Nikki Lane Takes an All or Nothin’ Approach to Music

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Nikki Lane had scheduled a session with a Nashville songwriter — who shall remain nameless — and was shocked when he showed up with a friend. It wasn’t that the session was private, but the friend wanted a songwriting credit.

“That’s such a weird thing that people do in Nashville,” she says. “You can’t give people a third of the property just for hanging out. Imagine if I was dealing you some pot, and I brought my mother and said she’s going to take a cut. No deal, right?”

Lane got a good song out of the frustrating predicament, though.

“I wrote ‘Right Time’ out of defiance,” she said. “I said I was leaving, then that chorus came out. I guess I’m not going anywhere.”

It was worth the hassle.

“Right Time” is the opening cut and a standout track on Lane’s second full-length album, All or Nothin’, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

Lane is used to making the best of bad situations. Her songs tweak classic country sounds as they plumb romantic disillusionment with wit, poise, and — as she says — defiance. Speaking from the side of the road somewhere in Texas, Lane held forth on writing perilously personal songs, working with a Black Key and being one of the best-dressed singers in Nashville.

CMT Edge: You seem to have a bottomless wardrobe of vintage clothes for photo shoots and album covers. What role does fashion play in creating and presenting your music?

Lane: Before I started in music five or six years ago, I worked in the fashion industry. I ran the Fred Segal denim bar in Los Angeles and then moved to New York to do design development for Marc Ecko, which was more of a hip-hop brand. I was learning what my personal style was and amassing a huge collection of things from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

Playing music made it easier for me to go even deeper into that world because I had an excuse to buy anything I wanted if it was part of the character, if you will. In general, a lot of my favorite artists from back in the day were more characters than a lot of modern-day artists.

How do you pack for a tour?

It’s a little difficult. Right now, I have maybe three big outfits tied up in a pillowcase. It’s not exactly glamorous. I have a strict one-bag policy for each of my musicians, which allows me to have five bags.

That background seems to raise some good marketing opportunities.

Right now, the industry is about finding new revenue streams anywhere you can. I’m only going to sell so many records this year, but I’ve got a couple of clothing labels and shoe companies and sunglass companies who think I’m cool.

I don’t feel like I’m selling out. The people I work with, like Frye Boots … I love those boots! That’s what I wear. Why wouldn’t I want to work with them? I want to come at people from all angles because if you see me everywhere, you can’t put me in a box. You can’t say I’m just one thing. I don’t want to be just one thing. Unless that one thing is Lady Elvis.

You met Dan Auerbach through your boutique, High Class Hillbilly, right?

The boutique is partially defunct. It goes in and out of business as the records come out. We have it in a mobile horse trailer that we take out around town.

I met Dan at a flea market when I sold him something from the store. I knew who the Black Keys were, and later I asked him if he wanted to produce the next record. I’ve always been like that. I’ll send emails to people like Mark Ronson and George Drakoulias and say, “Hey, I want to make a record with you.” Most people say no. But it’s all odds in this business. If you keep putting something out there, someone’s going to say yes.

What was it like working with Dan?

We agreed to sit down and listen to the other record [2011’s Walk of Shame] and talk about what I was going for. Within a couple hours of hanging out, we had written a song together. And then another and then another. After that, it was like I’m not looking for anyone else to record with now. That’s really what it’s all about. I’m willing to do the hard work and write with people, but if it’s forced, it’s not even worth it.

You can’t give Dan any crap tracks. “Good Man” is a song I wrote about my ex-husband when we were dating years ago. I had shown it to somebody in a previous session, but it got overlooked. I wrote it off as too personal and not strong enough. I was supposed to have a writing session with Dan for the record, but I just couldn’t come up with anything. But I remembered that song and played it for him. He said it was phenomenal and super-relevant, so we recorded it.

Can a song be too personal for you?

I’ve got a lot of songs that were written in the last couple of years that haven’t been recorded yet, that we put aside for various reasons. One popped up on shuffle the other day that had to do with domestic violence between my father, who was very crazy, and my mother, who was the victim. When I wrote it, it was too personal to put out there and to get my mother to relive those memories. As I move away from it, I see now that it’ll probably have a place on a record someday.

Songs can change for you over time. “Wild One” was a song inspired by a girl who’s on tour with me right now. When I wrote it, I hated her. I based it on a few lines from a text message she sent me, and I was extremely livid. But we’re great now. I just slept on her shoulder for six hours in the van.

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