photo by Laurel Geare
NIKKI O’NEILL IS A PUBLISHED AUTHOR AND COHORT OF TLA-FEATURED MUSICIAN EMILY ZUZIK. SHE’S A SOUL-LOVING, GUITAR-SLINGING, AMERICAN ROOTS ARTIST. OH, AND SHE HAS COURTNEY LOVE’S SEAL OF APPROVAL.
Nikki O’Neill: “American roots songwriter, guitar slinger and singer with a deep love for soul music.“
Well, I was born in LA. The songwriting is probably my strongest part and greatest love… Whenever I’ve learned something on guitar, I’ve used it to write a song. As for guitar, I play both lead and rhythm. There are several incredible female blues guitarists on the scene today, but barely any who specialize in rhythm & blues and soul. Now I listen to all kinds of music, but I’ve loved Al Green since I was five. That kind of singing and those chord changes pull at my heart strings and stop time like nothing else. I love to sing, but have impossibly high standards to live up to. My favorite singers are Al, Aretha, Prince, Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. Who can possibly top those people? But I’m trying to be the best “me” that I can be.
NO: It wasn’t a straight and smooth path. Things turned around fairly recently. I was born in Santa Monica, but grew up in Sweden. I lived with my mother and grandmother, who actually were Polish, so we had this mix of languages, cultures and feelings of rootlessness and being out of place. They loved listening to a lot of different kinds of music, from Chopin to Santana to Al Green. My mom and I would sing along to Barbra Streisand records. I wanted a guitar when I was ten, but had to beg for one until my 16th birthday. Then I attended a music high school. The environment there was fiercely competitive, and things weren’t going well at home, so I became very insecure.
There was a long period of confusion that followed before things came together. I wrote songs and played in bands, trying lots of genres. But I also lost my footing very easily because of too much insecurity. I got discouraged by a lack of mentors and support, but I also didn’t have enough self-discipline and had trouble keeping a steady course and choosing a direction.
My turning point came in 2016. I had changed much of my life to the better and enjoyed a really happy marriage, but it took three events that year to get me to where I am as an artist now. Two of them were quite dramatic. First, my mom died that winter. A few months later I decided to go to a songwriting workshop by Louise Goffin. There, I met my lyric writing partner Paul Menser, which turned out to be a huge blessing.
But there was a second jarring event that happened that summer. My husband Rich and I were traveling to Chicago, when I got a heart problem and ended up in the ER. It came as a total surprise; I’d never had heart issues before. The hospital staff needed to do a procedure and they handed me a form where I had the choice to sign and accept going through the procedure, even if there was a tiny chance that I wouldn’t survive it. Thankfully, it went well and after a night or two, they let me out. Unfortunately, my blood pressure fell and got so low that I ended up in the ER a second time, just a few days later.
After those ER trips, life felt very fragile. I decided to stop the BS and make an album, because I thought it might be the last thing that I do. Paul and I wrote the songs; I found an arranger and co-producer, and I released it in 2017. Since then my heart has been pretty normal, and I released two singles in 2018. I’m very happy to say that my recordings have received a good deal of roots and blues radio play. I’ve chosen to be a solo artist, but I formed an amazing live band after my 2017 record came out and started performing actively in LA and SoCal at places like Hotel Cafe, The Mint and different Americana venues. This year, I’m releasing my third album.
NO: Through great songs and a beautiful band chemistry on stage and record.
NO: I cook and go on road trips with Rich! (He also plays drums in my band, by the way.) He also came up with this brilliant idea that we call “Around the World in LA”: we explore the food, music and culture of every country around the world in alphabetical order, here in LA. That’s 195 countries. We go to restaurants (or cook the country’s national dishes ourselves if it isn’t represented by an eatery or grocery store here.) And we watch Paul Barby’s YouTube show “Geography Now!”, Anthony Bourdain’s shows and other stuff to get background info on the culture and politics. We started with Afghanistan and as I’m writing this, we’re at Costa Rica. I write a post and share pictures on each country on my Facebook page. It’s such a fun way to explore LA.
NO: Learning. I’ve always been like that. I love learning new things, taking classes or a private lesson. Traveling and exploring exotic cultures also really inspires me.
NO: I auditioned for Courtney Love’s band. I lived in NYC at the time, and she had an ad out in the Village Voice and in different papers around all the English speaking countries around the world. She wanted a goth image and people had to mail a videotape of their playing. I was as far from goth as you can come, but sent in a tape playing one of my songs… quite an introspective and mellow one. I also submitted one of my poems, which had a lot of spiritual and metaphysical imagery.
One night, the phone rings and it’s 1:00 AM. I had a phone number that was similar to the local pizza joint, so I thought it was another one of those confused pizza customers. As I picked up, a female voice asked: “Is this Nikki O’Neill?” When I confirmed that it was, she said: “Hi, this is Courtney Love.” We had a fun conversation. She said she really liked my song and poem, and asked what my astrological sign was. Then she asked if I could send another video where I wore more makeup, looked more goth and wore my guitar really low… “the management wants to see more of that.” I’m the worst actor in the world and can only be myself. I sent a video where I probably looked really stiff and like a fish out of water, and I didn’t hear back. But it was nice to know that being 100% me was what made her call me up.
NO: The Palos Verdes Bluff Cove overlook. And continuing the drive along the ocean until you get to the Wayfarers Chapel. The natural beauty with the cliffs, ocean and big open sky is just breathtaking. This is where Rich and I told each other that we loved each other for the first time. This is also where he proposed to me, and the Wayfarers Chapel is where we got married.
NO: I’ve written songs in a lot of different ways in the past. If I haven’t written in a while, I’ll listen to other artists or learn new things on guitar in the style I want to write in, just to infuse myself with it. A lot of crappy ideas will come up at first, and I might have to use my knowledge of craft (song structures and chords within keys) to get things going. I call those couple of weeks the “brown water phase.” It’s like turning on a tap that hasn’t been used in a while. But I’ve learned to trust that the good and inspired stuff will come.
Lyrics are definitely the hardest part for me, so I feel lucky to have found Paul. He writes most of the lyrics while I write most of the music, but we give each other suggestions. Often, we’ll try to find an interesting song title and then Paul will start writing a verse or two and a chorus. He’s really good at—and interested in— things like meter, rhyme schemes and how to make the words “sing” well. When I write lyrics, I get frustrated with my limited English vocabulary. My Swedish is way better than my English, and I struggle with being succinct and finding the right words, so Paul is a godsend.
He lives in Idaho, so he emails me the lyrics. Once I feel that the story idea is clear and there’s a good rhythm to the words and some good images, I start hearing the music in my head. But I try not to settle with the first idea I get. I’ll search for inspiring chord changes, because they conjure up a feeling. They’ll influence the mood of the song, and my singing. Sometimes I’ll also find the vocal melody within those chords. I don’t mind sticking with three simple chords if that’s all that the song needs. My style of composing isn’t groundbreaking or crazy unique—I like a lot of the classic rock, pop and soul writers. But I really make an effort to not phone in the melody and chord changes. I want to find things in the music that feel like “me” and that resonate with me, not just replicate what somebody else has done.
NO: A show at the Highland Park Bowl on 5/15 with Manda Mosher and Emily Zuzik, both really gifted songwriters and performers. It’s an Americana music series (hosted by Deb Morrison-Litell) and we’re all bringing our bands. The show’s from 8:00-11:30 and there’s no cover.
I’m also recording my third album and it’s featuring my current live band with Rich (Lackowski) on drums, Rob Fresco on bass and Joshua Pessar on guitar. We’re recording most of it live at Hayloft Studios in West LA, all of us in one room. It’ll be out this fall.
Also, Rich and I will celebrate our tenth anniversary by going to Barcelona and Andalusia this summer. And we’re really excited to make our first trip to Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Nashville for Americanafest!
NO: My musical style is Americana and rock that’s heavily influenced by rhythm & blues, soul, gospel and blues. There’s a lot of Hammond organ, vocal harmonies and intertwined guitars in my songs. Everything’s very song-oriented, but at the shows we stretch some of the tunes out with improvisation and special sections that we only do live.
Besides singing about love and relationships, I like writing social commentary songs, although they’re hard to write well. “Love Will Lead You Home” and “Wait No More” are about social injustice and racism. Two of my favorite message songwriters are The Staples Singers and Sly Stone.
As far as visual style, I’m a bit of a tomboy but I also love being a woman. I’ve always been drawn to fabrics with texture, like denim and velvet. When I think of “soul music” and picture an artist who isn’t African-American, Amy Winehouse or The Dap-Kings come to mind. It’s a great 60’s retro look, but I would feel incredibly trapped after a week of wearing that. So The Stones-y, classic rock look fits me better.
I think Keith Richards and Gary Clark Jr. have great style with the thin scarves, vests and blazers, so I look for stuff like that in vintage stores and try to add some feminine touches. Regular clothing stores almost never have anything for me.
Finding a look that reflects my music is still a work in progress for me. I haven’t spent too much time on clothes, because it’s been more important for me to get good and play well, but clothes, videos and album cover design are fun. I designed my website and the artwork for one of my singles. Erykah Badu and Jimi Hendrix express (and expressed) their art with their whole being and I love that.
I try not to use too much leather or suede. I used to be vegan for five years, but now I’m 90% vegan. I haven’t thrown away my old tall leather boots, but I don’t buy any new leather products. It’s hard to find vegan “leather” shoes that fit the more classic rock look. But I’m happy that companies like Couch make vegan-friendly guitar straps… they use vinyl off of vintage car seats, and they also make the straps with embroidered flowers that Hendrix used to have. Couch are based in LA and I have four or five of their guitar straps. I buy them as gifts for my guitar students too.
NO: My friend and musician Raed el-Khazen said something that really resonated with me: There is no luck. There is only hard work towards who you know you are and believing in that vision. When you are truly ready not when u think you are things will fall in the right place. Your only duty is to work hard and never give up.
Quincy Jones has also said something that I love: “Get better, not bitter.”
As far as advice that I can give… the first one will be to musicians and the second one to everybody. Learn to write great songs. Learn what “great” means by studying the master songwriters of all genres and eras. Or team up with people who have the songwriting gift. For me, it’s also really important to learn how to arrange songs or find great arrangers if you can’t do it. A great song can sound mediocre or like crap if the instrumentation, unfolding and presentation isn’t right.
My experience is that great songs attract great musicians, and audiences give you a chance even if they’ve never heard you before. You can be a fabulous singer or instrumentalist, but if you don’t have really good songs, people start to tune out after a while.
I also find that everything happens from the inside and out. We attract. You can lack confidence and put yourself down, and people will believe you. Or you can act confident, and people will believe you.
NO: Come and see me, Manda Mosher and Emily Zuzik at the Highland Park Bowl on 5/15 at 8:30! We’ll bring our guitars, harmonicas and bands. It’s gonna be a rad Americana party, west coast-style!
more Nikki O’Neill