“It’s a deep-rooted, guttural, joyous…ball of amazing!” exclaims Danni Nicholls.
I’m sitting chatting to the Americana/Roots/Country inspired singer (a curious blend in itself given her Bedford upbringing) ahead of her performance at Coventry’s Tin Music and Arts…and I’ve just asked the question ‘Why is it that you make music?’.
It’s the sort of response I’d expect from someone who clearly seems born to sing. Indeed later that evening I’d have my first opportunity to see Danni sing live…a performance that would leave me saying to others ‘I knew she was good, but I didn’t know she was that good.”
Gigging since she was 16, Nicholls may have have pursued the ‘slow and steady’ strategy of building a music career, but she appears to have had an undeniable impact on those lucky enough to see her performing live (FRUK editor Alex Gallacher described her as having ‘bucket loads of charisma’). Her 2013 debut album ‘A Little Redemption’ recorded in Nashville, set Nicholls’ stall out as a serious contender in a UK music marketplace seemingly hungry for Americana inspired music.
I met up with Danni as she was busy planning the release of her second album ‘Mockingbird Lane’, recorded in Nashville with the same team she worked with on her debut release. In the relatively cold surroundings of the Tin (the venue is built within what used to be a coal-vault) we sat talking about Nashville, Aberystwyth and the Sons Of Anarchy TV show…
FRUK: Let’s start with what I guess is the biggest story in the Danni Nicholls camp right now…your forthcoming album! Can you tell us a bit about it?
Well, it’s called Mockingbird Lane and was produced by Chris Donohue. A few years back I went to an Emmylou Harris concert…I’m a huge fan. The friend I went with knew her bass player (Chris)…he came over and said hi and we had a little chat. I said I was a singer/songwriter and mentioned I was going to be in Nashville in a couple of months. He gave me his card and said to let him know when I got to town! Obviously I emailed him and he came to a little show that I did…and we ended up working together on two albums. Chris knows so many incredible musicians, he called his buddies up and we had this amazing band…Chris, Will Kimbrough and Bryan Owings…the first album featured Al Perkins, Steve Fishell and so many other amazing people…and the same core team for album number two as well. It was just great to be able to all get together again the second time around like a little family reunion.
FRUK: How would you describe the material on the new album compared to ‘Little Redemption’?
I think it’s the just the nature of doing a second album to be a bit more confident…I suppose it’s got a bit more grit and more balls! The writing is more mature…I’ve had a few more life experiences since then to write about. I just think overall it’s a step forward in development.
FRUK: I was going to ask you whether as an artist you feel progression with this album…
Yes it’s a progression, I feel that certainly. I’m really excited. It’s got more of a live feel to it…like ‘Danni and the band’ kind of thing. ‘Redemption’ was a little more ‘produced’ with more guest musicians.
FRUK: Recording in Nashville…having done it twice now, how do you feel ‘the place’ influences the creative process of recording?
That’s a tricky one…pauses…I haven’t actually done it over here to compare! Well, I have done a couple of EP’s over here, but that was earlier in my career and it was friends helping me out or a bit more low key, whereas these were fairly big operations. What I would say, just from my experience, is that it’s pretty slick & smooth over there. No big dramas. It’s all done to time, the team is very efficient and I like to work that way. I like to work in ‘blocks’ and and that seems to be the way it’s done in Nashville: pre-production, tracking, overdubbing, mixing, mastering. It’s probably done like that everywhere though – I don’t know!? The first album took ten days in the studio for ten tracks…this time it was eleven tracks in eight days! That’s not to say it was rushed through or anything…they’re just so ‘on it’. Most importantly though in this whole process was that I really felt that when I met Chris I had met the right producer for me, regardless of where we made the albums. He got me…I got him… it was just perfect and beautiful and it’s continued to be a joy to do.
FRUK: What are your hopes and aspirations for this album?
I just want it to reach as many people as possible I suppose…that’s what anyone wants really. I’m really proud of it and I hope that people like it.
FRUK: Your music is clearly Americana/Country inspired…what’s your take on the audience for that type of music in the UK right now?
There’s a bit of confusion at the moment, certainly for me as to what those two genres even mean anymore. The way I see it is that ‘Country’ is definitely having a moment in the UK spotlight at the more commercial/pop end of the spectrum. Americana is a huge umbrella and obviously Country is under there. I think the fact that that end is having success shines a light on the wider genre as a whole and is bringing peoples attention around in that direction which is a good thing! I like the inclusivity of the ‘Americana’ genre in that all the styles I like to write in can come together underneath it; blues, jazz, soul, gospel… whereas with ‘Country’ itself, I think it has taken on a new, very different meaning. In any case, I think there’s a buzz surrounding both at the moment which is on the increase. There’s still a way to go though…lots of people aren’t really sure what ‘Americana’ is!
FRUK: Out of all the artists I’ve interviewed, you can claim what is (at least to me) the most impressive achievement of anyone! Didn’t one of your tracks get featured on ‘Sons of Anarchy’?…how cool is that?!! (I’m a huge SOA fan by the way…)
That was cool! The way that came about was that Kurt Sutter, the director, producer, writer, actor…he basically is Sons of Anarchy…came over to do a fan meet and greet. It just so happened that a member of my publishing team is a huge SOA fan and got in touch with him to see if he might need some live music for the event. He did! I got the call…went down and played a couple of sets whilst streams of people queued to meet Kurt. There’re some hard core SOA fans out there…one woman flew from Canada just for the event! I got chatting to Kurt afterwards and he asked ‘Do you have any music on you?’…I was like ‘Yeah, here’s my CD’. I didn’t think much more of it really. Then we got an email saying that they’d like to use ‘First Cuckoo of Spring’ in the show! It was very surreal to see it on the screen and hear that song in the background…
FRUK: Was it in the final season?
Yeah it was in the opening episode of the last season…I think the episode was called ‘Black Widow’
FRUK: I’m gonna go and watch that again! So you’re on tour at the moment…it’s labelled as the album’s pre-release tour. How’s it going?
It’s going great. I love it, it’s very varied. A couple of nights ago I was playing in a hay-loft in Aberystwyth, in the middle of nowhere!
Every time I tour there’re slightly bigger audiences…I just feel like something’s bubbling away, really growing from the ground up. I’ve had a great reception. Some of these songs on the new album are so brand new…I wrote them a few weeks before we recorded them…they’d never been gigged. So I’ve been getting to know the songs. We’re coming towards the end of the tour now and I really feel like we’ve made good friends…we’re doing well together!
FRUK: Have they translated well to playing live?
Yeah they have done. You never know until you get them out there, but I feel that it’s going good.
FRUK: What’s your favourite track from the new album to perform?
I guess that would have to be a song called ‘Where The Blue Train Goes’. There’s a Gospel style call and response section in it which the audience can get involved in – it’s been working great…good fun!
FRUK: So what gives you more fulfilment? Writing and recording a great album, or ‘playing in hay lofts in Aberystwyth’?
Well, you can’t beat playing live. There are pros and cons to both obviously, but there really is nothing like the buzz of playing live. It’s addictive and fulfilling. If everything else was stripped away and someone said you can only pick one element of your job to do for the rest of your life, it would be singing live. I’ve always been a bit of performer I suppose!
FRUK: Are you writing at the moment?
Not at all, no! Like I said earlier I like to work in blocks…writing then recording then touring then cd artwork then fulfilling the pledge music packages etc. I couldn’t even think of writing a song right now as I’m not in that block and there’s no brain space left…but I know there’s a time coming up where there will be a several months long period of being ‘all-in’ the writing zone and I will focus on and dedicate myself to that…
FRUK: Is that how you create then? You say ‘Right…now I’m writing’?
Yes. I have to get in the zone. There’s no room then for anything else, like the admin stuff…that all goes to one side. It’s very compartmentalised! I wish I could do a bit of everything at once…but you need to give it your all to make it the best it can be.
FRUK: What drives you to do this…making and performing music?
I ask myself that every day! I think it’s the constant stream of new experiences..new people, new places, new life experiences. Every moment is something different and there’re no rules. You can create your own rules…how you want to play it, how you want to put it out there…and you meet some bloody great people. You have a laugh and you get a giant buzz out of performing these things. I’ve never really been able to put it words what making music is. It’s a deep-rooted, guttural, joyous ball of amazing! I don’t now if that makes any sense, but I feel so blessed that it came to me…
FRUK: What’s been the highlight of your musical career so far?
There have been moments sat in the studio where I’ve got my headphones on, I’ve done all my parts for the album and I’m sat there watching the band play along to them. I’ve had a few moments of ‘Oh…my God.’ I’m sat in Nashville watching these incredible musicians add their talent, magic and souls to my little ol’ songs. I’m pretty amazed and grateful that this gal from Bedford got to go out to Nashville to make records! I know more and more people are doing it, but I grew up listening to country music and American roots music…I always dreamed about visiting Nashville one day, it was sort of beyond my dreams that I would end up recording my own music there.
FRUK: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far about being a successful artist?
That you cannot rush anything. It’s a slow burn and it’s all the better for it. You’ve just got to go with that y’know?…chip away, tiny bit by tiny bit. I think I’m still just learning that. And to be cool with it. I used to race against it and be very frustrated all the time that nothing was happening. Looking back, it was always happening…just very slowly. And I’m grateful for that because I feel quite assured and confident in myself now which I think can only really truly come from having gathered all of those lessons and experiences over all those years…
FRUK: What’s next?
Festival season! Lot’s of other gigs here, there and everywhere too whilst gearing up for the official release of ‘Mockingbird Lane’ and the UK tour in the Autumn!
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter @redwoodphotos