Failing Tenth Grade Chorus (and Other Rumors)

A look inside the superstitious, sedulous, and often scandalous world of Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane is unequal parts sinner and saint. Her double-barrel attitude is loaded with “I don’t give a fuck” slugs, and she’s a dead shot. If you know her, you’ve heard some rumors, namely that Dan Auerbach thing, but she doesn’t care. She’s stronger than all that. She’s holding the reins on a monster music career. That monster is big, ready to do bad things, and you’re going to have to deal with it sooner or later.

I’ve interviewed Nikki twice for this article. She’ll talk all night if you don’t mind splitting a joint and some bourbon, but you have no idea how hard it is to get her to sit still long enough for a interview or photo shoot. She’s busy. She’s on tour. She’s sick. She’s bowling. She bumped me once because JD McPherson was at her house cowriting. I’m about to give up on the whole damn thing.

Finally she says, “Just come on over when you want to come over.” So I do.

In her kitchen I stir some Willet Old-Fashioneds. From the other room, Nikki is talking about the difficulty of dating someone in California. She speaks like a machine gun powered by rocket fuel. Word after word crushes the sentence before it with very little space for a breath. When it comes to getting to know each other, she’s not building a bridge; she’s jumping the river.

“I don’t have the privacy or the time to be like ‘Baby, baby, baby’ every fucking day,’” she tells me with a nod to life on the road. “Imagine how hard it would be to have a sexy M.O. with somebody that you can’t see.” During the second interview, I find out that relationship didn’t make it. Go figure.

Nikki may sound tough, but she’s a romantic. She flips open an old book stuffed with clovers. “This is my crazy four-leaf-clover collection. I found fifteen today.” She flips through and stops again. “This day is my favorite. This is the day I found my booking agent. I was grumpy so I went out in the yard and found eight in ten minutes,” she says in a breath.

Each page of this book has a handwritten note. Some are dates. Some are moments like, “Dad was here.” To be unimpressed by the sheer volume would be insane. I can’t help but thumb through them to check. Are they really four-leaf clovers, or is she selling me something?

That’s the thing about Nikki. Sometimes you have to double-check. Some people will tell you, “Nikki’s a bullshit artist,” or “Nikki takes advantage of people and she’s a bad person who does bad things.” Nashville is a small town and rumors don’t run wild for long. Eventually, they make their way around, and Nikki has heard them all.

“Is there any truth to the rumors? Of course! It’s rock and roll! There’s tons of truth. People do dumb shit, clever shit, and other shit. Truth is, I’m no different than any of these motherfuckers judging me.”

Truth is, Nikki is different from those motherfuckers. She’s a maniac with a heart of gold. She’s a hardcore business woman in a vintage red fringe jacket. She’s a hustler who bolted from South Carolina for California. And I don’t mean she moved. She ran.

“I was nineteen, and my girlfriend and I decided to get an apartment together. We decided we needed to get a washer and dryer, so we went to Sears. We were standing there talking about six- or twelve-month financing when I freaked out. I had to go outside. I was thinking, ‘Oh shit! I’m about to make a monthly payment on a washer and dryer in Greenville, South Carolina?!’ I told my friend I couldn’t do it. I called my parents and told them I was moving to California.”

Looking at her today—raven haired and high energy, her red lips taking a generous pull of bourbon, her high-waisted, vintage denim jeans—I can’t imagine her financing a washer and dryer. I can’t even see her in Sears, or a mall for that matter. The notion of her living any kind of suburban life seems absurd.

She landed in Los Angeles with an empty resume and boundless energy. She weaseled her way into a retail job at Fred Segal and sold $500,000 of denim in her first year.

In L.A., she played her first show. To be clear, she had sung in front of people before (if you count church choir and school chorus). But singing alone was not her thing.

“I failed tenth-grade chorus,” she says with half-closed eyes and a laugh. “My teacher didn’t like me. I had two solos, and I missed both of them. When it was my turn to sing, I just stood there.”

Her show in L.A. took place at an art showroom. The open space filled as the audience grew from a handful of random people to a packed room of familiar faces. “Every person I ever met in L.A. was there,” she recalls. During the first song, she blacked out, broke out in hives, and then asked her friend how he thought it went. Looking back, she says, “My body was breaking down. I was so scared.”

So much has changed in the past ten years. With her endless touring in support of 2014’s All or Nothin, she shows no signs of stage fright. For the Sports Illustrated swimsuit launch spectacle, Nikki took the stage in a vintage, stars-and-stripes, sequined swimsuit with fishnet stockings. “How do you stand out in a crowd of swimsuit models? Wear a sparkling leotard,” Nikki laughs.

She also used that performance to deliver new songs to her hometown crowd. It was my first time hearing her live, and I was surprised. She was good. Really, really good. Nikki is belligerent, “I consider it offensive how many people are shocked by liking me. I’m done trying to figure it out. It mattered to me six months ago but not anymore.”

Why not? Because Nikki’s killing it. She’s played SXSW, Conan, the Cayamo Cruise, and toured from coast to coast. She’s hammering out top-secret deals with multinational brands on product collaborations (think boots and hats). She’s parked her traveling vintage shop, High Class Hillbilly, at Moto Moda in East Nashville.

Oh yeah, on top of writing, recording, and touring, Nikki is a picker. She dives headfirst into piles of vintage junk and comes to the top with treasure. Her house is a shrine to leather oddities and forgotten pieces. “Look at these,” she hands me six-shooter wall sconces that she just scored. “I spent a year obsessing over these.”

Between the vintage gear, band merch, and product collaborations, Nikki is building a product empire on the shoulders of her brand. “I’m not gonna make money selling records,” she explains. “I could sell cool things or make money on syncs, but where I always go is brand partnerships because companies are spending marketing dollars. If I can deliver them something aesthetically pleasing and brand worthy, they’ll spend money on me. I’m gonna go out, do the same job I always do, but I’m gonna work a little harder.”

With a focus on the angle, Nikki looks around every corner. There’s gold in the hills, and she’s digging with the biggest shovel. Her gig is equal parts music, experience, and product placement.

“People ask me, ‘Doesn’t it take away from your creative process when you have to worry about the video and marketing the T-shirt?’ That is the creative process! Who’s kidding themselves when they say the song is all there is? The song is the page in the magazine. It’s the advertising element.”

I may be out on a limb here, but I suspect this willful desire to turn the game around and get paid for hard work may be the grain in the rumor mill. To be more specific, some people dislike her ambition. Not that Nikki is just ambitious, but that she puts it out there. Secretly, we want our artists to suffer and enjoy it, and most artists play the part. But Nikki knows the truth and exposes the business side of artistry.

“I hear that I’m a bitch. Hell yeah, I’m a bitch,” she says. “I’m trying to keep people in line. I’m not sitting around on the couch asking you to do things. I’m asking you to work as hard as me.”

I hear that I’m a bitch. Hell yeah, I’m a bitch.

Nikki doesn’t wait for a four-leaf clover to show up; she goes out and finds it. And one isn’t enough when a dozen can be found.

She takes this same go-hard approach to songcraft. “I don’t try to write. If you tell me I have to write ten songs, I’m going to write them real quick,” she says with a matter-of-fact tone. “I don’t wake up in the morning and write a song. I hold little ideas like three words or half of a chorus that I think are important. I don’t overthink it. If it sounds good and it’s strong and melodic and the story makes sense, then it’s there.”

What is also there is the loss and sadness, the humor and wonder, of her own life. Like her book of clovers, she collects these moments until a complete song comes together.

“Everything in my life has given me really good music. That’s the point, right? I’ve gotten really strong songs out of being completely terrified, completely sad, and completely stoned,” she laughs. This is quintessential Nikki. She is “completely” everything at once. She consumes everything around her: the rumors and myth, the love and the loss. She collects and resells anything that has traveled a long way. She doesn’t worry about the battle scars and road wear. She takes those blemishes and shines a light on them. She knows this chance at a great album, a great show, or a great business relationship is her best chance, and she truly gives it all or nothing.

This year she’s gearing up for her new album. The songs have been road tested. Now she’s working on lineups for the sessions. She’s toying with the idea of self-production, but she really wants to focus on making music. “I know more of what I want to say,” she explains. But she’s not trying to get it right. “This is imperfect,” she says about a finished tune, “but let’s get it out there. No matter what you do, somebody’s gonna hate it. Just get it out there.”

The light through the living room window has turned deep yellow. Nikki’s boxing up records to ship out. I convince her to open one up and sign it for an unsuspecting fan. She grabs a Sharpie and writes, “You’re the shit . . . Love, Nikki.”

She laughs, tosses it back in the shipping box, and says, “If people would just take the time to talk to me, they might actually like me.” So, if you see her around, swing by and say hello. You might be surprised by how much you like her.

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