On her new album “Cry No More,” released on Concord Records, Kansas City artist Danielle Nicole gets some assistance from a few big-name stars.
The album’s first single, “Save Me,” features a cameo from guitar wiz Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
But its most notable song is “Hot Spell,” which was written by soul/R&B legend Bill Withers.
Nicole (born Danielle Schnebelen), got her start in Kansas City as part of Trampled Under Foot, a blues trio she started with her brothers, Nick and Kris Schnebelen.
She recently talked to The Star about her new album, the collaboration with Withers and her occasional work as a hired gun with the North Mississippi Allstars.
Let’s get right to it: How did you end up getting a Bill Withers song for “Cry No More”?
I was recording at Ultratone Studios in Los Angeles. My producer (Tony Braunagel) has worked with a lot of great artists, like Bonnie Raitt and Etta James. So he knows a lot of people and he has a friend who would bring people by the studio. That friend called one day and said he was out running errands with ‘Bill’ and he might stop by.’ I hear my producer say, ‘Uh, Bill Withers is coming by?’ We all looked at each other like, ‘Sure. Whatever.’
So we do the session and we’d kind of forgotten about him possibly coming. Then there was a knock on the door and this tree of a man walks in and it was Mr. Cool himself.
We played him some stuff we’d recorded, a Blind Willie Johnson tune, ‘I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’ Sometimes,’ and he said, ‘I really dig your approach. You guys sound great.’
And his friend asks him, ‘Do you have a song for Danielle?’ I nearly started laughing. I was almost embarrassed. Then Bill asked me out to his car and he pulls out a demo from his glove box. His daughter had recorded it. He said she records all his demos.
He said, ‘It’s a little risqué, so see if you like it’ then he played the song and I loved it.
So he allowed us to record it. It had never been released before. We tried to get him to do a cameo but he respectfully declined. We recorded it less than a month later.
Has he heard it?
Yes, he heard it and said he really liked our interpretation and gave us a very flattering quote about it. He felt like we did it justice.
Other than the Bill Withers song, what made this album different from others?
I started with a clean plate with everything: songwriting, song structure. It was all my concept. I took a lot more chances, genre-wise, than before. I didn’t conform to what I thought I should write.
Sonically, I dug deeper and branched out and bended boundaries as much as I could. It wasn’t like I said, ‘OK, I’m going to write a country song’ or ‘OK, I’m going to write a pop song.’ I just opened myself to ideas and not feel like ‘This is what it’s supposed to sound like.’ The songs didn’t necessarily write themselves but they kind of let me know where I needed to go with them. And I trusted myself to write what I felt.
Is there a song you are particularly proud of?
I don’t know if ‘proud’ is the right word, but ‘Bobby,’ the song I wrote about my father, means a lot to me.
He passed away a long time ago and I’d never written about him. That song is definitely the most genre-bending. I had a line in my head and the song kind of took off. I wrote it in one sitting.
The bridge at the end I finished the night before we recorded it. I just kept on working at it because my heart knew it had to get finished and done right. It’s so out there. It came together and fell into place.
It was one of the easiest and hardest songs on the album to do.
He passed away when I was 16. So it was difficult to start. How do you write about a parent you didn’t really know? I didn’t really start my own band and take music seriously until after he passed. And he’d been sick for a couple of years.
You’ve been playing bass occasionally with the North Mississippi All-Stars for a few years. How did that happen?
They had Lightnin’ Malcolm playing bass for them and they were coming through Kansas City and Lightnin’ Malcolm couldn’t do the show. I was on tour and I got a text: ‘Hi, Danielle. It’s Luther Dickinson. We’re coming through Kansas City we wanted to know if you could play bass.’
I misread the text. I thought he wanted a referral for a bass player. So I told him, ‘Sure. I have a bunch of numbers to give you.’ And he said, ‘No. We want you.’ I said, ‘Of course.’
So I woodshedded and learned as much as I could off the records. It was definitely way different from anything I played. We’re both in the blues scene but they’re into heavy jam-band stuff.
We did the show and I had a great time and he kept calling me back every couple months to see if I was available. And I love it.
I’d never done that before, being a hired gun. It was a great learning experience. I wish I had more of an open schedule to do more shows. Luther and Cody (Dickinson) are a bad-ass machine. They take you to another level.
How long have you been playing with them?
That first show was in April 2015. I’ve done about 30 shows with them. We were on the road last year for about six weeks (in the) middle of year. And we just did the Joe Bonamassa cruise a few weeks ago. I wish I was available much more but my own project is my priority.
Another Kansas City band was on that cruise, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. Kansas City bands and artists are really developing a reputation outside Kansas City.
Oh, man. Yes! They were so great. When I took the cruise with the Allstars I asked if I could bring my guitarist, Brandon Miller, with me and do my own acoustic show. Brandon loves baseball as much as guitar and he was like ‘KC sports’ all over the boat. So they noticed and that kind of bonded us from the beginning.
It’s funny: Kansas City is pretty small but it takes us both being on a boat to Jamaica to find each other.
But, yeah, says a lot about the Kansas City scene. Making Movies is another Kansas City band making a lot of headway. We’ve got a reputation for having a great sound. We were in Norway and people would ask us where we were from and they wouldn’t know where Missouri is but they definitely knew Kansas City and our history of music and our music reputation.
The Danielle Nicole Band performs Saturday night at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester. The show is sold out.