After she’d finished recording “Highway Queen,” her third full-length album, Nikki Lane was beset with some regrets and remorse.
“I didn’t think it reflected me,” she told The Star recently, ahead of her May 3 show at the RecordBar. “I didn’t have much interest in listening to it, and I knew it wasn’t done right, but I was still inclined to keep it. I felt like I couldn’t tell the label I wasn’t happy with it.”
But she did tell her label, New West Records, and the response she got surprised her.
“When I told them I wanted to make another record, they all agreed to it,” she said. “And they still let me call all the shots.”
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The first version of “Highway Queen” was recorded in a hurry. Lane, who had been touring relentlessly for nearly 18 months, had a rare 10-day window in her schedule in July 2015. So she hopped into Electric Lady Studio in New York and recorded 10 tracks. Afterward, Lane realized she probably should have made better use of that time.
“I should have been sleeping and recuperating rather than trying to create something I’d be touring on for the next three years,” she said. “I’d reached a place where I wasn’t looking for as much outside opinion as I did other albums. I wasn’t really interested in outside opinions; I’d hired someone to be the opinion maker, and I was too tired to interject and offer my influence.”
After she’d returned to the road, Lane listened to the “Queen” tracks. Something was missing.
“I thought I’d developed a sound on the road,” she said, “and that wasn’t there in the studio. But I hadn’t really shared it with the team that recorded the new album.”
Lane, a native of Greenville, S.C., entered the music world in 2011 with her debut album, “Walk of Shame,” a collection of candid songs written in reaction to the bitter end of a relationship and the subsequent rebound — songs about seduction, casual sex and post-breakup anger.
For her retro-country stylings, her firecracker personality and a voice that drew comparisons to Wanda Jackson and early Neko Case, Lane attracted critical acclaim and attention from larger labels, including New West, which brought Lane onto its roster for her second full-length, “All or Nothin’,” released in 2014 and produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Again, critics liked a lot of what they heard. “Lane’s brashness and vintage pull evokes Nancy Sinatra and Dusty Springfield,” wrote Doug Freeman in the Austin Chronicle. From Paste magazine: “Lane delivers no-nonsense reality. … There’s feminism as oxygen in acknowledging love happens, falls apart and walks out and accepting the force of the emotions along the way.”
Lane hit the road hard after releasing “Nothin’ ” and learned some hard lessons along the way.
“For our first tour in 2014 we sold like 14 tickets in Dallas,” she said. “It was pretty desolate in some places.
“It was humbling because you’d go out by yourself and headline and no one would be there. And you go out and open for Old 97’s and play to a room filled with people and even though they weren’t there for you, they were excited to see you and the energy was really good and you’d feel some self-confidence. Then you do the headlining loop again and go back to a room and there’d be 50 people there — better than last time but I still can’t afford to pay my rent when I get home.”
In 2015, she had another window in her schedule, so she planned a trip to Texas to visit fellow songwriter Jonathan Tyler, a longtime friend who’d become her boyfriend a few months earlier.
“He was in Denton, Texas, at the Echo Lab recording two different friends of his, and one of the guys he was supposed to record bailed,” Lane said. “I was going down there for a vacation and to visit him and he suggested I come in for a couple days and see what happens in the studio.”
Initially, she said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” She’d already received one pass from her label to remake the album, and Lane wanted to make sure the circumstances would be as ideal as possible the second time.
“I put so much stress and pressure on myself to make music, I was feeling like I couldn’t afford to just fool around in a studio, but (Tyler) offered to do it on spec or for free up front. And I said, ‘Why would you do that?’ and he said, ‘Because we think it will be good.’ ”
He was right. They started tracking some songs and Lane was immediately satisfied. And so was her label.
“We listened back and I was like, ‘Holy s***. This is what I sound like live. This is what it’s supposed to be,’ ” she said. “So we put in a call to my manager and my label and within minutes they’d pulled the trigger and said we could go in. So we set up time immediately and recorded a second record.
“A lot of people in the room had their opinions — the musicians and engineers and my manager: Everyone was sticking their noses in, but it was the most fun way ever to make a record.”
“Highway Queen” is generating some of the best reviews of her brief career. From The Telegraph in London: “It’s the second half of the album that actually shows why country persists at all odds: at its best, it is unafraid of telling stories that dig deep into ordinary lives.” From Uncut magazine: “ ‘Highway Queen’ feels like the kind of record that should bump Lane into another level.”
Lane is back out on the road, touring on “Queen.” She is headlining a bill Wednesday night at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd. Tyler will open. This will be Lane’s second performance in Kansas City. In November 2014, Lane opened for Loretta Lynn at the Uptown Theater.
Kansas City and Lawrence have become popular stopping points for Lane when she’s on the road. She is also a fashion entrepreneur: the owner of High Class Hillbilly, a vintage Western wear store in Nashville, her new hometown. While in town for the Lynn show, Lane discovered some shopping destinations, like Wild Man Vintage in Lawrence.
“On that trip, my mom started nosing around in Lawrence and saying, ‘I heard about this great Western store out there,’ ” Lane said. “So now we come home through Lawrence and Kansas City and shop so much vintage and antiques. We need to grow our fan base in your city because we do so well there with the other business.”
She may have a few more chances to shop around here in 2017. Her tour schedule is full this year, including a trek through Europe that starts at the end of May, and a stop in the Midwest in August.
Lane will be touring on the album she steadfastly fought to ensure would sound like she wanted. The mission now is to take it on the road and, like her other business, increase her clientele.
“The biggest show we’ve played this tour was the El Ray in L.A.,” she said. “We sold 700 tickets — the most I’ve ever sold. We did 300 to 500 in a bunch of other cities. And we do really well in Chicago. There are certain towns that are really good for us. But there is still a growth process.
“It’s good and it’s getting better, we’re definitely building, but it’s been organic and a little slower than maybe we expected. But you have to keep growing. We’re getting there.”
Nikki Lane performs Wednesday at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd. Jonathan Tyler opens. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets to the 18-and-older show are $16 and $18. therecordbar.com