Time to add Nikki Lane, Phoebe Bridgers and Lauren Ray to your May playlist
Words Oisin Lunny and Mary-Jane Wiltsher
You never forget your first time.
My country music epiphany occurred a few years ago, during SXSW, in Lucy’s Fried Chicken restaurant. My Austin friend Scott Garber was playing bass with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who I must confess I knew very little about, other than his cameo in The Big Lebowski. Jimmie and his magnificent band took to the stage and soon everyone in the restaurant, young and old, was transfixed by his finely nuanced observations on the joy and pain of the human condition. I had given country music an unfairly wide berth until this moment, but standing there in a fried chicken restaurant hearing Jimmie sing “You can see the future, it don’t make no difference…” (‘Where You Going’) it suddenly all made sense.
Many people in the UK are opening their hearts to the particular charm of country music, and indeed the broader church of Americana, in its many diverse forms. The C2C: Country to Country series of events, now in its fifth year, brings together over 80,000 fans across three days in London, Glasgow and Dublin, while boutique events such as the Maverick Festival offer a more intimate experience for both novices and devotees. Maverick founder and director Paul Spencer explained their mission to PHOENIX: “We’ve been presenting Americana in the UK since 2008 – before it even had a name. We stick with what we are good at – presenting great music in an idyllic setting.”
Will Maverick or C2C be your gateway into this world? Or maybe a fried chicken restaurant in Austin, Texas? While you ponder the broader sartorial implications of wearing a cowboy hat, meet three hand-picked ladies of country and Americana who might just seal the deal.
Nikki Lane – Highway Queen
Nikki Lane’s stunning third album Highway Queen marked the young Nashville singer as one of country and rock’s most gifted songwriters. This emotional tour-de-force blended potent lyrics, unbridled blues guitars and vintage Sixties country-pop swagger, resonating as easily with fans of Lana Del Rey and Jenny Lewis as those of Neil Young and Tom Petty.
Highway Queen is a journey through heartbreak that takes exquisite turns. The record begins with a whiskey-soaked homage to Lane’s hometown (‘700,000 Rednecks’) and ends on the profoundly raw ‘Forever Lasts Forever’, where Lane mourns a failed marriage – the “lighter shade of skin” left behind from her wedding ring. Elsewhere, ‘Companion’ is pure Everly Brothers dreaminess (“I would spend a lifetime/ Playing catch you if I can”). She goes on a Vegas bender on the rollicking ‘Jackpot’, fights last-call blues (‘Foolish Heart’) and tosses off brazen one-liners at a backroom piano (‘Big Mouth’).
“Love is the most unavoidable thing in the world,” Lane says. “The person you pick could be half set-up to destroy your life with their own habits – I’ve certainly experienced that before and taken way too long to get out of that mistake.”
On the record cover, Lane looks out on wide, unowned Texan plains, leaning on the fearsome horns of a massive steer. Wearing a vintage Victorian dress, the stark photo invokes a time before highways existed. The symbolism isn’t lost on Lane. Highway Queen was a pioneering moment for her as an artist. “I was always a smart girl, always had to yell to be heard,” she says, “but this was the first time in my career where I decided how things were going to go; I was willing to take the heat.” Lane included the bonus track ‘Champion’ as a small testament to that empowerment. “It makes a point,” Lane says with a smile, “that I appreciate what you’re saying, but get the fuck out of my way.”
Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In The Alps
23-year old Phoebe Bridgers’ caught our attention instantly with her song “Funeral”, which was featured in our Anti-Valentines playlist. It’s the kind of songwriting and performance that can stop you in your tracks. Her singular voice radiates throughout her debut album “Stranger in The Alps” a collection of ten haunting and introspective songs. There is a delicate balance to her work, a dance between veiled narratives and earnest emotions, between whispers and shouts. Throughout the album, Bridgers contemplates and reflects on personal experiences through her unique lyric writing perspective: there are overt references to lost idols, canonical pop songs and actual incidents, but her stories unfold through specific, evocative imagery sung in her subtle, confessional style. And according to Bridgers, everything you hear has arrived by feeling; her music is what comes when she is at her most honest, without specific intention, and she aims to be in her songs the person she is in the world.
“I wasn’t trying to be too lo-fi, too hi-fi, too self-serious, too disingenuous… I feel pretty confident that I’m finding my voice,” says Bridgers. “I wanted the album to completely represent who I am and these songs are representative of what I set out to do.”
“Stranger In The Alps” follows Bridgers’ 2015 three-song single “Killer,” produced by Ryan Adams in his L.A. studio and released on Adams’ Pax-Am label. Since early 2016, she’s toured with Julien Baker, Conor Oberst (who also guests on her track “Would You Rather”), and Adams, amongst others. Phoebe plays a series of dates in the UK this month, including an unmissable turn at one of our top festival tips The Great Escape, and a sold-out headline gig at Islington Assembly Hall. From there she tours the US in a series of solo gigs, and support slots for The National and Sylvan Esso. PHOENIX recommends booking your tickets sooner rather than later – and arriving early!
Lauren Ray – We Will Need Courage
London-based independent artist Lauren Ray was raised around the globe, growing up in South Africa, Poland and Austria before settling in the UK. Perhaps it’s that international upbringing that informs the worldly storytelling at the heart of Ray’s craft – stories delivered in warm, honey-toned vocals with a gentle country lilt that carries echoes of Norah Jones and Carole King. Her finesse for a well-penned lyric means she has a score of collaborations with hit songwriters under her belt, too, including Ian Dench (Beyoncé) and Martin Sutton (Leanne Rimes).
Ray’s debut album, We Will Need Courage, recorded in Nashville and supported by BBC Introducing, delivers emotive, melancholic soul-stirrers like ‘Come To Me’, with its soaring chorus, as well as more upbeat piano-led pop anthems such as ‘Drive’. Her brand new single, ‘Dull Ache’ – an evocative, melodic hit of post-break up nostalgia with an oh-so-catchy hook – drops today.
You can currently catch Ray on her first European tour supporting Universal artist Anastasia, fresh off the back of supporting Sony Music’s Rebecca Ferguson and Cook Vinyl artist Lucy Spraggan on their respective UK tours. For the full list of tour dates, click here.
Oisin Lunny has been performing, producing and DJing since the early 90s, first with his band Marxman and then with his solo project Firstborn. Today he is a keynote speaker, composes music for film & TV, DJs globally, and sends out mixtapes to 12,000 friends via his website.