Posted November 1, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Can’t Get Enough of Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane photo by Chuck Grant
Nikki Lane photo by Chuck Grant

In a short amount of time, young alt-country singer-songwriter Nikki Lane has become the “First Lady of Outlaw Country.” Lane, who’s just completed tours with Shakey Graves, Jenny Lewis and Social Distortion, recently embarked on a headlining tour that extends into December. Produced by Black Keys’ singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, her All or Nothin’ album made several “Best of 2014” lists when it came out last year. New West Records even released a 19-track deluxe version of the record, which includes the previously unreleased “Can’t Get Enough.” Lane phoned us on her way to a gig.

The last time you came through town was with Social Distortion. Was that a tough crowd.
It’s a certain group of individuals and older dudes who don’t typically listen to country music. Mike Ness is the punk rock foundation of the music they like. The people who inspired him were the people who inspired me. The shows were good. I felt like we did a good job. It almost depended on the region. In certain towns, there was a huge crossover between their fans and ours. You had to really earn it every night. I sculpted the set to be something their audience would like better.

Talk about the path you’ve taken to becoming a country singer. I think you started out designing clothes?
I moved to California thinking that I would be an A&R rep. I think I just thought I would flirt with dudes and I would have a credit card and it would be fabulous. I got there and started transitioning into wanting to work in design and fashion. I still didn’t know what it meant. I was a high school dropout. I didn’t want to pay anyone to teach me anything. I started designing shoes early on. For five or six years after that, it was a mix of things. I was doing high-end retail and then designing things. I was trying to learn how to run a successful business. I manufactured and sold things. Being a musician now, merch has become one of my favorite past times. I’m well-equipped for what I didn’t intend to do.  

Did you grow up listening to country music?
My mother listened to ‘60s and Motown music. My dad listened ‘80s and ‘90s pop country. My grandfather was into what he called mountain music with a dulcimer. I was well-versed in different types of music. I was that kind of kid who grew up on MTV. I used to joke that MTV was my babysitter during the summers. I was the product of the radio. I wasn’t collecting records at a young age. I was focused on the outdoors and crafts more than music. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I discovered a strong personal taste in music and starting to learn records that weren’t on the radio.

What was the first song you wrote?
That’s debatable. The first song I wrote was for church when I was 15. In California I was writing snippets of songs in traffic. I would hum out melodies. They were never developed as songs because they weren’t even fully developed thoughts. I did have a series on cassette long before I made a record. That will probably come out some day. They’re lacking completion, but they’re fun for me to look back and reference. I can see the amount of work I’ve gotten done in the last six years.

You’re often compared to Wanda Jackson. Have you had the chance to meet her?
I met her when I first moved to Nashville before I was properly making music. I don’t think she will remember. I was working as a photo assistant for Mark Seliger who shoots a lot of the covers for GQ magazine. We were shooting iconic musicians. Wanda Jackson and Jack White were one of the first pairs. I was the stylist assistant that day. They asked us to get her numerous pairs of sparkly dress shoes only in flats. We were shooting in Watertown outside of Nashville. That was a virtually impossible task. I came back with craft glue and glitter and flats and a few pairs of heels. I thought those would work if she were sitting. I shook her hand and told her the heels looked much better. She said, “Honey, I wore heels for 50 years. I can’t get my foot into that thing.” I was like, “Oh shit.” That taught me not to get dressed up every night on the tour. That’s how meeting your heroes goes. She’ll never remember it but I always will.

I read that you met Dan Auerbach at a flea market. Is that the case?
That same set of photos for GQ, we also shot the Black Keys. We were supposed to shoot Neil Young. The Black Keys replaced him. It was on a Go-Kart track. He said he thought he knew me. I told him that he had bought a jacket from me. When my video came out for “Gone, Gone, Gone,” I got a text from him and he didn’t know I made records. I joked about it and said maybe he could make the next one. That’s how it worked. Most of the business relationships I’ve had consist of throwing darts and seeing what was going to hit. We became buddies and it was easy to sit down and have coffee and write songs.

Talk about your writing process.
I had written all my first record, which never came out, by myself. For the record that came out, Walk of Shame, I started co-writing. I had a manager who was pushing me to write with people. When I would write with people, there was more to the structure. I wouldn’t let anyone get a word in. I knew what I wanted to say. I was leaning on people to teach me how to strum more than one patter. I was using that as a crutch. I had found people and I knew I could have a good idea and a verse and a bit of a chorus and they would mentor me and fine tune it. Now, writing the next record and writing so much of it myself and people saying the songs are good, I realize I might not have needed to lean on somebody for that. I might not need to again. Part of it was learning to play.

I didn’t know how to play guitar until I was 25. I would just strum a chord and freestyle. When I was at radio, it was embarrassing.

Plenty of musicians simply sing.
I know but I wouldn’t know what to do with my hands. I’m a tall, beanpole white girl. I can’t be out there dancing. No bueno.

I like the sparse intro to “Love’s on Fire.” Talk about what you wanted to achieve sonically.
I love the softness at the beginning before the violin and fiddle kick in. We got to the end of the record and had a few days left. We were done with what we lined up. We were starting to come in at one in the afternoon and feel out some new songs. We went in that morning and tried to write something. I had been recently married to a touring musician. Dan was a touring musician. We were talking about the reality of touring and keeping it together. I was being realistic about being broke and he was daydreaming. When we wrote it, we were on the roof and it was acoustic and soft and when we went downstairs, that was natural way to showcase it to the band. There had to be a cohesiveness to it. You can’t just throw one bare bones track on it. That was fun. I like that the boys thought to do a key change. We wanted to have that moment of vulnerability and then tie it in with everything else.

What inspired the song “Sleep with a Stranger”?
The same thing as everything else. Getting married and getting divorced. It’s the series of events that follow when you’re making and breaking relationships. You got out and want to do something bad. You can go out and ride motorcycles with the boys. You can go to 308, or to Robert’s or to the Crying Wolf. I picked a scenario from every one of those. It’s about walking into a cowboy and picking up a cowboy. It’s about going out and letting loose because you haven’t been able to for a long time. It’s the full range of emotions you experience when you make decisions like that.

I think it’s the kind of song you expect more from a guy than a woman.
I hear that quite often. That’s funny to me. I know just as many women that cheat and sleep around as I do men. I guess women aren’t supposed to talk about it. It’s good I get a stamp of bravery for talking about reality. I don’t not misbehave just because I’m a lady. I can be a lady too all day long. And I can break the hearts just like the rest of them.

I try to do all the things the boys do better.

The deluxe version of the album features “Can’t Get Enough.” What’s the story behind that tune?
That was a true vulnerable moment of a love song. I don’t write too many true love songs where I’m feeling swept away by someone. It’s easy to write a song about one person and then by the end it relates more to another person. When the record came out, I was going through a moment of insane vulnerability. I didn’t know if someone would pick up the record or if I could handle my divorce or the rebounds. I canned the most vulnerable song because I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness. It ended up being perfect. When we did the deluxe, it was something to add on. I’m glad we have those and not just the ridiculous live tracks that ended up on Spotify. I have another couple of songs that are similar to that.

What’s next for you?
We started tracking and have a foundation. For me, it’s honing in on what it’s supposed to sound like. The songs are all there and they’re just all over the place. We have a song called “700,000 Rednecks.” It mocks my hometown and the pop country theory that you need that many fans on commercial radio. Lots of songs about distance and roads. I’m naming the record Highway Queen. Let’s be real. I deserve the title. There’s another heartbreaking love song about somebody on the other side of the country. To me it’s impossible to not be autobiographical. Most of what’s going on is related to being a touring musician and figuring out what’s next and talking about it and trying to relate to the people we meet on the road and the fans we’ve been making.

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New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom

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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 [email protected].