Interview: Nikki Lane Hits the Jackpot With New LP, ‘Highway Queen’
Nikki Lane's long-awaited new album, Highway Queen (out Feb. 17), is worth the wait. The record is loose and true to her exuberant live show — from the coiled-rattlesnake desert twang of "700,000 Rednecks" and "Lay You Down" and the torchy, ragged ballad "Companion" to the piano-aided, Rolling Stones-esque boogie "Big Mouth" and the honky-tonkin' "Jackpot."
When The Boot caught up with Lane via phone, she was in the middle of a photo shoot for True Religion's "This Is True" campaign. The long-running promotional campaign features non-models adding their own personal, individual flair to the brand's clothing. Naturally, the charismatic and iconoclastic country performer is a perfect match for the ads.
"There's a lot of personality that walks in the door, and you have to work with that, you know what I mean?" Lane says. "We're not as malleable. I'm not a model. I only have so many looks that I pull off. It's fun to get to be myself."
The gig is somewhat of a full-circle moment for Lane, a fashion enthusiast who owns a vintage store in Nashville: More than a decade ago, she was a denim bar manager at a Fred Segal store in Los Angeles, but had decided to make a career switch to clothing design and manufacturing. Among the places she interviewed? True Religion.
"I was trying to go with the companies that I thought were trend-based [and that] I could really kind of influence," she says. "[When I interviewed], it was the beginning of [True Religion] poppin' off and dominating the denim industry, so I went in and I interviewed, and was offered a position, and then decided that I needed to move to New York because there were more boys there that I didn't know."
Lane laughs, adding, "It's so funny to come full circle and to be doing a completely different thing now, and approaching it from a different perspective, but still getting to stay in and around the same brands that I was favoring when I was younger."
[I feel] the most proud [about releasing 'Highway Queen'], because I had a say in how it started ... I picked some of those things, and if you don't like 'em, that's on me; if you love 'em, that's on me, too.[/pullquotes]
Music-wise, however, Lane isn't afraid to mix things up (or even start again) in order to find the right balance -- that much is evident in the genesis of Highway Queen. Lane ended up scrapping the results of some initial recording sessions, which she did with producer Jonathan Wilson in New York City after a grueling stretch of touring, because the music just wasn't working.
"I didn't have much energy to bring to the table after 100 days on the road that year, and walked in really needing a nap more than I needed to be creating," she says. "And [I] maybe didn't speak up enough about what I wanted. And it reflected when we heard the recordings back.
"I was like, 'Wow.' I didn't do my part, you know?" Lane continues with a laugh. "I didn't say that I didn't prefer certain little nuances. I didn't make the change while we were in there, and I wanted it later — and it was too late."
When Lane picked up recording again in December of 2015, after finally wrapping up the touring behind 2014's All or Nothin', she was a little concerned about the financial aspect of things: "Every time we went in to work with somebody, it cost money," she notes, "so how do you dabble and figure out what you want to do when you don't really have an unlimited budget?"
Enter Highway Queen's co-producer, Jonathan Tyler, who provided a low-pressure (and low-cost) environment for Lane to figure out what she did want to do.
"Jonathan was like, 'Let me invite some friends into the studio to play, and you tell us what you want, and let's see how it goes,'" Lane recalls. "We went down for a couple days and tracked two songs. I was like, 'Oh, this feels amazing.' Everybody was in it to win it. It was a bunch of young guys that weren't really studio musicians, so there was a lot of fresh energy in the studio."
Highway Queen subsequently came together quickly, Lane says: "There was no struggle after we dialed in who was going to be the team and what it was going to sound like. It went like a piece of cake."
New Country, Americana, Alt-Country, Bluegrass and Folk Albums Coming in 2017
Having new musical collaborators wasn't the only change that Lane made on Highway Queen. With her two previous records — the Dave Cobb-co-produced 2011 effort Walk of Shame and All or Nothin', which was produced by Dan Auerbach — she refined and honed her musical vision on the road; however, for Highway Queen, Lane was adamant about wanting to assume more control of her studio sound.
"[On Highway Queen], I got to go in and have a strong opinion, and [Jonathan] helped mold my opinion and produced me in a way that he kept it sonically clear and kept it on target, but I was able to call some of the shots," she says. "And [I feel] the most proud [about releasing Highway Queen], because I had a say in how it started. Not what it becomes onstage next year, but how you'll hear it right now. I picked some of those things, and if you don't like 'em, that's on me; if you love 'em, that's on me, too."
Lane admits that it's both exciting and terrifying to have an increased stake in Highway Queen, especially since it coincides with having "expectations" placed on her.
"It's nerve-wracking to have a follow-up record," she says. "Now there's expectations, and we don't have the lead singer of the biggest rock band in America calling the shots. You've got to stand on your own two feet.
"I don't want to hear about how much better it was when I had a famous person producing it. I want to know that if it's just me, that it's going to be considered good," Lane continues. "All or Nothin' was like, 'I'm going in. I'm really quitting my other job. I'm all in. Is it going to work?' Now it's time to really throw down the cards and make sure it's gonna last."
Lane is doing her part to ensure endurance with plans such as the upcoming Stagecoach Spotlight-presented Highway Queen Tour, which also features Brent Cobb and Jonathan Tyler. The trek came about, Lane says, because the Stagecoach Country Music Festival's booker, Stacy Vee, is a fan and wanted to know how she could help Lane out.
I don't want to hear about how much better it was when I had a famous person producing it. I want to know that if it's just me, that it's going to be considered good.
"I was like, 'Well, you know, I don't know. What are you guys doing?'" Lane says. "She was like, 'What do you think about this tour?' It's so interesting for her to be in a place of power to say, 'We're going to highlight some artists this year, do you want to be one?' It's like, 'F--k yeah, I do!'
"To have people from outside of our team to want to see it work as badly as the people that are directly affected by it, that's motivation to keep going," she adds, "and also really going to be what might push it over the edge to be successful."
That idea of community and partnership is important to Lane: She acutely realizes that it takes a village of supporters and champions to help musicians be successful.
"It's not just us going out and headlining the record with my name," Lane says. "It's headlining the record with what Brent's got going on, what Jonathan's got going on, and what Stagecoach is pushing out there, and saying, 'Hey, these are some of our favorite artists from our roster at our festival.'"
Three albums in, however, Lane is also finally feeling confident enough to start planning ahead and envisioning how her music career might play out in the future.
"I'd love to plan recording for a follow-up record as a part of what happens over the next two years this time, rather than take it when we can get it," she says. "Being a relatively new artist, you know, spending the last five years on it, that's just how it goes. You learn things, sometimes, the hard way, and then you know how to do them next time."
10 Americana, Alt-Country, Bluegrass and Folk Artists to Watch in 2017