Nikki Lane: Inside the Life of a Highway Queen

"In This Career, You Sacrifice Most Things"

Nikki Lane had a pretty treacherous drive home from the 30th annual MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Days before our CMT.com interview, she was in the drivers’ seat of a rental Durango with no chains on the tires navigating the way home in a snow storm. It was a complete white-out with little to no visibility, and the only way to stay in the right direction was by following poles on the side of the road. It was slow going and the 70-mile-an-hour wind gusts on the mountainside didn’t make the drive any easier. Fortunately, they missed the avalanche that stranded many acts trying to leave the event.

Texas rocker Jonathan Tyler, the album’s co-producer and Lane’s boyfriend, was in the passenger seat and thought they were all going to die. But he didn’t need to worry. Tyler was in good hands riding with the Highway Queen.

Elements of Lane’s road life can be heard all over her new collection, and it kicks the listener in the teeth from its first “yippee-ki-yay.”

Split into three movements, the album starts with songs of fierce independence before transitioning into themes of commitment. The final tracks “Muddy Waters” and “Forever Lasts Forever” explore letting go and moving on. With rock guitar by Kenny Vaughan, pedal steel by Ricky Ray Jackson and dreamy keys by Daniel Creamer, every note is seductive.

“Do I sound tired?” she asked while taking a breather a big blue vintage couch at her Nashville boutique High Class Hillbillly.

Not at all. How did Jonathan and the recording environment in Texas bring out the best in you musically?

I think just by taking the pressure off, like he almost tricked me into it. I had made a record already and wasn’t really thinking that it was going in the direction that I wanted to go. I hadn’t taken the time while we were recording to say that, because we were tired. We were in the middle of tour. I wasn’t pleased with it, but I couldn’t verbalize what I wanted to do differently, per se.

We were in Texas, and Jonathan was working on some stuff for a buddy down there, and they canceled two of the four days. And he said, “What if we just went in tomorrow with the band for free? You aren’t going to spend any money. It doesn’t have to work.” It just kind of made me drop my guard.

You’re supposed to be relaxed. You’re supposed to be hanging out with your buddies in a room. We just continued to do that. I think we did half of it in Denton and then we finished it in Nashville. When we worked in Nashville, we had some legends — Kenny Vaughan and some of the people from the last record — come back. So there were a lot of different players on it, and I think the energy was just really good because I was letting them do their thing.

We recorded “Highway Queen,” like, six times, and no one told me that it was too many times. We just kept looking for the right thing this time, which took a little bit longer. I had already said that it was the title of the record. I just couldn’t find the recording that I wanted for it.

In Jonathan, do you feel like you’ve found a great creative partner — like a Keith Richards to a Mick Jagger?

For sure. Just the ability to trust somebody’s intuition, but for them to let them have your own, I think it works. We still don’t co-write together. And we’ve joked about that and talked about that with some other couples that write. But when it comes to making the record, we kind of pick up each other’s slack, and it works out.

There are a couple of songs that begin a certain way and it never returns to that initial thought melodically. It gives the song its own identity.

That’s the thing that I like. I don’t know how to make a conceptual record, per se, in terms of a theme of the music. But I like to make mix tapes is what I always say. You play the song to the song, and then it sounds a lot better than if the drummer just tracked it out and we just sang over it.

All live?

Almost all live. Obviously, we have to overdub guitars and percussion and stuff. But 80 percent of all that is live. But it was fun to create it that way in an environment like that with peers more than studio musicians.

How much of the record is written from personal experience versus the experience of others?

Almost always all of it. “Big Mouth” in particular is written about someone else’s story that was going on in town, but it wasn’t something that happened to me before. The particular incident set me off to be like, “You know what, this town is not small. It’s eight or 10 bitches like you and Facebook.” So to answer that question, 80 percent of it is autobiographical, but then you get to the second or third verse and it’s not about you anymore. You start thinking about the topic. And that’s what changes the situation.

“Forever Lasts Forever” is a wonderful kind of recap of the end of my marriage, but I was long past it when we wrote the song. I was not feeling it anymore. I was witnessing other friends going through a divorce from a bird’s eye view and was able to give that clear perspective on it because it wasn’t mine anymore. It was written for me by the middle of the song.

That’s a constant thing that keeps happening all the time is watching your friends go through those massive separations and dissecting that from a perspective to where you’re trying to help, but there’s no helping the one on the inside. “Highway Queen” is 100 percent about me (laughs) or about the character that I joke that I became — touring to survive it if you will. But I don’t break hearts in every town because I don’t date fans.

What was the hardest song to write?

Emotionally? “Foolish Heart” probably because I was getting drug through the mud in a situation I was in, and I wrote it really quickly. When things are not feeling good and you write them, you look back at the lyrics, and you’re like, “Oh, God. It’s not all perfect in there.”

I was playing “Muddy Waters” when we were making the record, Jonathan was like, “Wow.” Those are the ones where there’s real shit there. The reason I write is to free it up, but then by writing it you have to share it with everybody. People look at your lyrics and want to know what they mean. “Big Mouth” means I’m going to kick your ass. “Foolish Heart” means somebody did me real, real wrong, and I had to talk myself out of letting it affect me.

Do you ever worry about how the lifestyle of a highway queen affects the longevity of your life?

We got home yesterday and we’re leaving tomorrow. In this career, you sacrifice most things, and I say that because as a woman, like, I don’t have kids. I could have them, not because I can’t have them or that’s not allowed. I’m saying most of my peers who are musicians that have kids are the guys, and someone’s staying home with the baby. I would be the one with the baby. So until we get a bus, I’m not making a baby probably.

There are times when you’re trying to weigh out how much you can give to the job because the job is 24 hours. And people in your life that are doing other jobs it sounds like a cop out. You look online, I’m wearing free shoes and dancing onstage with someone famous. It must be wonderful, right? “Yeah, I drove 22 hours to get there and I haven’t showered.”

It’s like back pain or something. It always sounds like people with back pain are just whining until you get that pulled thing in your neck and you’re like, “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry.” So it takes a toll. But it is a choice. If you make it, you gotta roll with it. There’s obviously the scale balancing. It’s about figuring out how to maintain it I think.

The “Jackpot” music video rules. Did you get a bunch of texts from friends asking if you and Jonathan actually got married after your “wedding pictures” hit social media?

One million. Aside from a picture with Bill Murray at the airport, probably the most likes I have ever gotten was our wedding photo. I keep telling people videos are an opportunity for me to get the label to pay for things I want to do. I said to Jonathan, “We wrote a love song. Why don’t we go to Vegas and get married and have Elvis do it?” And he said, “Well, my parents would be pissed it they weren’t there.” I was like, “OK, well we’ll do it for pretend.” But it’s harder than you think to get pretend married.

The Highway Queen Tour continues this weekend with dates in South Carolina, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.