In the early 2000s, twenty-something Nikki Lane fled her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, in a trailer headed for Los Angeles. She didn't have a plan, but inspired by classic country artists like Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette, she started writing music. It didn't stick, and she soon after relocated to New York City to pursue a corporate job offer. That didn't last either. Then, in early 2009, she went down to Nashville with the hopes of making her first record.
Her debut, No Room For Cowboys, caught the attention of indie label IAMSOUND, who decided to give her a chance. Back in July, Lane released the Gone, Gone, Gone EP, and in late September she dropped a full-length called Walk Of Shame. We caught up with the 28-year-old self-proclaimed "indie country" artist to talk about her recent experiences at CMJ, the problems with contemporary country music, Walk Of Shame and the vintage clothing store she runs in Nashville.
You celebrated a birthday very recently. Was there a party?
Yeah, we had a bowling party in Nashville. I told them we were gonna have like 15 people and that we needed two lanes. When I got there, 20 people had shown up, so I told them we'd need three lanes. By the time we were done there were like 50 people there and the bowling guy thought I was really hip. He said, “You really undershot yourself.” We played like three or four games. I had to micromanage a little and organize everybody. We split up into teams and, of course, my team won. Some of my girlfriends brought moonshine and wine and Saki. They're all my favorite things, but I would never plan to drink them all in one sitting. It was dangerous. I had seven kinds of alcohol that night, and I don't really drink. It was like a true high school revisitation.
A few days ago, you tweeted the following: “Tired. Hungry. Old.” Assuming this was a consequence of your CMJ performances, was it an exhausting weekend?
Yes. Things have been happening so fast I haven't really had a chance to get my bearings. It feels a lot like go go go. CMJ is not really my thing, anyway. I'm very respectful as a musician, so if someone tells me I have a 40 minute set I'm probably gonna do 36 minutes. I'm not gonna get wasted and play for an hour. At CMJ, all the sound guys are like bouncers and they were like “Alright, you have two minutes to get on stage and then you gotta start playing within 30 seconds and then you have a 40 minute set,” and I was like “Woah, woah, woah, dude! I'm pretty tired, I haven't had much coffee, we're just gonna play like a 22 minute set and you're gonna lay off us a little... How does that sound?” They're just all over your ass. I was thinking, “You know, we just won't fucking play!” I don't wanna be bitched around by some bouncer/sound guy. I know they were just trying to do their job, but I'm a behaver. Don't punish me! Punish the musicians who don't behave! Maybe something good will come out of it, but I don't really know. The shows were good, though. They felt really good. I think people liked us. How could they not?
There's not a whole lot, if any, crossover between indie and country audiences. Is that something you hope to achieve?
Yeah, but maybe I already have achieved that a little bit. I'm getting fans from both sides without really pointing fingers at anyone. I think I've successfully crossed over. If you have MTV and American Songwriter writing about you, then you're already somewhere in the middle.
Do you still see yourself as being rooted in the country music tradition?
It's hard to say. For my next record, I'd like to make a rock'n'roll record. My natural sense of melody, especially with my South Carolina accent, kinda keeps me in the country tradition. I'm writing stuff right now, and the demos are clearly so different from Walk Of Shame, but in another sense they're not different at all because you can still hear my twangy-ass voice. So I can't really push too far in the other direction without sounding like I'm pretending. I don't know how to change my writing process.
There's an interesting transition that happens in the “Gone Gone Gone” video. In the beginning, you're sort of borrowing these images from traditional country music, but by the end you've become a very contemporary-looking woman wearing very contemporary-looking, trendy clothes, and so on. Are you're trying to bring a more hip, contemporary spirit to popular country music?
I guess so. I'm obsessed with old-school country—the sound, the big dresses, the big hair and all that stuff. I'm really into fashion, so I have all kinds of clothes. I can dress a different theme everyday. I don't like to get boxed in. For that video, the director chose some locations and I went through my closet and picked my favorite clothes for those settings. It comes off that way, but it's sort of self-conscious. Like, we were in a cabin, so of course I'm gonna pick a vintage '60s dress and look like an old-school country artist. I'm into old stuff and new stuff. I mean, I'm really just into stuff. It's all genuine. They're all my clothes. You can definitely read it a certain way, though.
I read it as if you're trying to subvert some of the more rigid, conservative traditions and aesthetics of popular country music.
Totally. Country music today is just like pop music. I don't hear too much country in it. I'm not really into the style. When I moved down to Nashville to make music, I'd meet someone from the industry and they'd say, “Oh, well, what do you do?” I'd tell them that I sing country music, but maybe because I look a little bit like a hipster or something, they'd say, “Oh, um, good luck.” But I've actually had really good luck because I'm not trying to be on Country Music Television. If I were playing by the rules I'd probably be failing right now. I'm not interested in following the rules of pop-country. I've just been doing whatever I want. I would have been too big of a trouble maker back in the '60s if I acted the way I do know.
My favorite scene is when you're eating the slice of pizza. That probably wouldn't have happened even 20 years ago.
That was funny. I think the director put that in there to pick on me. I hadn't eaten all day and I really wanted some pizza. They were like, “Oh, she's such a diva” or whatever. I had some friends who came over to be extras, and when the pizza showed up, they started eating it and it was disappearing quickly. I said, “Someone bring me that fucking pizza!” I started eating some and the director was like “If you ruin that fucking dress...” I think he put it in the first edit as a joke. He called me and asked if I was mad. I thought it was great. Then when my mom saw it she was like “What the fuck is with that pizza?” She hated it. But I said “The pizza's staying.”
I can really do whatever I want, you know? I have an indie label, and they don't know what to do with me. What are they gonna do? Tell me to be more country? Try to get me to be more indie? Then I have an Americana manager who lets me do whatever I want because I've already convinced her I should be allowed to. I used to want a major label, but now I don't think I could handle one because they might try to tell me what to do.
One of the things I really like about singers like Patsy Cline, Connie Smith, and Loretta Lynn is that there's a real darkness or hauntedness or terrifying pain that's expressed in their work. I don't see much of that happening in today's popular country music—with the exception of a group like Pistol Annies, maybe—but it's definitely there on Walk of Shame.
So much happens in editing and production. There's a big difference between what you hear and what someone comes into the room with. Since I get to dictate my projects, I don't want to take the edge off. The more real it is, the better it is. I think that stuff is edited out in modern country music. If my songs sound dark it's because that shit is dark. My producer wasn't trying to change that. The same was true for Loretta Lynn. She was the queen of her genre. If you're a major label band, and a million people are buying your record, then you'll probably have a logistics team that's gonna tell you not to be too sad or angry. They're cutting tracks that are sad as shit, and vulnerable as shit, and raw as shit. They're marketing campaign is gonna tell them that those songs won't sell as good as a song about a soldier or whatever.
Do you consider yourself a rebel?
Yeah, it's the real deal. People have a hard time holding me down. Unless you're really smart and logical and it makes sense for me to do what you say, I'm not gonna listen. I've always been like that. But I'm also very moral. I believe in karma hardcore. It all evens out some way. I mean, I'm a rebel to an extent. Like, I don't steal, but I drive fast. I ride a bike without a helmet. I come from a very religious background where I was taught by my peers and my preacher that I'd be punished if I didn't do things the right way. At some point I realized that was bullshit. Once you loosen those strings you can do whatever you want. It's society that says all those things, but there's a lot of wiggle room.
I'm trying to do that in my music, too. Especially with this first record. It was my first chance to have a little money behind what I had to say. So I had to say as much as possible, and assume I won't be able to make another one. I wanted to push the envelope as hard as I could and see if it worked. If no one likes it, then I can go back to doing something else. I have plenty of interests. This is just one of the biggest ones.
You also have a vintage clothing store in Nashville, right?
Yeah, I was just there, actually. When I moved down here I needed a job, so we started buying stuff from flea markets. That turned into a little space that was literally 120 square feet, and then we had our own flea market. Last month, I signed a lease on an 800 square foot place. It's a hole in wall. It's like a dive bar, but it's plenty acceptable to have band practice and sells boots.