When darkness enfolds us, we question the value of life, our contributions to this world, and our value to others. In the depth of despair and pain, the shadows haunt us, sometimes smothering us so that the light dims; we can’t see; we struggle to open our eyes to the sliver of light that gives us hope that it’s brighter just beyond these shadows. Seeing that light gives us hope, and we move toward it with the expectation of renewal, even in the midst of a darkness that continually threatens to cover that light.
On her new album, A Prayer—a five-song EP that is the first of two parts—Danielia Cotton, leads us into these shadows, acknowledging the darkness that surrounds but pointing to a way out. She asks us to question our assumptions about life, conceding that no simple answers exist to our questions and that living with the questions leads to a purer way of thinking. It’s indeed fitting that her title song refers to the act in which we often petition for help or in which we sometimes seek calm and assurance. While she admits that there’s certainly some comfort in the act of prayer, she confesses that prayer involves the struggle to seek the light in the corners of darkness. While she sings that “I’ll get down on my knees and pray” because prayer helps her “see better in the light of day/surely my world will be okay,” she admits that the world is troubled—“there’s a war in the world/it’s getting closer to you”—and that even prayer still requires us to ask “what god do we pray to.” Prayer is never a simple act, but its refining fire can burnish our souls and our world, leading us to acts of love and an attitude of hope.
Every song on Cotton’s album engages in this struggle of darkness and light. On the opening song, “Seesaw,” a simple cascade of piano notes over the first four bars leads into an ascending chorus that suddenly descends into a momentary silence before Cotton’s powerful voice, backed only by piano, quite plainly states a truth: “You walked away from me in my darkest hour.” As the song grows, though, she adds lyrics, layer-by-layer, that acknowledge that “life is a seesaw,” and she’s taking “the ride to see/if everything that I wish for/is gonna come to me.” Although she acknowledges that she’s as much responsible for her ups and downs as anyone else and that she may find herself on the down end of the seesaw many days, she declares nevertheless that every day “you fight, you take the punch, you get back up, you rise above/To a better day, a better way to face the crazy that may come.”
“Afraid to Burn” celebrates transformation in the midst of the inferno of life. The song opens with a prelude, “A Vocal Prayer,” a simple piano underneath a chorale of heavenly voices that sing the chorus of “Prayer”: “I see better in the light of day/Surely my world will be okay/I’ll get down my knees to pray.” The piano chords are reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and the chorus comes straight out of a gospel tune; the prelude moves into Cotton’s quiet vocal backed only by a piano. The verses, sung in a minor key, set up the darkness of life, and the chorus bursts forth from these minor chords into a glorious major key with the chorus shouting almost joyfully the news that wisdom comes in the midst of the tempest: “Let the wind blow/And walk into the water/Heal your broken soul/Live with your child heart/The older we grow/The less we play with fire/Afraid to burn.”
Yet, as powerful as Cotton’s lyrics are, it’s Cotton’s voice that gives this album its stunning power. In every song on the album she pulls us into the music with her quiet delivery and then carries us out of this world as her vocals soar, evoking emotions that we weren’t prepared to feel in those quieter moments. The beauty of Cotton’s songs is that all of their elements come together in a way that transcends this world. She never wastes a note, and she’s so accomplished in her phrasing that her songs are evocative and ethereal at the same time. She cannily incorporates elements of all musical genres on this new album, commanding the force of each to her own ends. Every song has a sonic beauty that derives from Cotton’s voice, her haunting lyrics, and her ability to weave a poignant and enduring musical score that captures the beauty and sadness and hope of her lyrics.
I caught up by phone recently with Danielia Cotton for a chat about her new album.
Henry Carrigan: What’s the story of this album?
Danielia Cotton: This is actually the first half of two parts. These songs came out of tumultuous times in my life; as a human being it’s so hard to go through a period like that. This first album hints at what I went through, but my audience has stuck with me because I’ve been open with them and told the truth. I got to a place where I was okay, and I came out of all this not angry anymore. I felt a little like people left me, but you know I’ll get up; I’m going to be okay. I think the second half of the album is going to be very different.
HC: How did you select the songs for this album?
Cotton: My producer Tony Bruno was taking songs as I was writing them. “Seesaw” was one of the first songs that came. At the time I was writing, ISIS was in the news a lot, and I was afraid of the kinds of things they were doing. While I was writing I could see the Freedom Tower in New York City. What we have and who we are is our freedom; many of the songs on this album deal with the theme of freedom: getting free or the freedom to make certain choices. The title song “Prayer” grew out of that experience. I wrote all the songs on this new album. On my last record, Real Book, I did covers. With covers, if I can’t live in a song and own it, then I won’t do it. That gave me some time to think on what I wanted to write about.
HC: Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
Cotton: Sometimes the songs come all at once, but more often a story comes or a melody comes and I’ll follow it. A little while back I was opening for the Rich Robinson Band on his tour, and one night when I was on break between sets, he and I came up with the words “lies are easy to tell but hard to hide,” and we built a song from that spontaneous moment. “Afraid to Burn” is about my father; I’ve never known him, and for a while that bothered me. I got to the place where I was okay with never having known him, and I could never have written that song until I reached that point.
HC: There’s clearly a spiritual component on this album; can you talk a little about that?
Cotton: My friend, Danielle, who is Leslie Uggams’ daughter, introduced me to Buddhism. I started meditating, learning to sit still and breathe. After this tumultuous time in my life, I needed just to be still; being still and breathing can have such a grand effect on your day. Though I have practiced Judaism, I discovered that Buddhism and Judaism are really very similar. Each gives advice about a certain way of living, which encourages you to get out of your own head and become one with something greater than yourself. Practicing Buddhism led me back to a purer way of thinking.
HC: What’s your favorite mistake?
Cotton: I recorded Rare Child and didn’t like the way it was being produced; I was just beginning to find my own voice, and I didn’t think the production captured my voice; so I got out the deal and scrapped the entire album. At the time, I thought I’d made a big mistake. It’s now my most critically acclaimed album.
HC: Who are some of your musical influences?
Cotton: Prince; David Bowie; Donny Hathaway, for his vocal style and his emotion; Bonnie Raitt; Billie Holiday, The Stones; Chaka Khan; Nancy Wilson; John Coltrane; Bill Dixon. The genius of jazz really pulls me, and I’ve also always been struck by singers who sing in a lower register.
HC: How do you think you have grown as an artist?
Cotton: I’ve learned not to cater to what I think the masses will like. I just try to write a good song, a song that I respect. I’ve taught myself to play ukulele. I’m trying to expand my musical sensibility; I want to learn to play bass since playing bass would allow me to approach my songs in a different way. The beauty of music is that I listen to other’s music and it’s helped me become free; I hope my music does that, too.
HC: What’s next for you?
Cotton: I’m working on the second half of this album, and I really would like to some more writing.