the park. I was a tomboy. I had that little thing you put the one track [cassette] in, and it had “Walk Like An Egyptian” and that “running just as fast as we can” Tiffany song ["I Think We're Alone Now"]. I don’t think I was looking for music. Then right before I moved away when I was 17 or 18, I was really into Christian punk. So it didn’t seem like I was branching out. I didn’t know there were millions of bands underneath the surface.
ELM: What made you move to California?
NL: There’s not much to do in South Carolina aside from go to college after you high school, and I didn’t want to do a lot of the things in Columbia, like work at bars or selling things in stores. That’s what I ended up doing anyhow. I figured if I would do those things, I wanted to do them really far away, and California’s really far away. I had a friend who I’d hung out with a few times in Atlanta, and he said “you should move to California.” I had never been there; I just picked it out on the map. I figured if it didn’t work out, I’d just try something else.
ELM: It sounds like you’ve been singing for a long time, then, if you started off in a church choir.
NL: Yes, I started in probably the second or third grade to the ninth or tenth grade. And then chorus in high school was impossible for me. The teacher didn’t like me, and I didn’t want to do solos, so I ruined a couple of those in performances, so I quit. I didn’t do anything probably from 14 to oh, about four years ago, I guess. Except in the car and the shower.
ELM: What was the first instrument you played?
NL: Actually, it was a dulcimer. I got a guitar when I was a kid, but I never learned it, except for maybe two chords. And when I started writing music, I decided I should write on a dulcimer. And it is possible, I’m sure, but it’s just not the easiest way. So then I bought a banjo. And then I wrote a song on the banjo, which I still have recorded and need to release someday. Then I got real and start playing the guitar.
ELM: So you mentioned Christian punk, but have you ever tried playing in other genres?
NL: Other than country or whatever my record is? On the record, there are two songs, “Look Away” and “Gone Gone Gone” are almost two different genres. One is very traditional whiny country, and “Gone Gone Gone” is pushing more into the rock side of things. The newer songs that I’ve written are pushing more into rock music based on the stuff I was listening to. For me, when I was writing songs alone, I couldn’t learn guitar very well or strum very quickly. So that kind of dictated the type of music that we made. I wrote my melodies to the pace of the song we’d written, so we tried to speed them up in the studio, but that didn’t work. I’m just now getting to the point where I can write something that’s fast and not in a I-IV-V progression. I haven’t done enough yet, but I’ve been trying to go far from where I started, which was with really traditional country stuff. Most of what I listen to is not traditional country.
ELM: What was the recording process like for “Walk of Shame?”
NL: The first thing we did was look at the first record I’d made by myself which was never really released and try to figure out which of those songs needed another opportunity to be on a commercially-released record. I wanted to co-write. I wrote with fifteen or twenty people over six months, and they were all strangers, and some of them were pairs of writers or trios of writers, and every person had a different theory of how they were going to write a song. I just knew what my part was. I had to make my record and I had a big book full of ideas that I had wanted to write about and started some songs and we held onto them. Every day it would be different. I’d go in and it’d be a hippie dude in the canyon, and he’d light nag champa and be, like “oh, man, we should write a song about traveling in the dark somewhere.” Or the next day I’d be in Nashville in a basement that looks like Elvis’ basement with someone who wrote a lot of old rockabilly. It just depended on the day and the writer and what had just happened. I wrote the song “Lies” and it happened because a girl called me hysterically crying because she’d been dating this guy long-distance for seven years, and it turns out he has a wife and a baby, and this guy just literally texted a secret. What an asshole. I can’t wait to make a video for it and dedicate it to him. His wife is going to sue me or something. It was like, “spread the word! That guy’s a jerk!” So it really all depended on the day; it was a roller coaster of emotions and writers and people to work with.
ELM: What are your live shows like?
NL: Well, it depends on where we are, I guess. We just started touring and we’ve got pickup bands. I try to tell the bands in general and my band here in Nashville: we spent a lot of time and money on the record. And I love the record. But it’s important to be reminiscent of the record but to put more into the performance than just duplicating the record. You can’t just duplicate it in every room and have people like it. So the vibe changes. I can tell my guitar player to bring some psychedelic funk to the show, make the show sound like it’s on acid. And it doesn’t really turn that far into the psychedelic country scene, but it does make it more fitting into the scene. Whereas, when we go to a country festival, we get the best honky-tonk fiddle player to put some licks in. I want to be flexible and accommodating to my audience. If you’re going to be crossover and people are going to like you from different genres, it’s good to say to them, “I’m going to this rockabilly show. We’ve got to get a rockabilly player.”
ELM: Do you have a favorite song from “Walk Of Shame?”
NL: I wrote them all, except for two of my good friends’ songs that I covered. It’s hard not to love all of your creation. “Look Away” I really like it. I like the pace at the beginning. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I do love a lot of them obviously. I drive around and play my own record. It’s a small town, and I’ll pull up to the coffee shop with “Walk of Shame” blaring and my friends will look at me and say “Are you really listening to yourself?” And I’ll have to turn the record off really quickly.
ELM: I just have one more question, which is always my favorite to ask. Who are your favorite writers?
NL: I am going to fail this one. I have no idea. My favorite book is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It’s embarrassing, but I just haven’t developed that much devotion to writers in general. I read all the Bukowski when I was an angry early twentysomething, and I enjoyed it. Orwell’s great, but it’s hard for me. I stumble across things and I have no recall. Slaughterhouse Five. I love that book.