"It's always the right time to do the wrong thing," Nikki Lane sings at the outset of All or Nothin', her latest album — a rousing blend of classic country, roots music and category-defying ass-kicking produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. And Lane, who headlines the Bluebird Theater on Sunday, December 6, carries over this philosophy in conversation, speaking all the truths that plenty of musicians believe but are too cautious to actually say out loud.
Examples: She characterizes playing music as a job (one for which she expects to be paid fairly, just like any other), admits that there are times when compromise is necessary, discusses her interest in diversifying her professional portfolio (she recently opened up High Class Hillbilly, a vintage clothing boutique in Nashville), and acknowledges that speaking to music writers like yours truly is part of a strategy to increase the size of her audience.
She also concedes that she'd love to be famous — and quite frankly, she'd be great at it. She's smart, sassy and self-assured enough to speak her mind about anything and everything, including her transition from South Carolina high-school dropout to fashion scenester in Los Angeles and New York; her initial motivations to write and record music (jealousy and loneliness among them); the leap her career took from Walk of Shame, her winning 2011 debut, to All of Nothin'; her early work with producer Jonathan Wilson (he's worked with Father John Misty, Conor Oberst and more) on her next record; and how great it is to receive free swag.
Here's hoping the free Ray-Bans keep showing up for many years to come.
Continue for a wide-ranging Q&A, followed by a mini-documentary that offers more insights into one of the current scene's most entertaining performers.
Westword: I want to start out with a question that may not seem serious, but I absolutely mean it that way. It seems to me that you should be one of the biggest stars in the world, but a lot of people still haven't heard of you yet. I'm wondering if you're as confused by that as I am.
Nikki Lane: (Laughs.) I don't know if I'm confused or if I think it's just part of the plan. Maybe it makes for a better story if I have to tough it out for a lot longer or something.
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It's funny, but I just got off a call with my friend Langhorne Slim to answer your call, and that's actually what we were talking about — being the hardest working people in the business and watching the growth, but at the same time watching people alongside of you just taking off. Like, someone must be dipping some Miracle Grow into their shit. And being envious — hopefully not in an unhealthy way, but still being envious of them.
I hope it happens for me. But the only reason I can say that's part of why it hasn't happened yet is that we've never had a million dollars in marketing money per record like some people do. But that's not even half the battle. Other people manage without that. So I don't know if I'm surprised, but I'm still hopeful, I guess.
Some artists won't acknowledge that they'd like to have a larger audience, but you don't seem to have that problem. Don't you think any artist would prefer to have more people listening to them rather than fewer?
I think the term "artist" is where the answer to that stems from. Artists are making a living off self-expression. Therefore, I think it's easier for them to say they don't want it and they're not looking for it than for them to say they do and not get it. I think it's a defense mechanism for a lot of people.
I know a lot of people who say they don't care about making money and duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-bullshit. But my policy has always been to say that if you're doing the work, you want to be compensated for it as much as you can. If it was a charity, you would have been working for a nonprofit. You wouldn't be pushing yourself out into society and calling yourself an artist if you didn't want to flourish. That's at least my take on it.
I have met people who truly don't care and that's their prerogative. But this is the hardest job I've ever done, and if I'm going to do it, I'd like to have a house and a savings account and a tour bus for my boys to ride around in.
So you have met people who truly mean it when they say things like, "If I'm not successful, I'll just make music in my room for myself and I'll be just as happy"?
Yeah, and I think the people who do mean that, their whole lifestyle reflects it. They're more minimalistic, simple, oftentimes more introverted people who consider their music to be a a form of expression and not something that makes them want to do all the things that might make it into a monumental success. Or people who are very successful but are hiding on the backside of the stage and might just not be as comfortable out front. Maybe it just happened for them that way.
We listen to a lot of podcasts in the car, and we were listening to something recently about things to motivate employees. And to me, those kinds of things would only be a bonus. It was amazing to listen to other people's perspectives, talking about things that were motivators for them on the job other than money. And I'm like, I'm doing the job to make money! I used to work in all commission-based jobs, where if I worked harder and did more, it reflected in my paycheck.
Do you feel that the connection between you and an audience fuels your songwriting and helps make your performances better?
For sure — especially as we develop as a touring band and get our own fans. For so much of this record, we were opening for people and gaining fans, and that's a little bit more strenuous, a little bit more tedious. You're always trying to craft your set to the type of crowd you're playing and play ball a little bit — to cater to what the room is looking for. But coming out and headlining and playing small rooms — a hundred or two-hundred people — it's great to see 75 of those people sing the lyrics to your songs.... Well, maybe that's too many. I don't know how many it is (laughs). But it's enough to realize how much people are starting to relate to you.
Oftentimes in interviews, people will ask me about the subject matter I write about and say it seems a little strange for a woman to talk about sleeping with strangers [an allusion to "Sleep With a Stranger," from All or Nothin'] and whatever. And for me, the more I do it, the more I realize how many people go through the same shit, and how many people relate to things that were really personal and internalized when I wrote them, but they cover the bases of real life: marriage and love and heartbreak and happiness and hitting the jackpot and misbehaving. Everybody goes through that full range of emotions at some point, and seeing people identify with it frees me up to be honest and write about things that would otherwise be considered personal. Because I know all this stuff is happening to all of us.
Does that kind of response make it easier to ignore executives or label people or managers who might say, "If you toned things down, you'd be easier to market"?
I'll tell you, nobody says that on my team. That's one thing about having a really dominant personality: People don't even try to sign on with you if they're looking to change you. Go on a first interview or meeting with me and you're going to know you're not going to be able to convince me to tone anything down. And you wouldn't even bother. So I've gotten really lucky. My manager is my best friend and he lets me do what I do, because at the end of the day, if I fuck this up, I'm the one who did it. It's my name on the line. If other people mess it up, they get to go work with somebody else. They get to keep going. So nobody's going to make decisions for me about things that are supposed to push things to the top. Because this is mine. You know what I mean? It's mine.
There are times at festivals and playing things for the City of Nashville — like, the director of tourism has asked me to do a few things — where I do tone it down. Because whatever terms they want to apply to me — outlaw or whatever — I'm still a respectful human. When I see an eight-year-old who's in the front row and singing all the words to my songs, I still get a funny feeling, you know? I'm not going to be dropping F-bombs all night just because that chick is cool and brought her kid to my show. I'm going to meet her in the middle. I'm going to give the crowd a good time, but I'm also going to cater to that little girl, because I think it's badass that she listens to my record.
But that doesn't sound as if that's compromising yourself to me. That's more, "I'm going to show this side of myself now and I'll show another side of myself at another time."
Right. And besides, I think compromise is a big part of this job. Being out on the road and learning to adjust to empty rooms and full rooms and whatever else, you're constantly compromising. To act like it would be compromising my integrity as an artist to see both sides of the equation in some of these situations, I think would be juvenile. There are all kinds of environments where I have to play ball.
This is my job because I have fans — because people like and appreciate what I'm doing. You can't bite the hand that feeds.
Well, maybe you can. I just played my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina for the first time, and there was a band — they were, like, in their early twenties and the guy was screaming F-words. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" I think he passed out on the stage. And he was so appalled that his manager had booked him into this festival where he had to sing in front of, in his opinion, squares. But I'll bet he took that four grand or whatever they paid him and he didn't bitch about that. I was like, can't you just shut your mouth for 45 minutes? You're never going back to this town and you're not a profound rock-and-roll artist. You're just some twenty-year-old twerp who had a fit on stage.
Since this was your first show in your hometown, were lots of people from back in the day there?
Yeah, they all came, and it was cool. It was a little nerve-racking, because there are a lot of my songs that are about there. Like "Gone, Gone, Gone" is about fleeing South Carolina and "Lies" is about a best friend whose boyfriend was a DJ who cheated on her and kind of had a double life; he had a wife in another state. Nobody knew about it, and it was a really easy cover-up, because it was pre-Facebook. It's funny: I was ratting him out on stage and I didn't realize that the stage was being sponsored by the radio station he worked at. (Laughs.)
[Here are the videos for "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Lies," both from Walk of Shame.]
It's the same kind of thing in Nashville, though. Like "Man Up," which is my divorce song. I'm not really still complaining about my ex-husband. He's a really nice guy. Making jokes and shit-talking about him is funny and everybody likes it. But I don't want him to hear it. I know he's not going to come to my show. But I find myself a little nervous to be running him into the ground even though, at this point, it's just fun. I've long since gotten over being annoyed with him. You definitely want to ham it up, but be aware of where you are.
[Here's "Man Up," from All or Nothin'.]
You mentioned that on some of your previous jobs, you worked on commission. Was that the case when you worked at Fred Segal [a trendy clothing store] in L.A.?
Yeah, yeah. I made 8 percent flat commission, and I made half-a-million in sales by the end of the year, so I was making really good money just slinging shit. You just convince people to buy something they were going to buy anyway and you get to take a little cash home. I thrived in that kind of environment. When I got that job, I was a high school dropout and I was 21-years-old and I went to the first interview for the manger's job. And when they talked to me, they made it clear there were two people with ten years more experience than me. And I said, "Good luck teaching them the way you want them to work. Just know you're going to be thinking about me." It was a good enough dare that they gave me the job.
You certainly don't lack for confidence. Do you trace that to the way you grew up in South Carolina? Or is there some other root for it?
I think it was a little bit learned. There's this one moment I remember in eighth grade with my social-studies teacher, who was my track coach. He came in the first day of school and wrote on the board, "Complacency kills." And it just sort of hit me. It set the pace for everything. When I moved to California, I was terrified. I was mainly just talking a big game to everybody in town about what I was going to do, because I'd dropped out of high school and I needed to remedy that in everybody's eyes. But I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I'd have to move home — so let's go do it.
And then when I got out there, I thought, I want to start my own company. And I thought, well, the worst thing that could happen is that I'll have to close it. You know what I mean? When you start throwing it out there like that, you learn quick. Confidence is part of it, but you also have to be realistic. You're only going to succeed at one of every ten pitches you throw out there. So I just kind of started looking at things like that and knowing that if I just kept throwing darts at stuff, eventually something was going to take. And when you realize that, I think it makes you naturally confident. I always challenge people to do things that they're haven't done or they're afraid of doing, because I think knowledge and doing things for the first time empowers you to feel like you can do anything.
You went from L.A. to New York, where you were in the fashion business, too, right?
Yeah. That was really all I was trying to do back then. Singing was really just something I did in the shower and nobody was encouraging me to do it. And for me, there was a vulnerability thing. I was making great money. I wasn't going to quit my job and play my guitar and try to make a living. That seemed ridiculous to me, because there's no guarantee. And that's the thing I struggle with now. There's still no guarantee. I feel like I'm killing it, but if you guys decide you don't like my next record, I'm out of business. That makes me feel vulnerable. I'm used to it being where the harder you work, the more it pays off, but that's not how this business goes.
Do you see side projects like your High Class Hillbilly store as a kind of safety net?
Yeah. I say it all the time: I'm planting seeds. I'm building a brand. I want to start a merch company. To assume that I'm going to pay for myself for fifty years or more of living just by playing music would be overconfident. I'm definitely looking for other ways to keep an income coming in. That way, if I want to take time off in the coming years, I won't always be stressed about whether the records are pulling in enough money to pay for me and a bunch of people for a six-month window.
How did you make the switch from the fashion business to being a songwriter in Nashville?
Well, I made a record in Nashville just for fun. It never came out. I think it'll come out someday; it's laying around, it's a honky-tonk record. And I made it as a confidence builder. My boyfriend had broken up with me and he'd made a record and I was jealous and lonely and had never really written any songs and it was snowing and I don't do so well in the snow — so I holed up in my house and I made a record. And the response was really good. I think people were really impressed that I could noodle around in my house for three months and then visit some friends in Nashville and come back with a completed project that was catchy and did a good job. I got a Facebook message from a friend who said he'd met Katy Perry the night before; he didn't really like her attitude and he thought I should be famous. And I was like, well that's very cool. Thank you for that — but why don't you find me a record deal? And he was dating a girl who owned a record label. And he said, "I do know one girl." Sure enough, I was out in L.A. a couple of months later, and I went to one meeting, and the next thing I knew, I had a record deal.
After that, the practical thing for me was to move somewhere where I could afford to accept a small record deal and try, because it was being positively reinforced. So I quit my job and moved to Nashville so I could have a house and pursue this dream.
Critics went crazy for Walk of Shame and even crazier for All or Nothin'. But as a lot of people have said over the years, performers don't usually get rich being a critic's favorite. Is a fan's reaction more important to you than what a critic says about your album?
I think it's pretty neck and neck. The fans are obviously what builds a really strong foundation. But it's great for critics to show love and appreciation — and part of that is just being able to talk to people. I think a critic can run things into the ground, but when you talk to a writer and not be reading off a sheet, I think they're a little more willing to understand the process and maybe be easier on you. And when they show love, that's sometimes that gets the fans to show up. You write something about my album or my show and you're creating fans for me. You're teeing them up and getting them into the room, and then it's my job to catch the fish and get them into the bag. It's all part of the equation.
When I'm working on my next record, I'm hypercritical, because I know it's got to be good enough and strong enough to continue to get positive reviews. I don't know that the next record will launch me into getting rich, either, because when you choose an indie label or a smaller established label instead of a major, you're basically committing to a lower dollar number for marketing — and a lot of some people's success is because some company is able to put a picture of your CD or book you on a TV show or put you everywhere, so that everyone knows about it. I think dealing with a smaller label makes it a lot harder — but I'm also be able to tell you that nobody is telling me to change because I have that smaller team and smaller label.
Having Dan Auerbach produce the last album: Was there any concern on your part that his association would overshadow you? Or did you see that as just another way of bringing more people into the tent?
I wasn't thinking about it until the record was out and it was kind of happening. When you're trying to establish your identity in those first few months, every conversation was about him. And that was a little intimidating, because you're trying to figure out how to crawl out behind that. But at the same time, you have to realize that people were taking time to interview you because they could have that conversation. And I wasn't scared after a while, even though there were a lot of variables that weren't worked out. I didn't have a touring band, but it all started happening at once. And once fans started wanting us to be out on the road, there was more to talk about and I was moving past that initial three months of my album being one of the nine things Dan had put out that year. Because it was a big bubble of stuff for him, too. He'd put out a bunch of records and won Grammys and there was a lot of light shining on him. In that way, it was a perfect storm that became easier to get out from behind, because we were doing so much groundwork. We were showing that this wasn't good just because he made it because it was also good live. That definitely helped me.
[Here's a live version of the title track from All of Nothin'.]
You're working with Jonathan Wilson on your next album, and the match might strike some people as unexpected. But I understand that you feel the combination is working. What's the dynamic between the two of you?
We did the first ten days in the middle of a tour, when I was kind of taking a break — and I let him take the reins. I was so exhausted that I probably didn't even have any reins. So it's nice to let somebody to take their full-blown approach. But I also needed to hang onto what I was known for and how I was establishing myself. At that point, then, it becomes whether or not you have a good working relationship where you can bounce things off each other and be able to tell him what you like and, most importantly, what you don't like. And Jonathan's a really easy-going guy. He's worked with a wide variety of artists. So in the studio, it was all about being flexible with players and with approaches to songs and continuing to see what it will take to hammer it out.
Do you think the results will show another new side of you as a performer? Or will the sound still be very recognizable for fans?
I think the sound is very much in the hands of the producer for me, because I'm not a producer. But you can hear many differences between the first record [produced by Dave Cobb and Lewis Pesacov] and the second record. Dan did such a different thing, and the same is true with Jonathan. They're taking a very different sonic approach from one another. But the songs themselves kind of play out in the same way as the previous records. It's like a mix tape. I make sure we hit different tempos and different moods and different topics — not to mirror the last record, but so it's not like a concept record. It's more of what's going on in my life, too, even though that's changed over the past two years.
You've been touring at an incredible pace lately, and some musicians romanticize life on the road. Does it seem romantic to you? Or is it a blend of the wonderful and the horrible?
It's a mix of both. It's...well, it's hard. (Laughs.) It's really hard. But when you get on stage, you're flattered and humbled. Like, a guy drove 550 miles because we were only playing one location in Canada. You hear things like that and it's all worth it. But then you get back in the van and everybody gets a cold at the same time and everybody feels like they've gotten run into the ground at the same time and then you sleep through an entire hour of press interviews and have to reschedule with everybody and get yourself out of the doghouse. It's hard work, but it definitely pays off.
My life two years ago, nobody was calling me up and offering to send me free Ray-Bans or a bag of clothes. You can't act like this job isn't awesome. But there are days when you're on a fifteen-hour drive when you cry and say you're going home and you're not going to do this anymore. (Laughs.)
I'm a really hard worker and now it's just about remembering what I need to do to physically handle the job and give people what they want. I like to meet people after the shows, so now we have to plan our shows so we're done at a decent hour so I have the capacity to do that. And I do. You can count on that.
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An edited version of this conversation appears in this week's print edition of Westword.