Nikki Lane on being a true outlaw, #MeToo in music and her vintage ski suit
The Highway Queen hits the Vilar stage Thursday night
If you go ...
What: Nikki Lane.
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.
More information: 970-845-8497, www.vilarpac.org.
Nikki Lane has the perfect outfit picked out for tearing up the slopes at Beaver Creek.
“It’s a 1970s Levi’s ski suit,” said Lane, who plays a Thursday night show at the Vilar Performing Arts Center. “There are some new ski suits that I like, but they’re too fancy. They’re too expensive.”
It’s a predictable answer from Lane, an old soul who has created a vintage sound that’s part country, part rockabilly, part blues and 100 percent fearless. Lane grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, raised by a single mom and a dad who lived in a trailer and taught her how to ride horses and four-wheelers and shoot guns. She said she ate nothing but mac and cheese and chicken fingers for the first 19 years of her life and was the girl in high school whose budget for her prom dress was 50 bucks.
That led to her knack for finding gems in vintage clothing stores and flea markets and her eclectic fashion sense.
“My mom is the type of person that calls me and has drug a dresser down from the neighbor’s house and has now turned it gray and put pretty knobs on it and made 400 bucks off it,” she said. “You know, we were taught to do that kind of craftiness, which obviously created individuality.”
That individuality worked well for Lane after she dropped out of high school, moved to Los Angeles and, through sheer force of will, talked her way into well-paying fashion jobs. She eventually wound up in New York City, where she wrote her debut album “Walk of Shame” after a boyfriend left her and she was holed up in a 400 square-foot apartment with her thoughts.
She has never stopped collecting clothes, which spawned her other blossoming creative venture: High Class Hillbilly, a vintage store in East Nashville that’s taken off like her music career.
Out on the road, where she has toured almost nonstop for the last eight years, most recently behind her excellent third album, “Highway Queen,” Lane said her two creative passions run together.
“I tried to encourage my band to stop smoking, but for as long as they do smoke cigarettes, their cigarette breaks are basically in the parking lots of antique malls,” she joked. “I personally am trying really hard to get into a bus, which is my next step, but it scares me a little bit because with the bus comes overnight drives while we sleep, which is awesome for the tour but sad for my thirsting because it will take out a lot of the pit stops.”
About those pit stops: Lane has curated a network of vintage dealers from Los Angeles and Spokane to Dallas and Nashville, and plenty of stops between, which includes Goldmine Vintage in Denver, where she says she first discovered Ski Levi’s.
“They’re denim and corduroy bibs with jackets and I have like navy, black, denim. Like every pair of bibs,” she said. “And they do a good job. They’re obviously water-resistant. So as long as I have on a good little pair and layering, I’ll look chic on the slopes.”
In a wide-ranging phone interview, Lane opened up about how she’s maintained her integrity in a business where it’s easy to get co-opted, what makes her a true outlaw and why she stopped putting so much effort into social media. She also talked about why the music industry, and humanity, needs to change the narrative about how women are treated in the #MeToo era. This interview has been condensed and includes some profanity.
Vail Daily: You’ve been labeled alt-country, outlaw country, neo-rockabilly, etc. But labels are confining, especially when it comes to getting play on country radio. Do you get sick of the labels or is there one you embrace?
Nikki Lane: It’s like we need vocabulary to describe something, right? People are putting labels on it because they’re trying to lump it in with other things. That helps me as much as it hurts me sometimes. I normally tell people I’m country music for people who say they don’t like country music. It’s indie-leaning. I listen to mostly rock ‘n’ roll and old country. That kinda seeps out in little details throughout the catalog. The labels don’t bother me. Like, I see people, they mock the word outlaw, and then sometimes they love the word outlaw. But who gives a f—? I’m not saying I rob banks because I’m an outlaw. I’m saying that I don’t go into a board meeting with 14 people who talk about what my hair and color palette are going to be for next year and like Margo Price songs and say, would you go more this direction? I’m outlaw because we don’t try to do each other’s s—. That term is perfectly good because the other term could be pop country and I would not want to be called that.
I love a song like “700,000 Rednecks,” but does country music not have a sense of humor?
They don’t mind their rednecks. It’s more like seeing an NPR article where they’re like, she’s embracing rednecks? I’m like, well, what do you think that means? I feel like it’s actually more in that level, in the indie or more educated crowd, where they’re like, why are you trying to collect rednecks? I made a shirt that’s like, “1 of 700,000” and it doesn’t even have my name on it. The country guys are the ones who wear that and chuckle their asses off because they think it’s an inside joke. It’s tricky because rednecks are sometimes racist and all kinds of other things that I’m not. Things that I don’t get behind. I think that’s what important. For me, I grew up with my dad in a trailer with horses and four wheelers and trucks. You know, I moved to L.A. and every guy I dated would go, “Oh, have you seen ‘Chinatown?’ Have you seen ‘Mulholland Drive.’” And I was like, no, no. It was like, we never watched TV. I wasn’t inside. I was a redneck. I moved to the city and I expanded my horizons on my own accord. Now I can sit in any room, with few exceptions, and be comfortable. But, at the end of the day, when I go down to my dad’s house, I drive his F-350 and I shoot a gun and I ride a four-wheeler and that’s what I call a redneck. And I’m proud.
Of all the vintage stuff you own, what’s the one thing you grab if the house is on fire?
It’s a jacket. There’s a rack of jackets right by the front door specifically in case. I think fire is the thing that I’m most scared about as a human in my life because I’ve put so much energy into my collection. I feel like, in general, I could let it all go, but for me, if there was a fire, it would be my dogs and cats, a box of photos and then I have a 1953 Gold (Gibson) LG1. Even though everything might be on commercial insurance, that one is a family heirloom that would never be able to be replaced. I would probably do my best to get those things out, then cry like a baby if I lost the rest, but go buy it again.
You’ve lived in L.A., then New York and now you live in Nashville — all cities where ambitious young people go … and get co-opted by powerful industry forces that tell them how to be, what to do, how you should look and how to make it big. But, for someone as confident as you are, it seems like you were immune to those forces. How’d you keep your integrity and make it this far in the music business while staying true to yourself?
I think I started with that really strong sense of self. That was the part that was non-negotiable. I think that if young artists were told that before they ever showed up in these cities, they’d be in a lot better shape. For me, the word artist definitely equates to diversity. Separating the details of myself from someone else … In fact, looking back now, I’m very established in my personality in my stuff and my brand and whatever, but now I would be really well served to find a big label or like a big push, because they wouldn’t be able to push me. I think big labels just find kids that aren’t defined and they help define them. There’s no crime in that. But for me, I had to do the developing of my personality first, so picking the right label, those more indie labels like New West, which is a grassroots-style label with a limited number of people on the roster working. So, people encourage my diversity, encourage my unique qualities. I just only work with people who don’t f— with me.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever been given?
In general, the most misguiding thing is people trying to get you to put yourself alongside somebody. Honestly, now, I think that’s the worst career advice that people are giving my peers. Because I worked so hard to coin a specific thing, so when you see an exact copy of it, you know, down the street, that can’t possibly be real because that’s something me and my friends made up. I think the hardest advice to swallow that I was given, and I’m still given, is the fear of saying no. You know, as an artist, I’ve run myself almost into the ground numerous times. And when I talk to my peers, so have they, because we’re afraid to turn down opportunities, even when we’ve done too much for the month already. I think now, what I’m learning is it’s not the power of saying no, because I still say yes to everything, but just the power of understanding what you’re capable of. You’re the only person, so if you don’t create space for creating, you don’t have anything to give. I think that push to succeed and follow some of the guidelines that people told me were necessary have weakened my creative state and I’ve had to run off. You named New York, L.A., Nashville, but we’ve kind of been living in Austin, on the down low, for the last year, me and my boyfriend, Jonathan Tyler. I think we just needed a recharge. We love Nashville. I wasn’t trying to run to a new city and start over, but we’d found an opportunity with a friend who has a roadhouse down there and we moved into the back house and we watch honky-tonk music every night and play pool and just be ourselves. How do you maintain yourself? Well, don’t let everyone take it all. I love talking to my fans. I’ll talk to my fans for an hour a night, but if you think there’s anything left in me when I get into that van, then you think I’m a superhuman. It’s a conscious decision to give all the energy that night.
What’s your response to the Ryan Adams allegations? Have you ever been in situations similar to what some of those female artists have alleged? Does the music business need some serious cleaning up?
Humanity needs some real cleaning up. I paid close attention to what was being said about Ryan, from all sides, because I know a lot of those women. I know him a little. The only thing that disappoints me is like, I know, 10 bar managers in each town I’ve ever worked in that are right there. We need to bust a lot of ass in general. Because it is a normal thing. It’s not just celebrities. It’s tricky. A lot of people have the same story. I’ve been in situations where I want to be as mad as those women are at Ryan. And they deserve to be. It’s because I probably told myself at the time that the behavior was acceptable. When I see all that about him, I worry about him as a human, still. He’s getting a lot of backlash, and he deserves it. And it’s going to be a very short period of backlash in comparison to the amount of time he was misbehaving. But I feel like we need to crack down on all that behavior. Because it’s right there. I was raised as a tomboy and I was raised not to put up with s—. And I still found myself in a couple professional situations where I felt like I was brought in really quickly and really heavily into an environment because I was mesmerized and I was excited. And I felt hit on and hurt at the back end. That’s not acceptable … I think there’s going to be a lot more people that come out that fans are completely shocked that, like, it was going down like that. And that, women like me are going, yeah, no s—. … We have to whoop ass across the board and change the f——- narrative. Change the way it happens in the future.
You’re rather tame on social media. What gives?
That’s because I’m not trying to do social media. I think social media is sucking energy out of everybody. And I enjoy it. Like Instagram, I love to scroll through it and I find it inspiring but when it gets really personal, when it gets really political, when a peer of mine makes a political statement and then somebody says, shut up and sing. That s— drives me crazy. That is absolutely inappropriate. That’s what democracy is. We’re all entitled to an opinion. However, for my social media, I’m not interested in ostracizing a Republican or a Democrat based on their choice from my vibe. You want to talk about politics, meet me after the show. And I still probably won’t, because it gets on my nerves. I do believe that using your power and your network as a voice is important. I just personally keep some of that s— to myself.
Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson can be reached at email@example.com or at 970-748-2929.