The last time we talked to Nashville outlaw artist Nikki Lane, she had just released her sophomore album, All or Nothin', and reached a few milestones already in her young career — like opening for Loretta Lynn and playing the Grand Ole Opry. A year and a half later, the girl has not stopped — a Playboy interview here, a Steve Earle duet there. And now after many months of touring hard, the Greenville native is back in the studio for more.
This time around, the singer's hellbent on showing the bad-girl side of Nikki Lane, and she's enlisted fellow Carolina born-and-bred producer Jonathan Wilson (Conor Oberst, Father John Misty) to help her do just that. It's not that she didn't love her Dan Auerbach-produced record, but looking back she realizes it never really exposed her true self. The new album, currently titled Highway Queen, will be another story. "Now that I've had a chance to get away from it, it's like, 'Huh, this sounds really sweet, but, like, I'm meaner than this, even with a smile on my face,'" Lane says. "So it's just about going back in and trying to capture that tone. I think I'm looking for a continuation of that growl that I've heard on Jonathan's other records."
Though Lane hoped Highway Queen would have dropped by now, a fall release is more probable at the moment since she's having to do it twice, something the singer simply hasn't had to do before now. "I think I was worn out and I wasn't growling, and I wasn't saying that things were going in a different direction than I was picturing because it's just where I was at," she says. "I definitely was kind of shocked when I got home and realized that it just didn't have the tone, the emotional tone that I wanted. I mean, what we have is great, but what's important is that it's something that I really want to live with forever — especially for the next two years — so I want to make it right."
And it's more than just the producer that will factor into Highway Queen's differing tone. Lane is quick to point out that other components make all the difference, like the fact that this time she went to New York City to quickly record at Electric Lady Studios. "On the last record, I was at home and very relaxed when I went to make a record, and this time I was in the middle of a long string of touring and took a couple weeks off specifically to walk in the door and make a record and leave again," Lane says.
While living for months out of a van may have made Lane weary, having toured so much has actually benefitted her new songs. With her last two albums, she performed the new tracks in the studio first before taking them on the road. "But these songs I've played a hundred times on tour, so I have these demo ears — that's maybe what a producer would call it — where I've fixated on the way that I've made the songs sound like already, and I'm trying now to capture that," she says. "I'm holding it to a higher standard than maybe I did before, for better or for worse."
One thing that's staying with Lane is the kind of vintage vibe that rules in All or Nothin'. But rather than linger in the sweetness of the '60s, the country singer hints at a more raw 1970s direction. "It always goes back to a retro sound, but it's also just about trying to keep the song fresh and new so that you don't know exactly where it's going, but it doesn't have to become revivalist. You know what I mean? Where you know what's going to happen, because it's a traditional country song that you rewrote for your own good ... but trying to have some fresh turnaround in the songs and have them be catchy but indicative of country — indicative of country, but a biker can stand there and enjoy himself. That's kind of what I'm going for."
Most of the album is written entirely by Lane, including the title track. "It's all about driving around not making enough money," she says. "It's like real life, but it's tongue-in-cheek about tearing up hearts cross-country." She's also been co-writing a few fresh tracks with her new beau, Southern rocker Jonathan Tyler, and is in the process of finding another collaborative partner. "I definitely have a couple of people who I'm bugging the shit out of, like Lucinda Williams, and I'm just trying to figure out who's going to be my locked-and-loaded duet — like, look who's my bro," Lane laughs.
Other than perfecting Highway Queen, Lane's plenty busy despite getting some rest from last year's hardcore touring schedule. Last October, Lane — known for her signature style of sheer dresses, short shorts, tall hats, and biker jackets — opened up High Class Hillbilly. The Western vintage haven has been her baby in one form or another for years — first as a flea market stall, then a brick-and-mortar, then an online shop, then as part of the musician's merch when touring. Now an East Nashville boutique that's set to expand to another floor soon, High Class Hillbilly is still full of treasures Lane finds in her travels.
Lane's next stop after headlining Charleston Wine + Food is a couple of UK trips — one solo and one with the band — to try and garner a British audience. Lane's also opening up for Loretta Lynn — again — at the end of the summer, and she's being interviewed for a country music heritage book. "There's only like six people that they're interviewing, and I'm, like, the girl," she says.
"Now I'm starting to be treated like an equal by so many of these people that I've admired for forever. There's now a new point of recognition for me. It just feels good, you know?"