A leggy brunette emerges from the shadows of a ramshackle ranch house and strides in my general direction, her boots crunching on pine needles and her aesthetic as clearly defined as the steely and somewhat quizzical look in her crystal blue eyes.
“Well, you look really fucking familiar.”
Our paths last crossed one week earlier and 2,800 miles away. This meeting is happenstance: Nikki Lane‘s presence at this Independence Day weekend event in the vicinity of North Fork, CA was as unknown to me a week earlier as was my inkling that this amazing, (somewhat) abandoned Old West town existed. We’d met up at a Georgetown waterfront venue for a quick-and-dirty photo shoot before her show that evening with Max Gomez. In between, I’ve relocated across the country and she’s here sitting in with Jonathan Tyler for Bandit Town‘s 1st Annual Family Picnic.
While she’s not billed, she becomes the star of the weekend: she seizes her relatively brief moments on stage with Tyler (and Keith Crutchfield, a personal friend sitting in on drums who has brought me along) before leading the inebriated and the sober through a spellbinding session around a late night campfire. Through the smoke, this much is clear: whether you know her or not, she’s a star.
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
One week earlier in Washington, D.C., Lane immediately displays her innate ability to seize control of situations with a combination of charisma and pluck. There’s an issue with the list and three employees, including a manager, tell us we’re not cleared to be there. Somehow sensing that her scheduled appointment hasn’t shown up and that it might not be their fault, Lane appears out of the back and quickly lays down the law — problem solved.
Perhaps there’s a reason for her intuition. The proprietors of that night’s venue, Gypsy Sally’s, have an unusual policy that seeks to claim 20% of an artist’s merch sales. Innately familiar with her margins, Lane isn’t having it; she won’t be selling merch inside the venue. The bizarre nature of their demand immediately forms an impression unlikely to dissipate like her vocals at the end of a phrase. And if I leave this town I’ll be gone gone gone / And I won’t be back for far too long.
Lane is an entrepreneur, musically and otherwise. Her latest album, All or Nothin’, chronicles the functional-if-not-legal end of her marriage and was produced by Dan Auerbach after a somewhat chance encounter with The Black Keys‘ guitarist/vocalist in her entrepreneurial pursuits. As an entrepreneur, she knows the importance of seizing the moment. In landing the producer du jour, she has seized it successfully.
With an innate understanding of design and background in fashion to boot, her road-worn finds populate a personal duffel bag full of tour clothing as well as bins intended for sale. Her pop-up shops (High Class Hillbilly) feature vintage clothing and exist just as naturally at flea markets as they do when alongside her post-show merch sales. What seems evident is that her adaptation is both a labor of love and one of necessity; there are likely times where her knack for winning the arbitrage battle between an item’s thrift store price and its value under her saleswoman’s gaze has provided much needed income on the road.
And so, after a rip roarin’ set that is punctuated with humor, poignant truths, and instrumental virtuosity, (Introducing the track, “Man Up,” she says, “I wrote this when I was dating my husband. If only I’d listened to the lyrics I could have saved myself an entire marriage.”), she confidently strides to the post-show meet-and-greet-meets-swap-meet down on the street below, keeping that 20% for herself.
Lane’s internal drive and willingness to push past obstacles is contagious, a trait required of entrepreneurs and valuable in general. Her lyrics often reflect upon a desire to seize the moment and push forward. Those steely eyes shine through her catalog, two albums and change of songs that unapologetically challenge both dated societal mores and obstacles to her personal happiness.
Her artistic ethos is one fixated upon the 21st Century realities facing heart-and-soul artists trying to make a living doing what they love, creating as a means of catharsis. In an era of unbridled inauthenticity, Niki Lane provides something we crave. Hers is a cultivated aesthetic, for sure, but the pretty veneer never obstructs the truth-to-power approach that underlies her artistic existence.
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
Gypsy Sallys, Washington, D.C.