Two singular artists of Americana music, Nikki Lane and Sierra Ferrell, on friendship, songwriting, and their eclectic paths to fame.
By Anna LoPinto
June 24, 2022
Nikki Lane’s East Nashville bungalow is decorated with a unique touch: a taxidermied peacock in the mudroom, a life-sized drawing of a human skeleton behind her dining room table, a ceramic tongue humorously placed above the toilet (“so guys can see it when they’re pissing”), and a sign above her amps and guitars that reads “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
On a royal blue velvet couch in the music room of this eclectically-appointed home, fellow singer Sierra Ferrell is sprawled next to Lane. Clearly exhausted, Ferrell still gives me a warm smile. The day before she was up until 5:00 am shooting a music video with Shakey Graves, and tomorrow she goes on a grueling tour. The weariness is to be expected. Tonight, at 10:00 pm on Valentine’s Day, the two musicians have styled hair and a full-face of makeup–Lane wearing red and white striped flared jeans with a racing shirt, Ferrell a camel fur coat with sparkly cowboy boots. “You both look nice,” I say, because it’s true. “We just had our tintypes taken, Ma,” Lane says in her South Carolina accent, accompanied with a characteristic wink.
The tintypes were taken at Lane's boutique, High Class Hillbilly, a curated vintage shop that is heavily merchandised from her travels. While on tour, she collects pieces from antique malls and estate sales and brings them back to Nashville. Lane has an aptitude for finding the best in unlikely circumstances, a talent she partially attributes to her childhood–the daughter of a single mother, Lane saw her mother’s work ethic and thriftiness and tried to emulate it.
Many of the nights I’ve been to Lane’s house, she makes an elaborate meal (9 out of 10 times short ribs) and feeds her friends, who vary in occupation from guitarists and designers to photographers and journalists. As she describes it, “we actively make friends with everybody. It’s all about throwing a big net while maintaining 100% authenticity.” Lane’s friendship with Ferrell was intentional. “I invited her over 10 times, I got her over here twice, then we were besties.”
I can understand why Lane was enthralled–Ferrell leaves an impression. I still remember the first time I met her, though I heard her voice before I saw her face. On a certain circuit of honky tonks near East Nashville (like the American Legion Post 82 or Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge), there’d often be a voice singing from a hallway or out in the parking lot, at times evocative, other times incredibly sweet, but always timeless. Ferrell’s innate musicality is undeniable, and it constantly radiates from her. She regularly breaks into song during conversations, apologizing for an impulse that is so obviously a fundamental part of her genetic makeup. I don’t mind.
It’s hard to pinpoint a description of Sierra Ferrell’s or Nikki Lane’s voices, as they are as distinctive and wandering as the women themselves. They both have unconventional stories–Ferrell grew up in rural West Virginia and spent her 20s nomadically train hopping and busking across the United States, while Lane was a southern highschool dropout turned L.A. fashion designer turned successful artist. They’ve experienced a lot.
So when I sat down with two of the most creative women I know, I was interested in them not only individually but also their dynamic as friends. They’ve had a fast bond over the past few years–honky tonkying and traveling together, and making surprise appearances at each other's shows. The two are complete individuals but seamlessly complement each other, and there are few things in the world more precious than genuine friendship. Especially in the highly competitive and dynamic music industry.
Anna LoPinto: How did you two meet?
Nikki: The first time we met was at Denim Days in 2018. I got to curate one of the musician stages for the denim gathering. It was one of those things where you’re trying to find up and coming talent. It's funny to call Sierra an up and coming talent, because she had been playing for a long time, but had just started coming into the Nashville scene.
[The artists] are kinda cutting their teeth, but then her slot came up and we were all like “Oh, shit. This girl should not be here.” Then we did what touring musicians did, we didn’t see each other for two years. The pandemic gave us a lot of time to be around. I invited her over 10 times, I got her over here twice. Then we were besties.
Sierra: I moved to Nashville about that time and was living in my van… I came up from New Orleans. I wanted to be around honky tonk country stuff and bluegrass. It’s funny, I remember someone saying, “You watch out for that Nikki Lane.” (laughs)
Nikki: All that does is make people want to find out for themselves.
Sierra: It was the biggest mistake not trying to be your friend immediately.
Anna: How would you describe Nikki?
Sierra: She’s fucking wild. (laughs) She’s a coordinator, she gets shit rolling. She’s a go-getter. She’s very generous and kind-hearted. She also has some of the best style I know. She’s a magician, she finds all these clothes and the right person finds it. It’s magic.
Nikki: That’s really the only reason I still have the store. I don’t make money off of it. You can see who's going to buy it. You can picture where it belongs. That was the best part about touring, and the boys hated it. I'd be like “cigarette break,” and then I’d pick five or ten things at an antique store and make money off of them. That’s how I knew we would hit it off, because Sierra started shopping at the store, and she’d be in clothes I dropped off at the store, and I’d think “okay, this bitch.” (laughs)
Anna: How would you describe Sierra?
Nikki: Fearless. We as artists oftentimes deal with impersonator syndrome. She’s forging her way quickly, but almost long overdue. In being a late bloomer, which I think we both were, we developed a whole lot of personality and grit before you let us go. To watch her go, it’s fearless. But I know in getting close to her, it requires a lot of thought and effort. To me that tenacity paired with talent is really hard to find. Especially here in Nashville, there are a lot of people moving to town to do this for a living. You watch a lot of their inherent qualities and you hope they strike gold otherwise they’re fucked. You’ve got that talent with Sierra, and she’ll say “I can’t party [tonight]” though she knows how to party. “I’ve got to go get a tag on the van. I’ve got to worry about driving the trailer. I’ve got to pick up my own t-shirts.” That’s what carries a second layer of weight in what we do.
I am in awe of her writing spirit. What I am in awe of the most is that she is free. That she lets those melodies be crazy and creates a better acoustic performance than any of those fucking dudes that make me feel insecure. But I’m not insecure with her, I just want to sing along. She’s super inclusive to everybody around her. That’s what we like about Lana [Del Ray], too. Sierra’s ability to play and shift cadence, and stomp her feet, and capture an audience is unparalleled.
Anna: What makes someone a great writer?
Nikki: Cherry picking is great for being a refined songwriter and artist across the board. Being able to self-critique and push yourself. When I sit in a room, I know what I’m good at and I can tell what you’re good at. When I see Sierra, who is a master guitar player compared to me, talk about improving upon her skill, I see how we don’t always know when we got it. To be able to continue to edit and refine your own work is half the gig. People will claim to be prolific, but are they really good? Oftentimes yes, but oftentimes no. Working with people who are good at their job, but also know when it's not good and try to control that output, is very becoming.
Anna: What female country artists do you admire?
Nikki: I think that every conversation starts with the lead girls, like Loretta Lynn. And Loretta Lynn is cool because she is such an inclusive female. Her legacy and vision, which her daughters now help to maintain, is constantly paving the way for women. Women's rights, be it birth control, or the ability to stand up verbally to your husband, or talking about getting even. She paved the way for women in the household, but also for artists. Her daughters help tell her story about how she and her husband made her costume out of a hot glue gun. She demanded she not be overlooked. Without knowing it gave so many people the opportunity to develop their own individualism and style and careers.
For me, I love the alternative country movement. People like Lucinda Williams who I think are left of center and have created a space for me that defines more clearly what I’m trying to do. I love women in that vein. Then you look at women like Dolly, whose contributions go so far beyond music. What she does for children and reading, and how she took her mountain town and created a stronger graduation rate. Music for us, and for me, is therapy. It’s healing. To see how people have used their success to try to do that, in many ways beyond just the songs that they sing.
Sierra: How do I follow that? You just have it.
Nikki: Oh no! I felt like I talked too long.
Sierra: You just know what you’re going to say, and you say it well. Did you read a lot of books? (laughs)
Nikki: I did when I was young.
Sierra: I need to read more books so I have more of a vocabulary.
Anna: Sierra, you say profound things too.
Sierra: I know, but it’s just different. (laughs)
I guess growing up I didn’t know the traditional stuff. I listened to a lot of radio music like Faith Hills, Blue by LeAnn Rimes (starts to sing), Shania Twain, Reba McEntire. Dude, her videos are epic. She’s always telling a story, she’s a storyteller. Then of course as I got older I discovered Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton.
Anna: Sierra, where did you learn your distinctive guitar picking style?
Sierra: Carter Family. I listened to them a lot. I would practice songs on the ferry. Because I was living on Bainbridge Island with my partner on a sailboat. I started the Carter scratch five years ago. I played guitar off and on for a bit before then, but I was really heavily listening and trying to do the runs then.
Anna: Who are some of your favorite male country artists
Nikki: Body of work I’ve always loved Neil Young the most. And Merle Haggard, they both have the most songs that they wrote that I listen to. And Radiohead, their records. Then there are other artists I love like Waylon Jennings, but I didn’t realize how much co-writing they have. Which I have co-writing too, it’s not to dismiss it, but just to look at the differences in writers. Versus when we think of country music like Linda Ronstadt, who’s incredible, but she did not write her songs. There’s all levels to why I love someone. And that actually makes Merle the winner, for voice and songs.
Sierra: You know, I’ve always had a crush on the singer of Type O Negative. He’s goth metal, and pretty punk.
Nikki: We both ended up singing country music because we are country as fuck, but we love all kinds of music. I didn’t grow up listening to country music, except for 90s radio. My mom listened to Motown, my dad listened to the radio, my neighbor listened to Pink Floyd, and my grandad the dulcimer.
Sierra: Ozzy Osbornes and the Eagles.
Anna: Do you like the parameters of country music, or is it sometimes restricting?
Nikki: I think people aren’t wrong when they say they’ve experienced restriction in a genre, but we aren’t pop country musicians in the first place. We abandoned restrictions when we decided to do this. People are always like, “what side of Nashville do you live on?” Everyone that has these tattoos live on the [East] side. (laughs) There are limitations to the number of people who are going to hear it by the genre, but that’s also growing, because the genre is growing–Americana, or Outlaw, or Alt, whatever we are.
Anna: What’s your favorite moment on stage together?
Sierra: Um, there’s a few blurry ones in Austin (laughs).
Nikki: I liked our encore in Austin.
Sierra: I thought it was pretty cool at the Ryman.
Nikki: It’s the fucking Ryman.
Sierra: We had the full band and Chris Scruggs was there playing. And it was us three chicks (including Ferrell’s bandmate Josie Toney) singing “Beautiful Brown Eyes.”
Anna: And where was the encore in Austin?
Nikki: At the Continental. And Sierra left, to go dancing, and I called her from the stage, and she didn’t answer. Then she came flying through the door yelling “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! My phone was dead!”
Sierra: I was dancing at the White Horse.
Nikki: I said you owe me two songs.
Sierra: We sang “Beautiful Brown Eyes” and “West Virginia Waltz.” Then I did a really bad scat.
Anna: That weekend, didn’t Lana Del Rey sing with you too?
Sierra: Yes. At Sam’s Towns Point. Thankfully, and awesomely, I was really honored to be involved. We sang a song Lana wrote with Nikki, “Prettiest Girl in Country Music.” How does it feel to be the prettiest girl in country music? (starts singing)
Nikki: Yes, we were singing our surprise tracks with our surprise guest. The best part about Lana coming out with us is that she just starts to write while we are talking. So we have that song, “Prettiest Girl in Country Music” which is not really announced but not really not announced. It just sounded so good with the three of us singing it.
Anna: Are you going to release it?
Nikki: I just feel like I’m waiting to see what my mom wants to do, and by mom, I mean Lana (laughs). I’m sure we will.
Sierra: “And by my mom I mean Lana,” thanks for verifying. (laughs)
Anna LoPinto: Do you and Sierra envision doing a song together?
Nikki: We have a dream.
Sierra: We have a song that’s pretty much done, and one that we work on together.
Nikki: It’s called “Long Haul.”
The winner of 14 Grammys on building a respected career in music by saying yes.
For too long, we've treated soil as an inert resource, when we should be down on our knees worshipping the fact that this is what gives us life on this...
Singer-songwriter Riddy Arman on how her sense of place weaves its way into the lyrics of her music.
The singer-songwriter on how to write a great song and life at his new home on the Canadian plains.