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Posted April 2, 2020 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Blues Singer-Bassist Danielle Nicole Finds Her Sound

Danielle Nicole photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Danielle Nicole photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

A founding member of the Kansas City-based blues band Trampled Under Foot, singer-bassist Danielle Nicole embarked on a solo career in 2015 and issued her debut, Wolf Den, that same year. 

In 2018, she followed it up with Cry No More, a diverse collection of original tunes and cover songs. Tony Braunagel (Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Burdon) produced the album, and blues guitar hero Kenny Wayne Shepherd plays on one track on the album.

Earlier this year, during a phone call from her Kansas City home, Nicole spoke about the album and about finding her sound. She had planned to tour heavily this year in support of the album, but COVID-19 derailed those plans.

You grew up in a very musical family. How did bass guitar become your instrument of choice?

I kind of fell into it. With my first real major band, Trampled Under Foot, with my brothers, Kris played drums and Nick played guitar. We wanted to keep it in house. We didn’t know any bass players in town with whom we wanted to work. I said I would try it out to see how I liked it. After months of grunting and cursing and figuring out how to play bass and sing, I started jamming out in the Kansas City scene and just really enjoyed it. I just developed it over the years and absolutely loved doing it. 

Were there other female blues bass players that you looked to for inspiration?

Yeah, there was one here in Kansas City. She sang and played bass. My parents were musicians, so we’d go to the jams a lot and see her. She didn’t teach me anything directly, but it was nice to see one other person in the scene who was doing what I was doing. 

Trampled Under Foot won some significant awards. What made you want to go solo?

Kris quit the band in 2013, and Nick and I did a farewell tour in 2014 to celebrate some of the best clubs we played. It didn’t feel natural. It didn’t feel right. To me, it wasn’t Trampled Under Foot. Being in the situation where you start a band from the ground up with the same people and you’re in it for over a decade, I didn’t want to go through the heartbreak of building something from the ground up again with another group. I wanted to make all the decisions, right or wrong, and trust my gut. I hired Brandon Miller on guitar. Brandon has been there from the beginning. We’ve been playing together for five years. I couldn’t imagine this project without him. He’s a founding member. Our drummer Cameron [Tyler] who will be with us in a couple of weeks started playing with us in August, and he was the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s like this is the sound I’ve been searching for. We’re out of the honeymoon phase.

Was your first solo album, Wolf Den, a difficult album to make?

It was. a lot of those songs were ones I had written with Trampled Under Foot, so they had that really heavy blues sound. Some of the songs I had written for the new record. I personally felt there was a conflict in the sound of those tunes. I’m proud of the record, and I hold all the time I spent with [producer] Anders [Osborne] and Stanton [Moore] dear to my heart. I learned so much that I applied on the Cry No More album. It’s nothing against any of the musicians or anyone who created the album itself, but just my songwriting was like night and day. There was a huge transition happening. I love it but it didn’t represent who I was at the time. Trampled Under Foot was what I did for 13 years. While I love the record and it was a great transitional album to get the fans who love that tough sound to like wherever this music is going, it’s been a great learning experience, but it was incredibly difficult because I thought I was fighting myself having that old sound and developing into the artist I am now. 

Talk about what it was like to make Cry No More?

I had a clearer path of what I wanted to do. With Wolf’s Den, I was just trying to finish the album and get enough songs for it. With Cry No More, I really took my time. I wrote half of it and the songs I did choose to cover meant something personal to me. There’s more of a story to be told through the album. It’s not just a gathering of songs.

It’s not necessarily a concept album, I was more conscious of the content of the songs.

I noticed that several of the songs have a sultry feel to them. 

It’s a little bit less about stories of love lost, which is more of the traditional blues theme. With songs like “Bobby,” which I wrote about my father growing up without a dad, the stories are more personal and the concepts of love are a little more positive. Even with “Cry No More,” which is about moving on and getting past it rather than dwelling in the darkness. 

Where did you cut the album and what was that experience like?

I recorded at Ultra Tone Studios in Studio City with a very dear friend of mine, Tony Braunagel. Tony and I wrote some of the songs together and he produced it. I had recorded there with Trampled Under Foot. I was really familiar with the studio, which helps because the only time I spend in the studio is when it’s time to make a record. Having had worked there really helped so I could just dive into it. I was better prepared. The songs were more written, so we could spend more time recording the songs rather than developing them in the studio. This process was really smooth and it was fun and that let me let loose in my performances without going overboard. Tony is a great friend, but he’s a hard-ass producer. When that studio door shuts, friend mode is off, and we are producer and artist. 

One album highlight, “Save Me,” features Kenny Wayne Shepherd. How’d that collaboration come about?

He was getting ready to leave town for eight weeks for Europe. He made four hours to come and record. 

How do you know each other?

I first met Kenny at the international Blues Challenge in 2008. He was one of the finalist judges. That was when Trampled Under Foot got first place. When we would see each other on the blues cruise or overseas, he’d get Nick and I up there to jam with him. It developed over the years. I don’t have his phone numbers. We’re not buddies, but we’re cool. He knows me when we’re on the road, and we get to jam, and that’ s really cool. It was really sweet of him to take the time to do that. he said, “The world needs to hear your voice.” It’s really nice to get that encouragement from peers rather than getting the attitude that “they’re trying to take my spot, and I don’t want to help them out.”

“Pusher Man” comes off as a particularly aggressive blues number. What’s the story behind it?

My label had sent me to Nashville to write with Johnny Black. I went to his house, and we messed around with some ideas. He had a couple of ideas. He played the riff to “Pusher Man” and had come up with that chorus, “I wanna be the one you call.” He said, “I don’t know. Would your love interest be the Pusher Man or would you be the Pusher Man?” I said, “I would be the Pusher Man. I have no problem being the Pusher Man of love, baby.” We wrote that song in about an hour and half and hung out for a bit and then I went back to Kansas City. I have never done anything like that before. Of course, in Nashville, they do that seven times a day. I thought it was so cool sitting at the Waffle House with my guitar waiting to write with Johnny Black. It was a cool experience, and we love doing that song live too. It’s an empowering song. If you listen to it, it’s about love and not drugs. If you get into it, it’s about having that power and that confidence and knowing that you’ll be what the person needs. It’s like, “We’re gonna do this.” 

What is your live show like?

The sound is just really on a different level, especially now that Brandon [Miller] and I have been working together for so long. We know what we need musically on stage to push each other. I know when he’s wanting to push a solo. There’s a real intimate communication   level now. It’s so easy to work with him in that way. I don’t have to direct the band when I’m playing. As a bass player, I can’t always communicate with them because I’m communicating the groove. Cam [Tyler] really loves the New Orleans feel. Being from Kansas City, we cultivated swing. New Orleans swing and Kansas City swing are very different but they’re the oldest types of swing. We have a natural love for that feel. It’s hard to describe the show now. It’s intense and grooving, but it’s not over-the-top. It’s morphed into a full experience. It’s so much fun. It’s really rockin’. It’s hard to put that blues label on it. They think it’ll be slow and sad. But it’s really rockin’. If you’re not feeling it, then there’s something wrong with you. 

Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.