NIKKI LANE: WELL, DARLING, IT’S NOT 1972
illustration by lila ash
Nikki Lane is one of country music’s newest sweethearts. She broke out in hives at her first show, but then Rolling Stone took notice after Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys sought her out and produced her latest record. When it comes to music writers—and I’m guilty of this as well—they tend to repeat what’s already been said. Hell, if that guy said it and it’s been said over and over since, it must be true, right? I wanted to take a little bit of a left turn with this interview and actually get to know Nikki: her background, her parents and siblings, pets, and her life-changing drive from South Carolina to Los Angeles to make her music dreams come true. And they are coming true, after countless smelly cross-country van rides. So sit back with a tall glass of sweat tea and get ready to get to know—and possibly fall in love with—Nikki Lane, who plays the Roxy on Sun., Apr. 26. This interview by Frankie Alvaro.
You’ve been referred to as the first lady of outlaw country, as well as the new Wanda Jackson. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Do you feel you’re handling that well?
That’s the thing—it keeps coming up and people are pissed about my ‘first lady of outlaw country’ comment. When you first start marketing your records, you talk to people and answer a couple of questions for interviews. And those first few interviews have sculpted what questions people ask for the next couple of interviews. On one of my first interviews, someone asked me who I would like to be and I said I would like to be the first lady of outlaw country. Obviously Jessi Colter—Waylon Jennings’ widow—is the first lady of outlaw country, but I was supposing there’s a new era and I would get to be the next her. I have this hilarious girl coming after me online over it—people get pissed like I’m trying to fill some crazy shoe. I’m just trying to give you some words that are relatable to what I would like to do. I’m not trying to be the next Wanda Jackson—or replace her!—but I am trying to be as bad-ass as her and work just as hard, and if it’s well received, that’s fine. But I’m gonna probably try and compare myself to someone of that era. That’s what I like. I’m not trying to hold that crown. I just think that’s who I would like to be. It would be fun to be in charge! I have this girl attacking me [online] saying, ‘You think you’re the first lady of outlaw country! Tell that to Jessi Colter!’ Well, darling, it’s not 1972. Have you ever had a 35 minute interview on the side of the 10 in the middle of the desert—there’s no service, I’m cutting out with this writer—and now you’re on my ass on the internet thinking I tried to coin myself as something? You say three words and someone puts those three words in bold and you’re stuck with that shit. Luckily it’s only been ‘queen of outlaw country’ and Wanda Jackson—I’ll take that shit for sure!
On All or Nothin’, there’s a song about heartbreak—where your man needs to get his ass off the couch and love you—and there’s the song about being naughty and going out and sleeping with strangers. What are the stories there?
I’ve heard a couple of times before how can you be all of these different characters—be happy one night going out, and the next night be sad and misbehaving. But to me that’s just how life is—if you’re being real. You’re in a relationship, you’re maybe sad and monogamous, and then you’re broken up and you want to get drastic and change and do something crazy. And after a couple of months you mellow out. That’s really what my two years I was working on my record were like. When I’m talking about sleeping with a stranger, that song to me was about the three bars—Robert’s Western World, the Crying Wolf and the 308—that I liked to go to and the kind of dudes that like hang out at them. I just thought it would be funny. I could picture redneck girls putting on the jukebox and looking across the room, and thought, ‘I’m gonna write this song!’ Do I go out and sleep with strangers all the time? NO! Do I really want you to think the last verse of this song is about you … like some fans do? NO! But is it funny? Hell yeah! So it’s just about what people do when they get divorced. They’re gonna get into some trouble! For at least a second … until I bring it back in and start crying again. It’s a long ride.
To me it seems like people might feel like they really know you—possibly even get attached to you with that kind of song writing. Like they’re getting a glimpse into your life or your soul.
That can be true. And that’s great with me from a fan perspective. I like that. Sometimes I didn’t realize quite how hard it was to be on the road nine months out of the year. And I’ve said at different points this year … there were moments where I would not want this life. I was sick. I was dirty. I was in a van, and I was fucking over it. The amount of money I was getting paid was not worth my time. And then I would meet someone that would fly a few states over because they missed my show in their town: ‘This is my life—I bought a ticket and flew here.’ It’s happened like fifty times now that someone has said that to me. Because I go out and talk to everybody.
That must be the most incredible feeling!
It’s amazing! Especially if I didn’t want to play—I think, ‘You can’t do that shit anymore.’ I can’t cancel a show because however many people did buy tickets, made plans, hired sitters or whatever. So to me being real has made it meaningful because people are actually relating to it. It’s sort of a bipolar rollercoaster trying to do this job. I get home and I realize life has gone on without me in my city for 9 months. I have to work to reopen friendships with people that have stopped texting me to ask if I was coming because I’m always out of town. And then I’m gone again the next week. You kind of can’t slow down until you stop. I get home and have time to relax for a little bit, but if I don’t keep the ball rolling … You have to get it set in stone before you can relax. Otherwise I’m going to get the flu when I stop moving and I don’t have time for that!
What’s your home life like? Any pets?
I have my dog which is like my child—who’s been living with my sister for 4 months. I’ve been home for about 10 days and was going to get her but then I’d have to take her back. They’ve been bringing her to shows. It’s sculpted what my home life will be like cuz I know I can’t have kids right now. I can’t bring them in the van with me. My whole life is my job because my job is mobile. I’m trying to get a bus so I can have my dog in it. I have one cactus and one rubber plant left that won’t die when people who say they’re going to water my plants don’t come over. And also what it looks like in here—everything in here has been brought home from somewhere else, from dragging shit home in the van. It’s pretty eclectic—it’s souvenirs from all over the place.
That’s the other thing—you own a shop, right? Highclass Hillbilly?
Yeah—now I can’t say ‘own it’ because it’s just a stash in someone else’s store. I don’t have my own free-standing store this year. I think I probably will again soon, but it’s hard keeping a big space supplied and full.
When you’re traveling across the country, are you buying a lot? You’re a pretty big vintage collector.
That’s the only reason that Highclass Hillbilly is even a thing cuz I’m never going to stop going to these stores. I get things for editorial shoots—things you can’t really wear in public but that look great in photoshoots. I’m there looking for things for me or old shirts for my band. If there’s something there priced way under retail—and I know what it goes for—it’s hard for me to leave it. But when I get home there are piles cuz there is just so much shit sitting out there. I sell things to different dealers if I come across something that is worth too much money for me to waste my time trying to sell. Like I found an 1800s grizzly bear coat from a trapper, and I sold it to a guy—ran around with it for four days then mailed it to him.
What’s your favorite piece you’ve bought or sold recently?
The Harley Davidson Cycle Queens jackets. There’s a green and black one I’ve been trying to find, these crazy rare cream of the crop finds—and I found two of them within a month. I’m into anything old. It’s made better for sure. And it looks better. I like it when the paint is faded and chipped.
Does that connect to how you grew up?
I think so. My mother has always been a repurposer—always so dang crafty. Everything is something else, in a clever way. And I grew up with my grandfather and his friends, and them being older, people in their 60s and 70s have always been my favorite. When I was a kid they would haul me off to the flea market, and I would walk around and look at things, and as I got older I started to realize how rare and valuable some of this stuff was. And also the fact that very rarely can you ever say you have one of everything from the past. And if you can, that’s really cool because when you collect vintage it’s another thing to find doubles of stuff. Then you start buying things off your friends because you don’t know if there was more than one of those things made. I’m spending less money and I have things that nobody else has. I’d rather my things be old.