Hitting the Jackpot With Nikki Lane
I first discovered Nikki Lane when she was opening for Jenny Lewis (who you may know from Rilo Kiley or Postal Service). Being partial to country music more in the past few years, I loved her sound. No matter whether you appreciate country-twinged or full on country music, Lane leaves an impression. She’s confident and pulls you in with the stories she sings. Instrumentally, she and her backing band play with passion and ease, and her fashion sense is bold and gorgeous. In the song “Man Up”, Lane sings, “My roof’s been leaking since last July/ That bucket’s full of the tears that I cried/I gotta find some place that’s nice and dry/I’d call my mama, she’d say ‘my oh my/ He better man up/ Better get his ducks in line/ Don’t take his hard luck/ Go take a hard look/ Might have to say goodbye’
You better get off your ass/ You better man up/ Or I’mma have to be the one who gets tough/ You better love me right/ Like you can’t get enough/ Like I’m the only thing that makes you feel so good/ Before I find somebody new/ Man up/You better man up/ I hope you understand/ Honey, I done took this ring right off my hand–“. At this point, in live performances, Lane often dramatically takes a ring off her ring finger, always to the encouraging screams of the audience. I’ve seen her do it a couple times–longtime fans and new listeners alike always love it. She fit the bill perfectly with Lewis–two powerhouse women of rock. I got the chance to speak to Lane on the phone while she was home in Nashville, before she leaves on tour for her third album, Highway Queen (2/17/17 via New House Records).
After seeing Lane’s badass persona onstage, our interview gave me a window into her sharp intellect and endearing warmth. Lane is from South Carolina and only pursued music as her career after her ex husband’s music career was not taking off, and their relationship was ending. As her website bio states, “She describes writing her first song at age 25 like it was a necessary act of self-preservation after a devastating breakup”. Now that she is a successful touring musician, Lane sells a selection from the vintage clothing boutique she owns, Highclass Hillbilly, on her tours, along with her band merchandise. Before becoming a musician, she was a fashion entrepreneur.
Growing up, Lane did not have musical influences “–so much. Just the radio, MTV, what was playing on the radio in my mom’s car, my dad’s car, my next door neighbor’s dad’s car. I wasn’t really relating to singers. I sang in choir. I was more into being competitive, outdoors, riding 4-wheelers and horses; digging into the outdoors and what was in my surroundings growing up. When I first listened to teenage pop punk is when I remember noticing the lyrics matched my feelings for the first time. As I grew, my taste in music grew, and I started to find exactly how to express myself through what I was listening to”.
Her first album, Walk of Shame, came out in 2011, followed by 2014’s All or Nothin. “I love the fans the most,” she explained in regards to the best part of being a musician. “You can create something as an artistic venture, with all the people around you. That way you harvest your work organically, so that all the fans around you are really fans. The difficult part is the traveling–what it takes to get those fans. I always say, it’s pretty funny that I chose a job where I have to drive eight hours a day to collect my paycheck. It’s a workload that is very involved, that gives you little time for anything else, in order to create it into a sustainable business.”
In regards to opening for Jenny Lewis, at first they: “Made buddies and moved on. Then she asked me out on a longer run. She’s very hospitable, it’s nice when people are into the opener. She invited us to sing the last song with her and her band, where they all go around a single mic”. Lewis always sings the title track from her album Acid Tongue during the encore of her shows, where her whole band (and often the opening band as well) stand side by side, arms around each other. “To be lonely is a habit like smoking or taking drugs/ And I’ve quit them both, but, man, was it rough”, Lewis sings, with extra harmonious emphasis from everyone singing with her on the “man was it rough” bit.
“She makes you feel like you’re welcome! We have common ground–she visits Nashville a lot, she wants to buy a house here. A lot of people are buying houses here and getting in on the growth. We spent Christmas together–she was here last week!”
Lane also gained a lot of new fans through opening for Social Distortion: “The manager that asked us to open for them has actually become Jonathan [Tyler’s] manager in the last year! [Tyler is Lane’s boyfriend.] Our eyes opened about what our goal is as musicians, by going out and touring with them. They all take care of one another and behave respectfully. They might be a tough punk rock band, but we learned from them how to fall in line and take care of each other as a band. There’s a tough crowd physically at those shows– we had to break through any skepticism that those crowds might have about us being a different kind of band. We picked up a lot of new fans in various cities opening for them.”
If she could collaborate with one artist in the future, her top choice would be Neil Young. “There’s also that ’90’s country side of me, where if Dwight Yoakam or George Strait wanted to do a duet– those guys are on the list of what I listened to when I was in the 3rd grade, you know? There’s some people that are really cool, who are more relevant now, that aren’t necessarily my type of music, like Cass McCombs,” who Lane explains she listens to, “all the time”. As far as some of her favorite musicians currently, she loves Big Thief: “We found out about them almost a moment too late, because they’re killing it! I am listening to a lot of contemporary stuff and getting references from it, without even really meaning to.
After she stopped touring for her last album, I read that she was set to record her next album with producer Jonathan Wilson at his Electric Lady Studios. (He has produced albums for Conor Oberst, Dawes, Patti Smith, Bonny “Prince” Billy and Father John Misty). “We made a whole record in New York. We went into Electric Lady with top a notch band, but it was a rushed timeline. I wasn’t in the right headspace–we had just come off the road from working. I didn’t really contribute very much, but they had my back, if you will. I relied on creativity with my producer on my first record, which was almost wild! During this album, I was just hanging out. I didn’t have a vocabulary to dictate what was happening–there were certain things that I should have said. I didn’t know what to do once it was done, I figured we would hammer it out. I was visiting Jonathan Tyler, and someone had cancelled for two of the days–we decided we would see what would happen. It was me, him and some of our buddies–a very collaborative effort. That was the way to go for us. It sounded like how I was picturing it would sound!”
Check out the precious music video for her new song “Jackpot”, of the pair pretending to get married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas. I enjoyed noticing on Tyler’s Instagram that his friends were all wishing him congratulations on his photo from filming the music video, since the two of them are in wedding outfits and he simply captioned the photo with a diamond. He did not seem to clarify via Instagram that they did not actually get hitched yet.
The two became friends through other friends: “He came to a party my friend throws in Bandit Town on 4th of July weekend [in North Fork, California]. He wrote a duet with some friends, and he said ‘seems like you could sing it’, so we hammered it out on the porch. I was coming through during ACL [Austin City Limits] and he said, ‘Maybe you should come through and track the duet!’. For two years, we kept running into each other playing the same bill, or at radio shows or festivals. We vented to each other about someone being basically pissed at you all the time for traveling, for not, not intentionally putting a strain on other people. It’s just part of the job. You’re being told ‘You’re not home, you’re not participating at home!’. So we started to hang out. We realized, ‘Oh, *weee* wouldn’t be mad at each other! [for all the traveling].
We’re doing a Stagecoach Spotlight tour because that festival took an interest in us and put us on the more kind of indie side of the festival a couple years ago. You see what those kind of numbers do for you after you leave the festival. Same with the Newport Folk Fest–having done it is the door opener for doing a lot of things. The festival goers there are beach people, it’s on an island, so it’s an interesting groove–it’s all about the experience when you’re there! It’s a thing you can’t get at any other festival. I like playing New York and LA, I lived in both of those places for awhile–so there’s always wild friends and fans, people that go off. My three favorites are really Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis–I call that my boomerang, since that’s the only shape I can make out of it [laughs].”
As far as places she would love to play and still hasn’t gotten a chance, she named Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, or The Gorge Amphitheater in Washington [home of Sasquatch Music Festival]. “The environment is very covetable in amphitheaters,” she explained.
Lately, Lane’s been reading the book The Old Man and the Sea, “For the first time in a long time. Maybe there’s a parallel with that journey and [the journey of] some of the people in music– it’s about gathering the fruits of your labor, maintaining them and getting home safely. I identify with the struggle [laughs].” As far as TV, Lane is “addicted to HBO–it might not be very educated [laughs]. I feel like good TV and good series have been revolutionized in how frequently you can watch, rather than just films. The accessibility of TV and the internet has broadened the amount of quality shows. I’m impressed by how much of it is so good–like the OA and Stranger Things.”
So, in case you have made it this far into my interview and you just can’t stop thinking, “come on, Jenny Lewis is friends with Bill Murray, so–has Lane ever met him?”, well this part is for you. “One time we were coming home from Halloween, and it was the third game of the world series. We were having a great time out on the road. We had heard that Bill Murray was in town, and until that point, Murray and I were obviously not in contact [laughs]. He’s been on my bucket list of people to meet–with his personality, the stories of him crashing weddings, he’s incredible! We were at the airport boarding a flight, and we saw him getting mobbed for photos. I was wearing a cubs shirt I made, and I was feeling it. I didn’t want to bother him, but as selfish as it was, I also didn’t want to miss my chance to get a photo too, so I approached him. I wanted to use my chance to say something cool, so I explained we have mutual friends, and he responded ‘*Friends*, friends?! Don’t lie to me kid’. We ended up riding with him on the plane! My girlfriend and I, and he rode in between us. We grabbed a bite to eat afterwards. When I finally got back to the phone to call my boyfriend, I told him ‘We hung out with Bill Murray!’. He responded ‘You’re fucking lying!’ [laughs]. I told him, ‘I’m not lying, I have a picture! I’m not an idiot!’ [laughs]”.
As far as the vintage clothing boutique she owns, Highclass Hillbilly: “It’s the rare things that I get tickled about. Once, in Eugene, Oregon, I came across an item from the Filipino revolution that was hand drawn with all these crazy symbols. As soon as I was posted it on Instagram, I watched Instagram go crazy about what it was. In what other time period can you be completely duped about this rare thing, and then find the answer so quickly? I just love that”.
I wanted to ask her about politics, but I was cautious since I had not seen Lane post anything political on social media, and I thought she may want to be careful to not alienate any of her fans. “It’s coming up in almost all interviews for this record, it’s the fucking social climate. You know, Donald Trump was a TV show host, it wasn’t a thing before. I have been quiet about it on Instagram. I read Rolling Stone articles saying ‘It’s your job to use your platform, stand up’, and people take stances, the majority of people are being positive about it. You’ll notice, I don’t necessarily even post about like, my mom’s birthday. It’s not that I’m discreet about my opinion. I made the “Highway Queen” video in North Carolina–a lot of the extras in the video are my family members. Everyone there voted for Trump. Individually, people there are hard working, lower middle class citizens. They just want, like their grandma to have Social Security. They just want for people to be good, and they’re Republicans. They’re not racist, they’re not idiots. I’m not afraid to be like ‘fuck Trump!’, and like everyone goes away. I don’t talk about my religious preferences. I just think that freedom of opinion means everybody else gets to have theirs. What is the point of ostracizing someone because their views are a little confused, because eventually, Trump’s going to do his own job of exposing himself to all those people that are on the fence. I’ll go and support women, you know, I’m all about supporting Planned Parenthood. I don’t want to create a platform where people without ill intention think that I’m not down with them, because of what my main principle is. I make music to cope with what’s going on with my life: that is why I make music, that is why I go see music. I go out to say, ‘fuck what’s happening with politics, I’m going to blow off some steam tonight!’. It’s not like I’m going to see someone come to my show with like, some anti-gay statement on their shirt, and I’m not going to kick their ass, no way! I don’t blare my feelings on it across my 40,000 fans that I’ve acquired, just to win the love of some and ostracize the love of others, just because I want to make a radical statement. I’ll let people do the damage to themselves. I’m going to watch quietly. At least that’s mine, I share everything else.”
For me personally, I always hope that artists from the Midwest and South, and especially artists with a cowgirl/boy persona have done something to help Standing Rock. So I was relieved to see on her company Highclass Hillbilly’s Instagram, that on one ‘small business Saturday’ they had “30% of ALL SALES in store and online [go] to the water protectors at Standing Rock!”.
My favorite track from the new album is the harmony-filled “Companion”, especially the 50’s doo-wop line delivery of the final phrase she sings: “Be my companion” (think songs from Cry-baby and Grease). Check her tour dates here to see if she’s coming to a city near you anytime soon.