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Nikki Lane press release Jody Domingue 1
Nine Songs
Nikki Lane

Ahead of her fourth album, Denim & Diamonds, Nikki Lane talks Jof Owen through the songs that inspired her and have shaped her sound over the years.

16 September 2022, 09:00 | Words by Jof Owen

The latest album from the Queen of Outlaw Country is her first in five years, but proof that you can’t rush a great artist and that sometimes the best things in country music are worth waiting for.

Listening to country music these days I often feel like Homer Simpson flipping through the pages of the Gary Larson calendar: "I don't get it", "I don't get it", "I… don't get it". But I get Nikki Lane. Alongside the last dregs of bro-country, twangless modern pop country, and the soft boi leanings of boyfriend country, Nikki Lane makes a lot of sense to me.

Her fourth album has been a longer time coming than she originally imagined, but the Joshua Homme produced Denim & Diamonds is another tentative toe dipped into the mainstream by an outlier who has always kept a safe distance from country music’s centre.

“If you love something, don't do it for a living”, Lane half jokes about her relationship to the creative process. “I've kind of come full circle. I started writing songs with a friend to apparently deal with childhood trauma or something; just to emote. Then I got a record deal by making a record to complain about my now ex-husband. I was always only doing it to get something out, it was never to become a musician” she explains. “I think pushing this record five years by accident - but also kind of by necessity, because of my own needs plus what happened in the world - was great, because it proved to me that what they tell you on paper is not true. You won't just disappear if it takes a year”.

Produced and mixed by Homme at his Pink Duck Studios in Burbank, CA, Denim & Diamonds features an All-Star band including Homme on guitar, bass, drums and percussion, as well as his Queens of the Stone Age collaborators Alain Johannes on guitar, Dean Fertita on organ and Michael Shuman on bass and drummers Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys and frequent Jack White collaborator Carla Azar from Autolux.

“I've always said I wanted to be a female Tom Petty”, Lane laughs. “But then when I listened to a lot of the production of some of his tracks through the ‘70s, and ‘80s, it wasn't always representative of what I thought it needed to sound like. It’s just that his lyrics and his attitude embody American rock and roll. Then you have to go and find that on your own. I’ve definitely had to utilise players and producers to figure that out”.

The album is a glorious mix of dirty low-strung blues and countrified slacker rock. Switching playfully between the swagger of Exile On Main Street-era Stones and the poppy new wave cool of The Go-Gos, as it blends chunks of desert rock, delta soul and glammed up Americana into a smooth new take on outlaw country.

“With my own songwriting, I'm trying to get lyrics out, because essentially I started writing moody poems that rhymed and had a cadence to them, which turned out to make great songs. I think that's why the studio has been really exploratory for me and it’s taken me years to take ownership inside of a studio”. With Denim & Diamonds comes a newly discovered conviction and belief in her music however. “I think this record gave me a lot more confidence, because I felt so different from how I had previously in the recording process”, she says. “It’s an edgier record. I'm just saying “Fuck off!” in my mind and outwardly, so I'm starting to feel that”.

Alongside her music, Lane has become just as famous for her sense of style and her Nashville-based vintage shop High Class Hillbilly, featuring a curated collection of vintage americana and western wear.

“If you didn't like my music, it would hurt my feelings, and if you didn't like my T-shirt, I’d just think you were an idiot”, Lane always jokes. “One had confidence in it and the other one didn't. It’s not hard to make music, but it's hard to make music and have people talk about it objectively and not take it personally. It’s like my house is cool. It's all the stuff that I buy out there. I know how cool my house is. It’s the personal stuff that's up for negotiation sometimes”.

“I almost gave up the store this year”, she admits. “I think it was almost because I felt like I could, but now I'm keeping them both. I don't like to give things up, unless it's a must. Some addictions are better than others and being addicted to buying clothes is not going to hurt anyone really. Except for my bank account. The more you get older and you and all your friends start going to therapy, there's no way that my store is not an addiction, but it's a painless one that turns a profit sometimes.

“I read in a Rolling Stone article with Willie Nelson where he said that weed had saved his life and I was thinking about what my mother would say to that: that it’s bullshit. But what he's saying is if it wasn’t for weed it would have been something harder. He put that energy into the thing that was mellow. And it's the truth. You look around at Rock and Roll history and it's really just about whether they became a sex addict, a food addict, a weed addict or a heroin addict. Artists are always hung up on something. It's what gives you the mania to go do the job and the itch to keep writing. My addiction is shopping and pot”.

Music is undoubtedly Lane’s other addiction, and when it came to choosing her Nine Songs, it was important for Lane to look back across her whole life. “I really wanted to pick songs that encompassed a long time period”, she explains, “and not just the most badass things I can show you I've been listening to since I got cool. I could pick the nine coolest songs I know, but they wouldn’t be the nine songs that most influenced my life, because I was still eight years old at one time. I was still 15 once”.

“You May Be Blue” by Vetiver

It’s one of the harder hitting tracks from Vetiver; a band that I've been a fan of since I moved to LA. I always thought that Andy [Cabic] was a great songwriter, but I felt like the drums in “You May Be Blue” and the mood of it encompasses a headspace I like to go to when I'm riding a motorcycle or driving a car, which are some of my favorite times to listen to music.

I've shown this song to every producer I've ever worked with, not that we ever tried to emulate it, but when I was trying to show them three or four songs at the beginning of a studio session, this was one I played them to embody the mood or just the sneering vibe of a drum set that I wanted to hear.

I've noticed that I'm not very good at singing covers because I don't know all the lyrics to anybody else’s music. So that probably means I'm not paying enough attention to the lyrics. But I have noticed that, subconsciously, all the time when I'm really sad or when I'm really happy, or when I'm really hoping for something, I always put on something where its lyrical content identically matches my mood. So clearly I'm paying attention to what's in there and to tone, but I think that songs for me are very largely melody based and just mood fitting. I won’t say the lyrical content comes after that, but it comes from a different approach for me.

I definitely look at the songwriters I like - like John Prine - and I like them for their lyrical content. But then there's rock bands where I've been a really big fan of them and then I've Googled their lyrics to try to see where they were coming from and I've been like, “What are they saying?” Like T-Rex or something.

It’s funny, because in talking about it, I'm not even sure I know the lyrics to this Vetiver song, beyond the chorus. I'm looking at it right now and it’s lyrically quite beautiful, but I had no idea what he was saying.

“Change” by Big Thief

This is like a perfect example of the exact opposite. This song to me is all lyrical content. My ex actually played a co-bill at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, Texas and Big Thief played right before him and they’d become buddies that night so I got into a show a little later. Then I dove into this record as the world did, and I just knew that everything she writes is good. Then “Change” hit me.

This new record took about a year and a half to get done, even though we weren't working actively that whole time; it was COVID, it was being made in California and I was in Texas and Tennessee, and it was like it was taking a long time to make everything happen. But I heard this Big Thief record just as I was ending a long relationship, as I was entering into a new headspace and just as the record was being turned in. The lyrics of this song are so short and sweet, but it references death and it references old love and new love. It really does take a dark night to celebrate the sun and vice versa.

I thought it was a perfect song and I cried like a little baby driving down the highway in Malibu listening to my new record and then listening to this song and kind of letting go. I think there are certain songs that for me are just like what I really hope I can do one day for myself.

“The Tourist” by Radiohead

With most of the records I listen to, there's a lot of stuff from that era. I always say my taste is the boys I had a crush on and their taste. When I was in high school, a friend of mine, Ryan Hilley, was the one guy I knew that drove down to Atlanta and up to Charlotte to see big shows, which is what my song “First High” is about.

It was that time in my life when I started hauling ass to catch a good rock band, and Ryan spoon-fed me little bits of weird stuff: Muse, Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Jeff Buckley. All these standards in my early grunge or rock days came from him.

I got hold of The Bends around that time in high school when I hadn’t flown anywhere yet. I fly so much these days, but I was 17 when I flew for the first time, which is quite old, but I didn't know that when I was 17 because I was from the country. I had a CD player and I carried around my favorite CDs all the time and “The Tourist” was one of my favorite songs.

You can barely understand what he's saying, but I listened to that record while taking off and landing on every flight until I was about 30 years old and I was convinced the plane would crash unless I listened to it. I had that superstition that if I was going to branch out into the world as a tourist, I had to take my lucky charm with me or the plane might crash.

“Bleed American” by Jimmy Eat World

It’s so silly but I just had to be honest with you. It’s that whole thing with the angry song. That's my teenage years.

Jimmy Eat World are a band I went to see a few times when I was younger, and that record Bleed American came out just before 911 and I think they had to change the name because it was just a polarising time.

With the songwriting on this song, it’s just the same words for the whole thing all the way through. Sometimes we go back and listen to those songs in a nostalgic way, and I think “Oh, my God, some of this stuff was bad”, but some of it holds through.

“Strange Condition” by Pete Yorn

I put a Pete Yorn song on here too because some of it just holds through - you go back and you're like, “No, that's a pretty damn good record”. And it represented three or four years of my life. When I moved to California, I was a big Pete Yorn fan. He signed my tennis shoes, I had the hots for him I think. But there's a lot of great tracks on that Musicforthemorningafter record. I think it's a beautiful album.

It’s at the forefront of indie and when I think about indie, I think of The Strokes and maybe Jet just before that, because that’s what started pushing in that period, but just before that I was listening to that Pete Yorn record and wearing it out.

The lyrics are all beautiful. I’m hung up on that record. It represents that time period and this strange condition in general, of what it feels like to be an evolving person, much less an evolving young person.

“Are You Leaving for the Country” by Karen Dalton

I watch Sierra Ferrell - one of my favorite musicians and close friends - play guitar, and she's so much better at guitar at me, but that’s only because of her and because of me. It's like a weapon for her, I could learn to be better at guitar, but I've always taken this other role - which is maybe not always great - but I'd rather watch them do it.

Somehow that's natural to me. Sierra practices all day long, but I still think it's natural to her; to find the notes and to get faster, even though she works all the time on it. It took me so many years to play the guitar. I did start trying to learn on an electric without it plugged in, but I just wished it was silent because it sounded so awful.

Prior to meeting Sierra Ferrell and saying that she's my favorite voice I've ever heard, it was Karen Dalton for me because she sings like a horn. I think Josh Homme sings like a horn. And I’d say that Sierra does. It's like there's a tone to it that's really wide and low and seems endless, and it sounds like it has so much air behind it.

When I say I didn't realise I was listening to sad songs so often when I was sad, I sat in a dozen bathtubs as I was deciding to move from LA to New York - which I thought was to pursue fashion, but because it's a gnarly job that's when I finally dove into music. It was around that time when I was emerging as a songwriter, and I was doing life in my own time. I think the beauty of “Are You Leaving for the Country” was I would listen to Karen Dalton and just melt away in a bathtub every night for a long period of time.

“Ooh La La” by Faces

Throughout all of my teens I didn't know what this song was called, because I guess it seems like it should have had a more thoughtful name, but it felt like it was at the end of every good feel-good movie. Talk about lyrics ringing true.

You look at the songs and what this record was for me that I made - which was a reflective record - and when you think about a reflective period and harkening back to a visual memory of you with the people that brought you up, “Ooh La La” is just perfect.

That lyric is so simple and I think that's the thing. With a lot of my contemporary buddies, when we think about songwriting, we want to say the most with the least amount of words, and it's really hard. I think that my favorite songs are simple. With country music it’s simple and all vulnerability. It’s like that idea of “Let's All Help The Cowboys (Sing The Blues)”, there's a lot of pain going on, even in the toughest man's heart. Thank God country music went against its reputation, because I didn't know that men like that were supposed to cry in the first place.

There are many ways to be an artist, but I think an artist is really somebody that expresses those internal complexities that we all have, and that's why people resonate so much with the songs, because I'm giving therapy to the girl that got the terrible divorce that doesn't know how to write.

“Unknown Legend” by Neil Young

Neil Young is my favourite writer.

Radiohead are always on my list. Merle Haggard is always on my list. When I talk about favorite bands, it has to be a body of work and there's a lot of people I love, like Karen Dalton, but I only love one record, but there are so many Neil Young songs that I love and resonate with.

With “Unknown Legend”, I've seen it covered so many times by so many of my favorite peers, and I think for me, having a kind of “road heart” - I’ve gone out and put on the miles and been weathered by doing this job and that seems really taxing sometimes – but then you hear “Unknown Legend” and she seems like a perfect woman, the woman in the song sounds like a perfect lady. And for me, she has to be, because it's who I am, kinda. Neil wrote that about me! [laughs].

“(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding

I'd be lying if I said I did a good job of documenting and understanding how influential my mom's love of blues and Motown music was for me growing up, but this one really would have sat at the front of the list.

When I think about being 8 or 10 years old a lot of what comes up is Alan Jackson or something, because ‘90s country radio was so much of what I loved and what I was exposed to all the time. But through my mom and my granddad - and there was a lot of Pink Floyd next door at my friend's dad's house - I started dipping into other genres.

“(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay” represented that time period and being a young kid watching your mom dance the day away, and not knowing who Otis Redding was until I was much older, because it wasn’t fed to us in that way.

My mom is such a music fan. She has a big record collection and sits and listens to albums on the porch all day. She's cooler than me, but I do wish we would have had more dialogue about who were listening to growing up, because I couldn't name all four Beatles when I moved to California, but I loved the Beatles.

Those facts didn't come into it. I don't even think I knew there were four of them. It took me until later in life to figure out who I loved, but I knew what I loved early on, and this song embodied that.

Denim & Diamonds is released September 23 via New West

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