Nikki Lane talks about ‘First High’ & working with Josh Homme on new album ‘Denim & Diamonds’
After taking what she thought might be a short break between albums – but, thanks to the pandemic, turned into five years – Nikki Lane is back with a fresh, new attitude and some of the strongest songs of her career. Starting with the immediately catchy “First High,” an homage to her hometown (Greenville, South Carolina), new album Denim & Diamonds takes us through stories of tough-as-nails women, images of stark vulnerability, and some truly sweet moments that keep hope alive.
As Lane tells it, her musical career got off the ground after a few cross-country moves (first to L.A. then New York City and finally Nashville), and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. She recorded acclaimed albums with such top-notch producers as Dave Cobb (Walk of Shame) and Dan Auerbach (Highway Queen) and toured to the point of exhaustion. So that unintentional five-year break? In some ways it was a godsend.
“I’m glad I wasn’t afraid to give myself the time to do that,” she says.
For her new album, Denim & Diamonds, Lane worked another stellar musical mind: Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who, she says, challenged her in new ways.
The album has rockers like “First High” and “Born Tough,” which make you want go get in the car, roll down the windows, and drive. But there are also more introspective songs like “Faded,” ballads like “Chimayo,” and the sweet “Good Enough,” which she says she wrote about her grandparents.
All told, Lane calls Denim & Diamonds a “reflective” record. This is in part because of that break she took, which allowed her to step back and take a good, hard look at her career and life so far – and to refocus on what was most important. As a result, “I feel this record is more representative of me,” she says.
During our interview, Lane talked about the songs on Denim & Diamonds, recording with producer Josh Homme, and the value of reflection.
Colorado Sound: It’s been five years since your previous album. Was this an intentional break?
Nikki Lane: It wasn’t an intentional break. It was just…I was breaking. You get out there [on tour] and there’s such burnout. I love spending time with my fans, but I can get really worn down after talking to so many people in so many days. Then it becomes so many years. Honestly, I couldn’t write another record. I was just craving some domestication and a recharge.
Then the pandemic happened. I didn’t run out of shows to play, and I didn’t lose anything. It turned out fine. I won’t go five years again, but I’m glad I wasn’t afraid to give myself the time to do that.
[Denim & Diamonds] is a very reflective record. It only happened by all of those things happening, so I’m grateful for it.
Tell us more about Denim and Diamonds being “reflective.”
It’s just that so much of what I’ve written about is what has happened. I got divorced. I’m going out on the town. Life is hard. It’s all what was happening.
I think when I started making this record and I started thinking about subject matter and songs like “First High,” I realized in the pandemic how much I like my hometown. I kind of needed to hate it to move out and become who I am, but it’s developed a lot in its own.
“First High” certainly seems to fit that description.
Oh, 100%. Growing up I used to sneak out of the house. I’d start a fight with my mom, because we would bicker a lot. Then I’d hop out the window with my CD player on repeat, and I’d drive to a concert.
This is pretty much a direct story of growing up, and learning how to do everything, and what was taboo. Then what didn’t end up killing me that I tried, and then wanting to try it again. And just searching for that rush, which I think as an artist is so much of what I do.
It’s an upbeat song, it feels positive. It’s full of energy and excitement.
It reminds me of summer, and it reminds me of thinking anything’s possible, which I still believe but have to work harder to access.
“Born Tough” is a little different. It seems like it must have come out of growing up, too.
I’m as tough as they come, but I’m also quite vulnerable. There’s a fragility in there that comes from some of the craziness in my childhood home, and things that created my personality characteristics, but that I learned to hide with things like the “Highway Queen” to survive the job that I chose.
You talk about being vulnerable, and that’s like a real balance I hear on this record. How conscious or deliberate that is to really try and strike a balance when you put a record together?
I think when I’m writing, I’m just trying to harness everything that’s happened. I’m a Libra. I seek balance anyways, just to be silly, but true. I want a little bit of everything in my environment, and I seek that in the album I make. When I see a balance in the record, I feel like it represents a balance in my real life, which is good.
Another song from the album, “Good Enough,” is very positive. It struck me immediately.
That’s my sweetest song now. I wrote it about my grandparents. It made it even sweeter for me to think about their world and something that I might create through saying it out loud.
Are there songs on the album that people might not catch right away, but you feel like you really want to point out?
One of my favorites on the record is just “Live and Love.” It’s another one written at the same time is “Faded,” and it’s really simple, but it actually tells a lot about that time period. Maybe will get overlooked because it’s only two minutes long, but I think I wear it out because of its simpleness.
Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age produced this record. How did you connect with Josh?
I got lucky. My manager pitched him, and it was an instant connection. The first conversation with him I was like, wait, this person’s really smart, and they want to make a record. I should just try to gear towards their gear – which was pretty easy to do, because I have a rock sensibility. It made me go and write “Black Widow.” I wanted to give him something to dirty up in that way musically.
What is the story behind “Black Widow”?
I had been saving that title for a while. Someone had said I was a black widow, and I thought that sounded ridiculous. And then I thought about a sentiment that Josh kind of takes about reputation. Well, what if I was like that? So I’ll write a song from that perspective. It was an easy challenge to become that character and to picture that character in a video and to write from that perspective.
Tell me about the role of a producer in recording. Because you’ve work with some great people – Josh Homme on this album, and before that Dan Auerbach and Dave Cobb. They obviously have an influence on the work, but what does that feel like for you?
An artist gets to dictate how well-versed they are in the studio, and that dictates the kind of producer they need. So that makes a producer like a pretty flexible term.
Throughout the years I say I’ve been working on my vocabulary, because I all I could say in the beginning was ‘I don’t like that.’ So like Dave Cobb [who produced many of the tracks on Lane’s first album] couldn’t have possibly even had the experience I had with Josh Homme, because [back then] I was insecure in that room. It was great, but I didn’t know how to say if I didn’t like something – even though now I know those guys are happy to help me find the sound I’m looking for. My relationship with how I interact with a producer has evolved so much.
Creating an environment where I felt empowered is really important as an artist. In feeling empowered, then I’m humming melodies that end up becoming strong parts of the musical side of the record, which I didn’t have a lot of influence on in the earlier records. I didn’t know how, so I feel now this record is more representative of me, even though he [Homme] put the whole band together and ran the whole show. That’s exactly what I needed him to do. I worked my way to something that says, OK, that sounds like me.
Take us back a little further to when you first got into playing music. Obviously, you were listening to music in high school and jumping out the window.
I was 25. I had written a few songs with a friend. I lived above a coffee shop in LA, and there was a guy there who had offered to work with me on some songs. We had done a photo project, and I put up some words and he said, what are those? I said, well they’re lyrics. [She sings] “I don’t know where this world goes….” It was like the first melody I wrote. And so he brought over a guitar, and we wrote some songs.
In that time I secured a really big job in New York, and I got a moving bonus. I played my going away show, which was my second ever concert. Then I moved to New York, and I started a corporate job in fashion and pursued the career I was going for.
I would sing a couple cover songs with a woman who hosted a music night in the East Village. Aaron Lee Tasjan was my first backing band with Jon Graboff from the Cardinals. It was just a nostalgic time where I was playing one or two songs, and then wham bam, my country music boyfriend cheated on me, and I wrote a country record.
I learned how to play guitar at 25, because I had written songs to the tap of a pencil. I had asked to meet George Drakoulias, [who] had produced the Jayhawks record I was listening to a lot. I went over to George Drakoulias’ house, and at 25 and I couldn’t play. He handed me a Martin [guitar] custom made for Tom Petty, and he said, ‘play me a song.’ I was just so uncertain of my ability to do that well, and [then] George was like, ‘get out of here, come back here when you know how to play your songs.’ I love him for it, because I ran my ass home and I learned how to play guitar.
That was only 13 years ago. I’ve had my record deal from that moment on. I quit my job. I moved to Nashville. I didn’t mean to become a musician so quickly and change trajectory so quickly. So that five year break [between Highway Queen and this year’s Denim & Diamonds] was needed.
I hope you hear on the record and that you love it. I think it wraps up what I’ve been doing, the creative process up until now. I feel very content with my body of work now.
Are you looking forward to getting back on the road?
I am. It’s time to go. I’m just getting ready and packing a lot of suitcases.
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