It’s Always The “Right Time” for Nikki Lane

Music Features Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane has a peculiar death wish. When she passes, she hopes that her home is the kind of destination that people want to visit, the way Elvis fans do in droves when they make the pilgrimage to Graceland. Her house in East Nashville is full of “treasures,” obscure antiques and vintage wares she’s stayed up late scouring Craigslist to find and driven hours to acquire. She may or may not have a “lamp fetish.” When she travels, she doesn’t just unzip a suitcase and leave a rumpled t-shirt or two on the floor after deciding what to wear to a show. She styles the hotel room as much as she does herself, slinging leather jackets on chairs while her hot rollers set. She doesn’t have to be home to make sure her surroundings look just as rad as her outfit does.

Lane’s got a fantastic eye, and that’s nothing new: in a past life, she spent every waking minute making note of the details, be it through clothing or furniture or piecing some mismatched and curiously torn combination of the two together. When Lane moved to Los Angeles and New York before Nashville, it was for fashion, not music; she had wanted to be the Jean Queen, the mastermind to bring back Hillbilly Denim from the ‘70s and reinvent the storied blue-collar brand. “I was trying to become a retail pioneer!” she says, curled up on a bench in a vintage store on Melrose. A dear friend owns the joint, and Lane, who’s in Los Angeles to perform with a traveling Tom Petty cover fest, is very much so at home amongst the stacks of faded 501s and disintegrating Harley-Davidson dealership t-shirts. “I wanted to make $10 million off the sale of my denim company. I had worked out in denim in here, and my life was devoted to blue jeans. That was the plan. And then I made a record.”

See, the fans beyond Lane’s future won’t come to see her house because of her dedication to denim or hunting down ramshackle treasures. They’re going to come to her house because her songs will drive them to see what all the fuss was about.

As unexpected as her sharp turn into musical ambition was, Lane has learned every step of the way, and it shows. All Or Nothin’, her third record, second with New West and first collaboration with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, is a 13-song mission statement, a country record that banks on the kind of licks you’d hope to hear in Nashville without creeping into the territory of Music Row’s fabricated nostalgia.

“Country, it’s presented as real people singing real songs to real people,” she says. “It’s not. There’s literally like 30 people behind every decision that’s made in that entire industry. The thing I love about this alt country, or Americana, whatever this world is that me and all my buddies have gotten lumped into, it’s a bunch of characters writing songs. Just as Gary Briggs from New West says, we’re ‘living’ our songs. We wrote them about real shit that happened to us. No hypotheticals.”

All Or Nothin’ hints at what’s going on behind Lane’s big blue eyes without revealing too much. We know her heart was ripped out of her chest (“Want My Heart Back”), friends have betrayed her (“Wild One”), she doesn’t apologize for putting on her white boots and going out in search of a one night stand (“Sleep With A Stranger”), and she doesn’t name names. The people who inspired the songs, they’re not the point; the point is that Lane is the kind of songwriter who answers her own questions, and sometimes, that involves digging your heels in and going through some brutal stuff before you find what you’re looking for.

“Everything I dealt with in the last two years, you see on [All Or Nothin’],” she says. “I’m not very good at hiding it. I went through a divorce. I fooled around with various humans after that who were difficult. It’s all there. It’s not like a Taylor Swift situation! I don’t intend to tell you who; I’m not that public. I feel like I found all the answers and I continue to be answering things, or at least finding Band-Aids. You’re not reading my diary. I worked hard to cover up some of the truth. I like to be tongue-in-cheek, because if it were too much about me, how would you be able to say that it moved you in such a way because the same thing is happening to you? Isn’t that kind of what we’re going for? I love writing songs that someone can come to me and say, ‘Holy shit, that is my marriage! I get it!’ I want you to be able to resonate with it. Now, they’re just songs—they’re not too personal.”

Working with Auerbach facilitated the newfound ease she found with All Or Nothin’. She met Auerbach at a flea market in Nashville, when he literally bought the leather jacket off her back, and their friendship turned creative once they’d start grabbing coffee and hammering out songs together.

“It made creating them in the studio more fun, because he had a vested interest in seeing the fruition of the song, too,” she says of their collaboration. “Love’s On Fire” is one of the strongest songs on All Or Nothin’, and it’s the kind of duet that makes you wish Lane and the Black Keys would perpetually tour just so they could perform it nightly.

“This record was kind of a coming-of-age thing,” she says. “The last record I made, I didn’t know anything in the studio. If I was uncomfortable with a bass line or a keyboard part, something specific to the process, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to correct it other than ‘I don’t like it!’ which is not professional! It was nice to be in an environment where I had the vocabulary to work my way around it. We had a room full of friends and some of the best players in town, which was really cool! I was outnumbered, though. Too many guys. I was like, ‘How much am I paying a day for dick jokes?! It’s unbelievable.’ It was just exciting to get access to all this stuff and see it happen in a cohesive manner where most people had never worked together before. Dan was delegating segments of the song, and providing really good inspiration tracks, and it was so different. It’s still a new process. I don’t know what it looks like for other people in the studio; I just know how it’s becoming for me and it was just becoming a lot more professional, and something I had a voice in a little bit.”

And hopefully, that voice will get a louder with every passing record. When asked to name musical role models, she pauses for a minute before blurting out Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream is her “new little Bible,” and Waylon Jennings, whose winged “W” she has a tattooed on her forearm. It’s a tribute to be sure, but it’s also a reminder of her unbridled, indefinable ambition. “At the end of the day, what I want is to be known as the king or queen of whatever genre you lump me into, and then have a logo that you can see from across the room and know it’s me.” And that’s why she’s hoping people come to see her piles of denim and records and motorcycle parts and dim lamps: she wants them to come and see what all the fuss was about.

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