Cover photo © Joseph A. Rosen
There are very few musicians who appear to physically throw themselves into the performance of every song, but Danielle Nicole is certainly one of them. Danielle was initially known for her work as part of the three-sibling group, Trampled Under Foot, (who received the highest honor competing in the 2008 International Blues Challenge), but she then struck out on her own with her unique combination of blues, roots and soul as the Danielle Nicole Band. Winner of five Blues Music Awards and nominated for a Grammy, this talented bass player also has one of the best singing voices around. And audiences are consistently so moved by her emotive performances that it is not uncommon to see some with tears streaming down their face as they listen. In addition, fans love her poetic songwriting, especially those which describe relationships gone wrong. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Danielle via Zoom recently, just prior to her heading to the Blues Music Awards, where she received her third award for Best Instrumentalist-Bass. She confirmed that there truly is a strong physical component when she plays.
“It does take me a minute to recover after songs. And there are only three of us up there, so we need each other. Brandon just pours his heart out through his guitar, and It’s exhausting when you have such an emotional experience. To relate to a crowd of people watching it–I see them feeling the same way I do and it’s a vulnerable moment to be emotional in front of strangers. It’s not a show or a performance. If I just wanted to go up and pretend, I could do that—I love dancing and took professional jazz, tap and ballet, and even competed in it. But that’s not what I want. When you experience that kind of emotional vulnerability and freedom it is outer-worldly. It’s a really cool feeling. I’m blessed that I play with two musicians that understand that, and they give every bit of it too. It’s not an easy life. I’m lucky that my guys work super hard, and they play it like there’s no tomorrow.”
Some songwriters say they are constantly writing songs, scribbling notes on scraps of paper, while others need to go to a quiet place to write when it is time to put out an album. Danielle’s writing is a combination of these techniques.
“I’m always continually piecing songs together—I’ll get one or two lines at a time and record it in my notes on my phone. Then I’ll think of a groove and look at some of my notes and see if any of the ideas match the groove or the chord progression that I’m writing. I write on a six string and write the bass line later. But sometimes songs just come straight out of you. You just write them in just a few hours, especially if you are writing a memory, while other songs take forever.”
Danielle stated that the most therapeutic song she ever wrote was “Bobby,” a song she wrote for her father. She was asked if she would also write a song for her brother, Kris, who recently passed away. Kris was in her band when Cry No More was released, so they toured extensively together before he died. She stated that she most likely would and hoped it wouldn’t take her as long it took for her to write the song about her father.
Danielle’s last two albums were produced and co-written by Anders Osborne (for Wolf Den) and Tony Braunagel (for Cry No More, which was nominated for a Grammy). While those two men seem to have very different personalities, they are similar in that they both appreciate spontaneity and are extremely skilled in songwriting.
“Anders is definitely a man of spontaneity. He just feels where it is going. I was able to go to New Orleans and have a writing session with him. That was really cool. I was in New Orleans for three or four days and I got to watch him in his element—sitting on his floor in the front room. For example, I had the verses for a song, but it just needed to go somewhere—it needed that rug that would tie the room together. We repeated the verses over and over again, and then he went up to the five and did this gospel change, and it changed everything. It was very powerful.”
“For Cry No More Tony had flown into Kansas City a few months prior and we laid down some demos. Until then I had been sending him voice notes of me on an acoustic guitar. I kept struggling and struggling with some of the lyrics, and he said, ‘you’ve got to stop fighting’. Tony has a really open mind—he likes spontaneity. Thankfully we did it right on the spot and when I did that, I was able to cut my lyrics in half instead of just repeating myself in different ways. It all just came together. I had been fighting it for eight months—I just didn’t know how to get there.”
One of the best parts about making Cry No More was when Bill Withers unexpectedly showed up and was so impressed with Danielle that he offered her one of his unrecorded songs, “Hot Spell”
“There was a knock on the door and Bill Withers walks in. Tony was trying not to act like a fan-boy and I was trying to not lose my shit and act like a fool, but I was pretty excited. Bill listened to “Just Can’t Keep from Crying” and then he asked me to come out to his car for a moment. We were sitting in his SUV in the driveway of the studio, and he was thumbing through some CDs in the glovebox, and he pulls out this CD of his daughter singing a demo of the song. He warned me that the lyrics were a little risqué. I really dug the song, and the bass line was awesome. He asked if we were interested in recording it, and I said it would be an honor. It had been written in the 1970s, but nobody had ever recorded it. He was ad-libbing on the demo where the guitar solo was supposed be, but we thought that was really cool and wanted to keep it. We hoped to use his voice as a cameo, but when we told him we would love for him to sing that part, he said ‘I dig your interpretation of the song, but I don’t feel like I can creatively add to it.’ So, we didn’t get the cameo we hoped for, but instead of adding a guitar solo, I just sang that part.”
Like every other artist, Danielle had many gigs cancelled due to the pandemic. Many musicians reported feeling stung by the message that musicians were considered “unessential”, and the pandemic made them question whether they could remain on the career path they had chosen.
“It made me question the longevity of the artistry. It was proven that it could stop and be taken away indefinitely. We were the first to go and the last to get back up again. We did a few ticketed livestreams. I also got a sewing machine and taught myself how to use it, and I’ve always loved cooking, so I made new recipes. I also got to spend more time with my two sons.”
Danielle noted that being off the road also helped her fulfill her promise to her brother, Kris, to help with remodeling the home he was able to buy before he passed.
“I was where I needed to be, to be able to be home with my brother. With the donations at his benefit and through very generous people, he was able to purchase a home for his family and completely redid the upstairs. We literally just finished the basement yesterday—we promised him that we would. We’re very thankful for all the donations and the kind people. We have a special day planned for his musical life celebration on July 30, and we’re going to do it right for him.”
Family is clearly extremely important to Danielle, and while she is passionate about her music, she appears just as passionate about doing what’s best for her family and making sure that her children adjust the best they can after their parents’ breakup.
“Back in 2017 I declined a couple of very high-profile tours. I stayed home to be a mom because that’s what my son needed at the time. I am thankfully in a good co-parenting situation, but I need to watch myself. I do the best I can, but it takes work to have a cordial relationship when heartbreak is involved, and betrayal is involved. I do my best to keep the peace despite my feelings. I’m emotional—I’m hot-headed. And I know it puts them in weird spots—being a child from a broken home with different rules at dad’s house and mom’s house. They have enough to worry about without mom and dad fighting and saying mean things. So, I try to take that into consideration and be the best mom I can.”
Danielle reported that both of her children appear to have inherited some of her family’s musical abilities.
“Both of my sons sing a lot, and Eli plays guitar and drums. On occasion I hear him messing around on the bass, but he definitely gravitates more towards the drums and guitar. Michael likes to play the piano. His father plays the piano, and it helps with his hands, because he is only six. It’s worth celebrating the generational gift, the genetic gift to relate to life in a musical way. But I always tell my boys they can be anything they want—a firefighter, mechanic, open a grocery store, whatever—just follow your dreams. You don’t’ have to follow music, but it’s in your blood. I hear you singing all the time. Even if you don’t pursue it professionally, you can still learn to play and learn to write. You can do lighting, do dancing, do costumes. You don’t’ have to be a musician. If you don’t want to be in entertainment at all, that’s fine too. Just follow your dreams. I could have six million followers, but that is not success to me. Success is raising a family and showing them that you can follow your dreams, have a passion, and make money doing what you love. I want to teach my children that you can chase your dreams and make money at it.”
Most artists report being somewhat unprepared for the business part of being a musician, and Danielle was no exception to that rule. She reported that she is self-managed and had booked herself up until recently, when she joined Bonfire Music. She indicated that she was glad she didn’t jump at the first opportunity to sign with a booking agent
“I’m glad I waited. He wasn’t my first opportunity to book, but I would rather do the slow and steady route, and it was a good decision—he’s badass! But you know, nothing prepares you for the business part. Brandon has a business degree, and out of every musician I know, he’s the only one who has his shit together in that area. Whenever I get asked the question about advice for young aspiring artists, everyone says practice, practice, and then practice some more. I say yes—practice, but also learn to do accounting. I don’t recommend that they learn marketing because that will change. How you market a band ten years ago is different from now and is different from how it will be five years from now. It’s accounting that is important–making sure that you know where your money is going. With Kris leaving his children as infants it made me think more about issues like that. I realized that luckily, we are here to make sure his portion of Trampled Under Foot sales go to his children, but who will make sure of that for me? If I own my music, then I can make sure that future sales go to my children. I can make sure they get the benefit of that and are able to control what they believe their mother stood for. I say learn the business and trust your gut and be confident in who you are, and don’t compare your journey to someone else’s.”
Like other female artists, Danielle has had to face some sexist attitudes, although she noted that by starting out playing with her two older brothers in the band, she was safer than most young females entering the music industry and had already established herself as a serious musician before she started her own band.
“With my two older brothers there, I was the safest person in the venue. Now I’m fortunate to be in a position to be able to say something makes me uncomfortable and I don’t need to do this. There are a lot of women who don’t get to say no and still get asked back. I’ve been on my own for over seven years and I’ve been in some uncomfortable situations, absolutely, but I’ve always been fortunate. I have worked with a lot of very good promoters, and I’ve been able to whittle away the creeps.”
Despite her years of being established as a talented musician and winning awards for her skills as a bassist, Danielle is still occasionally the subject of sexist remarks, such as men who say she should ‘get out from behind that bass.’
“Because we’re supposed to be seen. We’re supposed to be fit and quiet unless we are singing. And we can only sing about things that are approved. The standards are absolutely ridiculous. When I was in my twenties and had a banging figure, I never felt like I dressed or acted like a slut, but I still got spoken to like I was one. But I also believe that if any girl wants to be hot—more power to her. It’s not an invitation for misogyny or hate speech. A lot of guys just feel entitled to speak on it. Dressing hot is not an invitation to get preyed upon. And I’m honored to have been the first woman nominated for a Blues Music Award for playing bass, but I wonder why I am the only woman to be nominated this year for that award? Justine Tompkins is an incredible bassist. TK Jackson is an incredible drummer, but she didn’t get nominated. We have come a long way, but unfortunately you still often see festivals with only one female act on the bill.”
Danielle’s next album is already recorded and is again produced by Tony Braunagel. She noted that as she is in a much happier place in her life, the tone of the songs reflects that change.
“There are definitely a lot more love songs—positive ones. We had a really chaotic upbringing and a chaotic childhood and how we dealt with the madness was singing miserable blues songs to try to get through the pain, almost by wallowing in it. This is a lot more about love. But it’s still about personal experiences, and we had a really great time recording it.”
The best blues songs may tend to come from painful experiences, but with Danielle Nicole’s exceptional talent, this upcoming album of positive, life-affirming songs are bound to be just as impressive as her past releases. You can find out more about the release of her upcoming album, her tour dates, and the celebration of her brother’s life at www.daniellenicolemusic.com.