Featured Interview – Danielle Nicole

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They had all given a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the course of nearly 15 years.

That’s a decade-and-a-half filled with long days and even longer nights, all spent playing the blues all over the world.

All of that hard work came to fruition in 2014 for Danielle (lead vocals, bass), Nick (guitar, vocals) and Kris (drums, vocals) Schnebelen, when Kansas City’s Trampled Under Foot (TUF) was widely hailed as one of the best – and one of the hardest-working – blues bands around.

That was the year that the group’s then-current album – Badlands – garnered a Blues Music Award (BMA) for Best Contemporary Blues Album of the Year and Danielle took home the top honor as Best Instrumentalist – Bass.

This was after the group had won the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in 2008 and were then voted Band Of The Year in both the 2011 and 2012 Blues Blast Music Awards by blues fans all over the world.

It sure looked like Trampled Under Foot was on top of the world.

And then, almost seemingly overnight … poof!

Trampled Under Foot was no more.

“It was a really big combination of things, but mainly Nick, Kris and I worked too hard for too long and we didn’t maintain our relationships as a family,” Danielle Nicole Schnebelen recently said.

For those who may have been living under a rock the past few years, yes, Danielle, Nick and Kris are indeed siblings.

“We didn’t really focus on where we were heading as a group and what was our Badlands record, that should have been our previous record, Wrong Side Of The Blues (which came out in 2011). We were so focused on playing gigs and getting as many gigs as we could, because unless you’ve got a real good hit and your stuff is on the radio, you’re really living week-to-week. We were playing 230 shows a year for a number of years in a row and we were hitting it really hard,” she said. “We’d come home from a tour and play a show in Kansas City the next day and then fly out to Europe for two weeks the day after that. Then we’d get home and have holidays together and birthdays together. Something was always keeping us together 100-percent of the time and we kind of got lost in playing-playing-playing … work-work-work.”

Burnt out and exhausted from the strain, Trampled Under Foot finally decided to call it a day last year.

While the many legions of fans of the band were understandably bummed out, that was not the last to be heard or seen from the mighty Schnebelens. Brother Nick is currently burning up the road with his new group -fittingly named the Nick Schnebelen band – while sister Danielle is also spreading her wings and flying solo, as well.

It could certainly be viewed as a rebirth for the three Schnebelens, who got their indoctrination into the world of the blues through their father, Bob, who played guitar in a Kansas City blues band named Little Eva.

“It’s been a huge transition for me, not only going from Trampled Under Foot to out on my own, but I also recently changed booking agencies (to New Frontier), as well. We’ve done some really cool runs, but I’ve also been able to spend some time at home, which I’m not used to having,” Danielle said. “It’s both wonderful and aggravating at the same time. As much as I love being home, I’m not making any money when I’m off, so it’s kind of like an inner-turmoil. But I do love being able to be with my kids for great lengths at a time. So it’s been cool that I’ve kind of been able to have both worlds. Still, I’m really excited for the next three-quarters of the year.”

Most of her schedule has – and continues to be – filled with spreading the word on her full-length debut, Wolf Den (Concord Records). Wolf Den hit the streets late last fall like a soulful tsunami and quickly swept blues lovers right off their feet. Diehard fans of Trampled Under Foot were probably not surprised at just how good the album was, but its creator might have been caught a bit off guard at just how warmly her first solo album was received by the blues community at large.

“Yes. I really was. What I love about the blues’ and roots’ crowd is that they’re a very loving and forgiving family. Just like with natural-born siblings, along with musical relationships, it ebbs and it flows and you change and you grow. It’s really cool to not being labeled a traitor for branching out on my own … or Nick or Kris, going out on their own, for that matter, either,” she said. “Everybody has been really supportive. They were sad to see TUF go, but they were also excited to see what I was going to do on my own. I wrote six of the tunes on the record and co-wrote another four of them, so it (Wolf Den) has a lot of my writing on it, which was a heavy influence with TUF, as well. So there’s still a lot of me in there, but a lot of these tunes are a lot different. So I was kind of nervous about putting these tunes out there and about how they would be received. But the songs just felt right and I ended up staying true to myself and it ended up working out. People really like it for the most part, and that’s all that you can really hope for, that people can relate to, identify with, or enjoy your music.”

A couple of New Orleans’ finest sons – Anders Osborne and Stanton Moore were knee-deep in the creative process with Schnebelen on Wolf Den. Osborne lent his considerable guitar skills to the project, while also producing it and helping co-write many of the tunes on the disc. Moore – drummer supreme for Galactic, as well as leading his own Stanton Moore Trio – left his patented style on a number of the tunes on the disc, as well.

“Anders as a writer and a musician, he almost leaves you speechless … just writing with him and working with him was an incredible honor and experience. He has an ability to envision songs and then play them as they come to him. He would sit down and look at two lines that I’d written, along with a basic idea for the song and then, all of a sudden, these chords just came pouring out,” she said. “The “Waiting For (or On) Your Love” tune just came out of nowhere. We were sitting barefoot on his front room floor with a couple of guitars and all of a sudden these chords just came out and the song almost wrote itself after that. He’s on a another level … I just can’t explain it.”

“Stanton really heavily influenced the drums on the songs … not just bringing the New Orleans style to it, but influencing the drum parts. There were two different songs where he said, ‘You just play the groove and then we’ll try this beat to it.’ And it ended up being completely different from what I had envisioned, but I just loved it and it really fit the song. When I sent the songs to Anders and Stanton, it was just me and an acoustic guitar, so they were very rough,” she said. “There were no drum tracks and I hadn’t done the songs live before, either. One of the songs from the EP, “Starvin’ For Love,” Stanton put a completely different drum line to it than what I had intended, but it sounded so great that I said, ‘OK. This is how it was meant to be all along.’ And he did the same thing on “Fade Away,” which is one of the funkier songs on Wolf Den. That song was originally written as kind of a New Orleans’ funk groove, but he was like, ‘Nah, try this.’ And he put that real slow swampy beat to it and I was like, ‘Oh, man … this is some funky stuff, man; this is cool.’ So we ended up keeping it, of course. So he literally directly influenced a couple of the songs. Him and Anders are both geniuses in their own rights.”

With her fingerprints all over Wolf Den – just as they were on Trampled Under Foot’s recorded output – the tendency to think that her new album would sound a lot like Badlands or Wrong Side Of The Blues could easily be forgiven. However, while there are common threads that run through both – naturally – at the end of the day, they are separate entities unto themselves. And Schnebelen says that was the plan from the get-go.

“I was known a lot more for my ballad side in Trampled Under Foot. I would do upwards of two or three ballads per show and our albums were real heavy and emotional, and a lot of Wolf Den is as well, but I did make a conscious decision not to have too many super, super heavy tunes on it,” she said. “I’m still true to my songwriting, in writing through experience and perspectives that I’ve lived, but I didn’t want to get so heavy like we just naturally did with TUF. I wanted to do more story writing and just be more conscious of putting out a kick-ass debut and say, ‘This is the band; this is what we do.’ That’s what you get live, as well, where we do most of the record, instead of just doing two or three key songs that the radio is playing now. We do them all, because I love them all.”

The New Orleans influence can’t be denied on Wolf Den. It doesn’t sound like a New Orleans’ record, but one can sure tell that a lot of its underpinning is based on the Crescent City. But as Schnebelen also explains, her hometown also managed to find its way deep into the grooves of Wolf Den.

“They’re all really good, groovin’ tunes, and Anders had a lot to do with that, with his background of being able to write really good danceable – which is a really kitschy word – songs. I’m from Kansas City, as is ‘Shinetop’ (Mike Sedovic), so we’re both Kansas City-based players, which is heavily, heavily influenced by swing. And as far as swing goes, there were only two places where swing originated and that was New Orleans and Kansas City,” she said. “So when you’re talking geographically, that’s the two true places where swing came from back in the day. I think that comes out in the album … there’s a lot of natural swing to it that you would correlate to New Orleans, because of Anders and Stanton, but I really think it’s also the two different swing worlds combining.”

She – or anyone else, for that matter – may not have known it when the sessions for her album were underway in New Orleans, but Schnebelen would actually end up having two releases out last year, starting with a six-song EP called Danielle Nicole (Concord) that was released in March 2015, seven months before Wolf Den would see the light of day.

“Well, ‘Shinetop’ and I went to New Orleans in 2014 and in six days, we did 14 songs … we recorded the album in six days. I mean, I would have preferred at least eight days, but I don’t know any artist that doesn’t want at least a couple of extra days to work on a project, to fine-tune a couple of things. The last two days, we were in the studio for like 14 hours each day and were just completely fried by the end of it. Everything was just kind of flowing together,” she said. “Originally, the record was supposed to be released in March, which I thought was a little early, since we had just recorded it in September. But I was like, ‘Alright.’ Then in January, the label decided to release an EP, as kind of a teaser for the full-length album. Well, that literally changed everything, because we had a 14-track record and our record deal was for a minimum of 12 songs per record. I didn’t want to put out a bunch of repeats from the EP onto the record, so we had this big, long discussion about what songs to basically take off the album and put onto the EP. I mean, we had the whole record done and planed out from start to finish and it flowed well … there was a story to tell and it was great. Then it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, we’re going to take two songs off the record.'”

Despite the last-minute upsetting of the apple cart, as it might be, Schnebelen refused to let that get her down for very long. Instead, she came up with a nifty ‘Plan B,’ one that even opened some doors for some additional work down the road.

“I went to a radio station here in Kansas City, which is like our local NPR branch (KTBG – The Bridge, 90.9) and did acoustic versions of a couple of songs off the record and then added a couple of songs from the New Orleans sessions that didn’t make the album and then put a couple of radio edits of the tunes on there, as well,” she said. “I’ve really been getting into playing my acoustic six-string guitar and doing some acoustic shows. At first, I was like, ‘What? My album’s getting pushed back?’ But now in hind-sight, it’s great, because I have this little piece of acoustic work that I can use to show off some of the different facets of my music. It’s cool, because as I’ve started to broaden out this year, I’ve been doing some acoustic shows, which have turned out to be a lot of fun.”

That ‘fun’ figures to continue into the foreseeable future, as Schnebelen is set to hit the road with the North Mississippi Allstars, where it sounds like she may pull some double-duty.

“Yeah, I’m going to be opening up some shows acoustically for the North Mississippi Allstars and I’m also going to be playing bass for them for a couple of shows,” she said. “I did the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise with them in January and that was a lot of fun. So they asked me to do a few shows with them this year and so I’m doing three shows at the end of March with them and then flying out for a festival in April. Then they’re going out on the road with Tedeschi/Trucks Band and I’ve got a huge summer of shows lined up for myself. So I’m just going to come in and help them out whenever they need me and whenever I can … they’re awesome.”

Even on the very best of days, being in a working band can test all known levels of patience and understanding between its members. That’s simply just how it is when you take a group of people, throw them in a van for a few months at a time and force them to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with each other. But when you also add in the dynamic of being a ‘family band,’ that can take things to a whole different level, as Trampled Under Foot experienced.

“We were together for over 13 years and toured over 10 countries, played literally thousands of shows and met tens of thousands of amazing people, did seven records and we did all of that as a family. We did so much together. Well, it came a time when Kris was just done with Nick and I. He was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ And that was OK … the feeling was pretty mutual by that time for all of us. But we’d just had a hit record and had won a BMA six months prior and then Kris was leaving the band,” she said. “So we decided to tour it out one extra year as a thank you to our fans and to everyone we’d formed relationships with over the years. We worked so hard – not to get an award – but just so hard on that album that we felt it deserved respect. That was a really hard decision to continue the band without Kris for a year, but we made that decision and I stand by it. That also allowed Nick and I the year that we needed to prepare our solo careers. We’ve got kids to feed and we just couldn’t all of a sudden just quit playing. We had to think of our families, as well. I really think it (the split) was what we all needed at the time. I’m a firm believer in karma and we all felt that we needed a change.”

Just as it is the case with most families, although they may fuss and fight some and not see each other for a while, at the end of the day, the Schnebelens are still a family unit and as everyone knows, you can’t keep a good family down for long.

“It’s opened us up to heal individually and we’re doing three reunion events this year. And then we’ll be doing a couple next year,” she said. “That allows us to get back together and celebrate the family.”

But for now, it’s full speed ahead for Danielle Nicole Schnebelen.

“I really am enjoying being on my own, musically. There’s 100-percent more responsibility. I mean, I pay for the van, I pay for the trailer, I pay for the hotels, I pay for everything, including the musicians,” she said. “I’m also tour manager, so there’s a lot more responsibility on my head, being the front-man and also the owner of the business. But it’s great, because it’s so hard trying to run a business as frantic as a band with three people who have equal say. It’s easier for me to tell my manager what I need, instead of waiting for everyone to get back with me. It’s a lot easier in that aspect to just be the hammer, you know?”

Visit Danielle’s website at www.daniellenicolekc.com

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2016

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