“I kind of like to have a live show be a little bit of honesty, a couple mistakes because I’m human, and have it ramp you up and drop you on your ass a couple times.”
One of the best rock albums this year is Denim & Diamonds by Nikki Lane, which came out in September via New West Records. The Greenville, South Carolina native and current Nashville resident maintains her outlaw country foundation while including some riffs and grooves that give the project some charisma. It also doesn’t hurt that she had an alt-rock icon handling the production and assisting on the instrumentation and arrangements.
On Dec. 4, Lane will perform with her band as part of her tour in support of the album at Brighton Music Hall. Birmingham, Alabama singer-songwriter Drayton Farley will kick things off.
Lane and I spoke ahead of the show about some other collaborations she did before this release, getting connected with her famous producer, having a female drummer involved in the recording process, and fusing her fashion ideas with her career as a musician.
Denim & Diamonds is your first album to come out in five years and during that time you’ve also pursued other projects such as co-writing and co-performing the song “Breaking Up Slowly” with Lana Del Rey off of her album Chemtrails Over The Country Club that came last year. You also sang with the Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey on the Woody Guthrie-penned song “Never Git Drunk No More” that’s off of the band’s album This Machine Still Kills Fascists that came out a week after your album did. Did both of those collaborative experiences have any influence on your songwriting for Denim & Diamonds, did they both happen after you started working on the album or were you able to separate them from each other?
I guess in general I think everything has a little bit of a domino effect in your life but those incidents were kind of singular. Frankly, the song with Lana Del Rey happened at the very beginning of the pandemic. I had written a melody and I sent her a rough demo that I recorded with my now ex-boyfriend, she then took it to Jack Antonoff and it ended up on her record. It was just a series of events that turned into a collaboration that made us start thinking about how we could write and work really well together quite easily.
With the Dropkick Murphys, Ted Hutt is the producer on that album and he’s someone I worked with early on in my career and have maintained a good friendship with so when they brought that project to me obviously as a fan of the band it was something easy to step in and do. I don’t think those experiences were premeditated in the sense that they didn’t have an impact on the writing, but I think that the people I meet and create experiences with, like becoming friends with Lana, end up affecting the writing because it changes the course of your life to include new events.
I totally get that, absolutely. Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age produced the album and he also played guitar and drums on it. How did you initially get connected with him and what’s he like to work with as a producer and a collaborator?
The reason it took so long in between records was because I was waiting for someone that inspired me, I respected unequivocally, and I wanted to make a record with. My previous manager, Ryan Matteson, had thrown out an idea to me. Him and my team at the label were asking me if I was going to make another record and I was still diligently working but not feeling super inspired to work with anybody. I asked if they could find me a producer because it would make it a lot easier for me to agree to something, so Josh’s name actually came up first. I’m a little bit of a late bloomer and I won’t say that I have imposter syndrome necessarily but I do struggle sometimes to believe that the people my management and team bring up are feasible options.
I said OK, if you think you can get him on the phone then that sounds really interesting. Sure enough, on our first call we nailed down some of our common denominators, our personality types, our goals, and how hard we work. Also, there’s a vibe where his music is really inspiring to me, he’s inspired by the songs I was writing, and so it was a very quick connection in terms of us trying this. Once we tried it with the incredible band and roster he put together to play, it just clicked and the next thing we knew we were diving into a full album. The pandemic created so much reflection for people and I ended up making a very reflective record with a person who evoked a lot of raw sound which I got to pair with some raw emotion and I’m really proud of the album.
You should be, I really enjoyed listening to it and I definitely get the reflective tone from the lyrics and the music. Your music is very much rooted in outlaw country but a few songs on the album such as “First High,” “Born Tough,” “Try Harder,” and “Black Widow” have this ’70s glam rock vibe going on that’s really cool. What inspired that artistic direction? Was it Josh leaving his mark on the album as a producer or was it something else for you?
I think when you say ‘70s glam rock, you’re definitely talking about some signature vibes from Josh Homme but also what makes him a great producer is that he chose people he wanted to lean into as well. I do think musically on my record I’m not one for a lot of derivative references, I hate it when people try to get a drum sound from a specific song. I want to find something unique even though we all know we’re borrowing from all the great ideas of the past oftentimes, but what I think what’s so cool is that he picked a bunch of people from their own really unique backgrounds. Whether it be collaborators of his for a long time who have their own musical influences or just people like Carla Azar who stands alone as one of the strongest drummers in the industry. She also happens to be a female drummer and it was really tight to have a girl in the room with us, which Josh was aware of.
He wanted to give me a team of people where I could have fun in different ways and I became friends with these band members because of that consciousness. I definitely learned a lot about stylistic musical choices from just their history, which is kind of what you see in that album.
Outside of music, you also own and operate the clothing store High Class Hillbilly where you live in Nashville. How do you balance running the store and being a full-time touring musician and how do you go about transitioning your fashion ideas into your merchandise?
In terms of merchandising, it definitely makes me pay attention to quality. It’s kind of a silly thing with selling t-shirts but it’s the best thing you really can do because your fans become a walking advertisement. You really want them to not just buy that T-shirt but wear it too, not just because it’s smart business, which is something I don’t think about until it’s called to attention, but it’s also amazing to kind of offer a token of your world to someone where they can help monetize their support of you.
Merch money literally pays for our gas while on the road, especially for big bands whose gas bills have gotten so high with a bunch of buses. It’s a great icing on the cake after the show, but it trickles down from personal style.
I think people who have merch companies feeding them designs is perfectly fine but to me aesthetic is so key. I’m sitting here in my home and it’s covered in art, art from out of town as souvenirs that allow me to have memories of locations and shows. It all trickles down into little details where you start to become fond of the skull patch that’s on my jacket and now it’s my logo. It’s another form of creative expression for me and I balance it by treating my life as a business. I’m definitely an artist and that seeps out into all different aspects of my life, but I also like to live a life where I get up in the morning to work on projects, build things at the house, or increase our square footage at the store. That just means I have to be diligent about both sides of the brain and I personally really like that.
When it comes to making the music within Denim & Diamonds ready to perform live with you and your touring band, how have the rehearsals been going and what can people expect from you and your band during this tour you’re going to be embarking on until the middle of December?
What’s been so fun now is that we’ve learned a better way to build up things you can never recreate when you have more players in the studio than you do on stage. We’ve found ways to really lean in and it’s fun to watch the guys learn to sing harmonies that I didn’t sing on the record just to provide that more literal approach.
The things you learn as you make records and start performing them live is sometimes you have to put a few more beats into the tempo because I want to push people to dance. Sometimes it’s a little bit more of a dramatic intro on “Faded” than there already is because I’m trying to force a little sadness into the room for a couple minutes before we bring it over to a party song. I joke on my Instagram with the caption “The many moods of Nikki Lane,” but my records are kind of a mixtape of the things that have occurred in my personal life and it turns out that from sharing this music with people they are almost always experiencing the same range of emotions or close to it.
I kind of like to have a live show be a little bit of honesty, a couple mistakes because I’m human, and have it ramp you up and drop you on your ass a couple times. That’s what makes a fun live show for me as a spectator and it’s what I’ve sought to be on stage if you keep me sober enough; don’t feed me too many tequila shots then I’ll come out there and talk to you after the show.
Nikki Lane @ Brighton Music Hall
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.