Nikki Lane chose to write songs for a living a little later than some folks make such a decision. She had ventured from her hometown near Greenville, South Carolina to New York and Los Angeles before landing back in Nashville and deciding that her path should be a full-time career in music, and she needed room to let her creativity breathe.
Her latest record is Highway Queen, a collection of songs inspired by failed relationships and and life on the road. It’s her third full-length, and it’s poised to take her career to new heights. She spoke to Weld about her writing style, her inspiration, and all of the things that inspired the record.
Weld: Your music often subverts gender stereotypes and expectations. Is that something you consciously pursue?
Nikki Lane: I wrote an article this week for a publication about being a woman in the music industry, and it’s the hardest thing for me to write about because I’ve never categorized myself as male or female. I know that’s a really big topic and that a lot of other people do, but I was raised by an asphalt paver and a woman that could do everything. We were just expected to know how to do things — to know how to fix a toilet when it was running, to know how to change our own tires. I wasn’t aware that there were limitations. I’ve had a sailor’s mouth since I was in the fourth grade. When I was talking, that was just how I talked and I didn’t give much thought to the fact that maybe ladies aren’t cussing every two minutes. I just never knew any other way. I learned how to be more ladylike the other way; by trying to be in long-term relationships and softening and being a little more like a lady in one-on-one relationships with my partner more than I ever thought about being a man when I was writing records.
Weld: So that was more of the challenge for you – figuring out how to not be so hard when you’re trying to date?
Lane: Yeah! Because I was raised tough. There’s a song on the record called “Big Mouth” on the record that’s all about whipping someone’s ass for talking bad about someone behind their back. And someone mentioned to me that it sounds like something a man would say, and maybe they wouldn’t write it into a song, but any woman I’ve ever known that’s dealt with that is going to talk about what they’re going to do about it. She may not translate it into her commercial product, but she definitely still wants to whoop someone’s tail for jeopardizing or violating their confidence or for saying something negative.
Weld: Highway Queen hits on some topics like your hometown and divorce. Are those songs and topics autobiographical, or are they imagined?
Lane: They’re real, but it kind of varies. When I talk about my hometown, it’s obviously my jaded perception of my hometown. Because now you go back and the growth rate is crazy; the restaurants are more refined. There’s hardly any rednecks that I see now, outside of my dad’s town. It’s a make-believe version of the truth, but it’s accurate. I liken some of my writing to the movie Big Fish, where you want to assume that it’s not accurate, but it is — it’s just a little more dramatized version of that. The Highway Queen character is definitely something that I was identifying as myself during the recording process, but I don’t really break hearts on the road. It was building a character to what I imagined her to be after enduring all of that traveling.
With the divorce, my divorce was very amicable. It inspired lots of songs about being bent out of shape with my ex-husband, but we’re very good friends. “Forever Lasts Forever” was written more about the torment of some of my peers have endured over the past few years from much more devastating breakups than what I experienced firsthand, but after experiencing that, I added my perspective and insight to their experience.
Weld: How valuable was your time in New York and L.A. in shaping who you became, and why did you choose to come back to the South?
Lane: Ultimately, I think I chose to come back because of space and the price point — to allow myself to do something creative. When you’re in New York, your main priority as a young adult in your early 20s without financial support from your parents is to get your rent paid on the first. You normally get it all caught up by the 15th and then you’re back in over your head trying to get it all caught up by the first. You work 60 hours a week and you learn a way of living where there’s a lot of hustle involved to surviving and thriving in New York City and L.A.
But when I decided to do something creative, which was never really something that I had dreamt about — I had always hoped to mainly be focused on the business side of things — survival was the first priority; making a living was the first priority. I decided to turn my job into something that was creative and that was going to take longer to turn into a revenue stream. I had to start focusing on cities that I could afford to come and expand to. And honestly, I was tired of living in confined spaces and having to climb four flights of stairs. I was craving the basic amenities of having a yard again. I wanted more than one car, maybe a motorcycle. And now, this has become the most stable that I’ve been as a person. I still dream of going back to those other cities all the time, but I’d have to be a multimillionaire to take the trailer and the van and the dog. [Laughs]
Weld: You’ve characterized your decision to become a songwriter as “selfish.” Why?
Lane: At first, I didn’t even see it in myself, I saw it in other musicians; I’ve watched people that have become very successful, and I’ve watched the system that it takes to create and maintain that, and I’ve watched everyone work to sustain that person. And now I see it in my life. There are three weddings this year. People get married on a regular basis, and I’ve tried to set a precedent of not spending my down time to go to weddings. But my family and my close friends that expect me to be at their weddings this year have waited and chosen their wedding dates based on my calendar. For real, [they] hit me up and said, “Will you be able to attend?” Because it’s in their nature to nurture the seven people closest to them, and I’m in that group. And I’ve had to force it — nurturing the seven people closest to me — because my job is dependent on where the fans need me to go, that calling to keep going and do it. So I struggle to balance making sure that I can be there for the important things like my mother’s 60th birthday, which I didn’t make. That was a big moment in her life, but I’m booked wherever, you know?
It’s selfish in that I’ve had to put away a lot of things that are important to me to continue growing. No one blames me for it, I don’t think, but you see the byproduct of it. When I come home now, less girls hit me up to hang out, and that’s my fault for saying “no” 10 times because I was working. Now, those people have moved on to hanging out with other people after two years of me working. It’s selfish, but it also kind of bites me in the ass a little bit, too.
Weld: How do you maintain your boutique High Class Hillbilly in Nashville while you are recording and touring?
Lane: That’s my friend Macy Smith. And that’s what I was talking about — about being a little bit selfish. You have these dreams and all of these other people have to help carry out the dream. It’s a little bit selfish. Macy has a degree in fashion, and she’ll start her own brand. It’s definitely a two-way street for us. We’ve learned a lot about running a business and things that you wouldn’t learn about going to school. You learn about becoming a fashion designer once you go into it head over heels. There’s a lot of stuff that will overlap and be a skill set for her later in life, but she really came on board just to work a couple of days a week for me and she got booby-trapped! I went on tour and all of a sudden she’s running payroll and all kinds of stuff. That’s what I mean about selfish. She’s helping me live my dream. Then it becomes juggling making sure that she’s getting enough of what she wants out of everything to keep my boat afloat. Now she’s making the shirts that we’ll be wearing out on tour.
I’ve got a really large crew here. It takes a lot of people.
Weld: How important has Greenville been to you as you’ve grown older?
Lane: It’s kind of a shame that I’ve kind of put it out of my head and it means so much to me. Like I said, it’s not a redneck town — it’s a really nice city. A lot of people moved in when BMW moved their plant there in the mid-’90s. Things changed and it kept growing and I just kept equating it with my little-bit of a redneck upbringing.
The first time I’ve ever played live in Greenville was last summer, and that’s horrible. I played 400 shows before I ever came home. And every single person that I ever, ever, ever knew was in the crowd. I had just kind of kept dodging it. Quite frankly, I was afraid that I was going to go home and get trapped. I moved to California with the consent of my parents, but seven months after getting there, I was 18 and losing my [expletive] and I was crying, “I’m coming home.” And I’m really lucky that my mom — she put her foot down and she said, “Well, where are you going to live?”
And I said, “Well, what do you mean? I’m going to come back.”
And she said, “Nuh uh. [We] just bought a new house and we’re moving in there and I’m going to get my craft room.”
She was telling me, “I’m turning your bedroom into a craft room. You don’t have a place in South Carolina. Get your [expletive] together.”
And I’m sure that she hung up the phone and cried. I know it was hard for her to tell me not to come back, but they wanted me to keep going. So I kept dodging going home because I didn’t want to stay and I didn’t want to feel guilty about leaving my grandparents. Because it was always important in our family that you hung around.
Nikki Lane comes to Saturn on Wednesday, February 22. Jonathan Tyler and Brent Cobb open the set, which begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.