We’re thrilled to bring you this interview with Danni Nicholls, a brilliant young American-influenced British-born singer songwriter who is consciously and courageously forging a life doing what she loves.
Danni, who has been gigging since the age of 16, has produced two critically acclaimed albums with bassist/producer Chris Donohue, A Little Redemption in July 2013 and Mockingbird Lane, October 2015. Both are stunning and feature some of Nashville’s finest musicians on their tracks.
Armed with her trusty Tanglewood parlour guitar, Danni has been touring far and wide, honing her craft and wowing audiences with performances that melt your heart into the soles of your cowboy boots. Enjoy the interview! ~ Rachel
1. How are you doing what you love?
For as long as I can remember music has been my biggest passion. Even when I was really small, if there was music on it would be the only thing I could focus on, I’d tear around playing air guitar to rock ‘n’ roll music. The emotions and energy I got from listening to music was addictive and stayed with me. I knew I wanted to build a life around it pretty early on and felt that if I could learn an instrument I could pass some of that good stuff on and that it would probably also feel amazing. Which it does!
2. Tell us a little about your journey to here…
On a family holiday to Florida aged 8 I saw a jazz trio playing on a street corner and was totally mesmerised. I became obsessed with a) jazz music b) playing the saxophone. I hounded my parents for one until they finally relented! I loved being part of school bands and getting to travel – we went on little tours in France and Spain. Playing the saxophone taught me discipline and gave an insight into how much fun a life of music could be!
One day my Grandmother brought something wrapped in old bin liners down from the loft and presented it to me. I was 16 and inside was my great uncle Heathcliffe’s old electric guitar. A Burns London Shortscale Jazz Guitar from 1963 to be precise. She’s a beauty. After about a while, learning odd chords here and there from people I could string a few together and immediately started putting lyrics to them. I found it incredibly cathartic. I never could keep a diary but found all my thoughts and feelings starting to pour out in song form. About that time I started listening to lots of singer songwriters like Eva Cassidy, Carole King, Norah Jones and Sarah Mclachlan. Those ladies were so inspirational. I started performing my songs in school assemblies and concerts and got a giant buzz from it. A friend had a studio so I made an album. I cringe listening back to it now but I was pretty bold, had good feedback and felt really supported so I just ploughed on and the songs thankfully improved! I sold the album to friends, family and teachers. That was my first experience of making money from my music. It felt GOOD!
Recording in Studio One
I guess that was the seed planted of it being a possible option as a career. I was, at the time dead set on being an actress and pursued that through a university theatre degree until in my final year, having gigged my way through uni, I decided that actually, music was the right path for me and I’ve dedicated myself to making it work ever since. I haven’t had that ‘big break’ like you see in the movies but a key moment in my career was meeting producer Chris Donohue. He is based in Nashville where we recorded both albums. Chris is hugely well respected and talented and a wonderful human – he really brought the best out in me and my music and I’ve grown hugely as an artist by working with him.
3. There are so many talented musicians out there who live for writing and playing and who long to make the big time. How do you turn dreams into reality?
I wish I knew the secret to success! I feel very lucky that I get to do this for a living but it’s been a really hard, long road (I think anything worth having or doing is) which continues, which has no end. That’s the beauty. I’ve done what I love solely for my living for 5 years now and for years part time before that making sacrifices along the way. I face and try to embrace the challenges it brings every day as well as relishing in the high moments like playing a great live gig or having someone message me to say they enjoy my album. In fact to keep going through the hard times makes those moments even sweeter. I think the key is to just keep on making your art, writing your songs, gig as much as possible, learn your craft, be as good as you can be, go out and meet people in the industry (‘networking’ is kind of a gross word but it’s so good to get to know people in the industry and collaborators). Embrace the hard work as well as all the great fun times! And be prepared for the ‘big break’ to happen as a result.
4. Tell us about your stunning new album, Mockingbird Lane. What are your aspirations for it and where can we hear it?
I recorded Mockingbird Lane in Nashville with the same producer and mostly the same team as my debut A Little Redemption. In the time between I experienced some big life shifts and heartbreak which really influenced my writing. Ok, ok it’s a break up album. But there’s lots of hope and positivity in it, as well as out and out tearjerkers! I’m really proud of it and feel like it’s my most assured work to date. I’m still touring the record and, of course, I’d love as many people as possible to hear it and connect with it. It’s out there available pretty much everywhere online, in some stores and through my website.
5. How does it compare to your first record, A Little Redemption? How have you grown musically, and as a person, since then?
Yes! For sure, I did a lot of growing between albums personally and musically. Working with the same team in Nashville helped me feel at ease and confident in the studio so that was great and I think that can be heard in the performance and writing. I think any big life event forces you to grow, look inside, take stock and adds to that pool of inspiration to draw from.
6. You’re a huge fan of the term country/Americana music, is this how you’d describe your style and what kind of audience will it appeal to in the UK right now?
I grew up listening to old country music so when that started really creeping into my songs I would call it country but now I feel like ‘Americana’ is more appropriate. I love and encompass many styles from blues and soul to folk and jazz in my music so that fairly wide umbrella seems to work best for me. It has always been there if you knew where to look but with the newly formed Americana UK association and so many great artists out there I think this is a hugely exciting time for Americana in this country and I truly believe it appeals to all ages as there’s such diversity within the genre.
7. You recorded both albums in Nashville. What do you love about the place and how does location in general influence your creative process?
There’s a crazy energy in Nashville. A great, buzzing energy which feels like it’s permeated with all the greatness of bygone artists and there’s so much new and exciting music being made now. Plus it’s just super cool. It’s where many of my heroes wrote and recorded – Patsy, Johnny, Elvis! I grew up hearing about the Grand ole Opry from my grandmother so there’s the nostalgia and romance for me too. It’s a city built on songs… what’s not to love? There are a lot of incredible writers and musicians in that city which was daunting but I also found it made me raise my game and pushed me. I’m always hugely inspired to write when I’m there and location is so important for my creativity – I can’t write just anywhere – so that’s a big reason why I keep being drawn back there.
8. Your first song on your first album, First Cuckoo of Spring, featured in the Season 7 premiere of Sons of Anarchy – amazing! How did this come about and how did you feel?
Ah, it felt pretty great! The director of the show, Kurt Sutter was in London doing a fan meet and greet and somehow my publishers got involved and asked me to come and play live to entertain the queueing crowd! It was a mighty queue – that show has some hard core fans. I met Kurt afterwards and he asked if I had a CD so I handed one over… a few months later we were asked if they could use First Cuckoo in a scene. It was totally surreal seeing it for the first time and I felt really proud.
9. Where do you do most of your writing and how does it happen? Can you share a little about your creative process?
Really – every song is different. Some come in a flash and some take years. I’ve been wondering if there’s a pattern to my writing but it’s pretty sporadic. Generally though I write in blocks, I’m quite compartmentalised! I can’t really write full new songs when I have my business head on, say if I’m working on a tour or release and I don’t really write when I’m on tour but saying that I do collect lyrical snippets and ideas often – mostly whilst sat on trains for some reason – so that when I do come into a creative period I have a pool of jumping off points to try to develop into full songs. I usually like to go away for these intense writing periods, either rent or borrow a place that’s quiet and beautiful with good walks where I can process and think without distraction.
I also love to co write. I try to dot co writes throughout the year to keep the creative juices flowing but usually will also travel to somewhere like Nashville for an intense week of co writing. I’ve recently just moved into a creative studio in my home town (check out #studioonebedford on Instagram) I’ve never had my own space to create separate from where I live and it’s already proving a great way to be more productive so I’m enjoying spending time here at the moment making new art.
10. You finished your UK tour earlier this year. How did it go and where were your favourite venues?
I’ve done a Spring and an Autumn tour this year and both went so great. Both tours were with accompaniment from the great guitarist Max Milligan – always fun to have a travel and stage buddy! One of the most memorable shows was also one of the smallest/most intimate in Nairn, Scotland in a little arts centre. Probably about 20 people but such a beautiful, warm, welcoming vibe and they were the most enthusiastic sing along-ers to date. Another really special show was in the beautiful, candle lit ‘Winemaker’s Club’ in London. A stunning, unique space in the railway arches and a full, lovely audience. At one point we unplugged and sang off mic as the acoustics were incredible, everyone sang along. Goosebump moment!
11. What makes you happiest: writing and recording a great album, or playing live?
That’s tough! If I really have to choose it would be playing live. That’s really where the magic happens; in the live human connection, interaction and exchange of energy. It’s a thrill.
12. What’s been the highlight of your musical career so far?
October 23rd 2015, the day Mockingbird Lane was released, on my own label, after all the work, after a long and challenging journey, was a big deal for me. The album launch party in London for MBL was an amazing night too. We played the whole album back to back with full band and I felt so much love and support from the audience. It really rounded everything off so perfectly.
13. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
ALWAYS trust your gut instinct. Always.
14. What are your plans for the rest of the year, and longer term?
I’m going on a UK wide joint headline tour in November with the wonderfully talented Robert Vincent which I’m really excited about. Then I plan to dive into a creative zone over the winter writing new material. I can’t go long without playing live so there’ll be the odd show dotted about too. I’m just looking forward to seeing what new music comes out, hopefully forming it into another release and then seeing where that takes me!
15. What’s your advice for anyone who isn’t doing what they love?
I heard this quote “everything you want is the other side of fear” and I tell it to myself often. I know going after what you want can be terrifying but I also know that the joy, pride and feeling of ‘this is right’ on the other side is SO worth it. If you have a dream, a burning desire – go after it and you will never regret trying. You will regret not trying.
Image credit: Drew McLellan
For more information about Danni visit her website or connect via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For a list of Danni’s upcoming UK tour dates or to book tickets, click here. You can also check out Danni’s gorgeous soulful on iTunes.