Sheila Nicholls is a self-professed “post-atheist,” with an inner spiritual and socio-political compass that directs her music and her life. The former Brit, who now resides in Los Angeles, has put her time in with the major label system. She released three albums during the late ‘90s and early 2000s, had a deal with Hollywood Records, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, toured with k.d. lang and had a big hit, “Fallen for You,” which topped college charts and was featured in the film High Fidelity. After a few years away from the business Nicholls is returning with her fourth album All of Nature, distributed by Dash/Go.
Music Connection: You recently returned to live performance, with a successful show at the Hotel Café in Hollywood. How’d it go?
Sheila Nicholls: We had a really good time. I feel really confident. I did take time off so I could get some perspective and then throw myself back in it. Because it’s really obnoxious to think you can sing songs and get a lot of people to listen and give a shit.
MC: Interesting perspective considering all the performance experience that you have.
Nicholls: Well, I came from a place where if you wanted to become a songwriter you might as well have said you wanted to be a lion tamer. It was considered to be arrogant. How dare you aspire?! We didn’t grow up with the American Dream. It was a lot more provincial where I came from. But I think this body of work is some of the best stuff I’ve ever done and I’m feeling really good right now.
MC: What was it that took you away from music? And what’s inspired you to return?
Nicholls: I was in a very complicated marriage that was a bit distracting. I had a child. There was a lot of contemplation. My songs are a reflection of my life, like a lot of songwriters, I guess. It’s important to me that my writing is not forced. Living in L.A., many people write so formulaic because they wanna make money from it. For me, music delivers itself from some ephemeral place and you are the vessel that’s sort of there to receive it and take it from the invisible and make it visible. For me it’s important to not force that.
MC: Your latest album, All of Nature, is very musically and lyrically diverse.
Nicholls: Thank you. ... I took a lot of time on this. And I’ve been really lucky to be surrounded by amazingly brilliant people. And you have a lot more freedom on the final piece if you know how to write, engineer and produce. And I try to stay in many of those roles as much as possible. In the end I have something I can love and deeply respect.
MC: Was this your first self-production?
Nicholls: Actually, my first record was self-produced before Hollywood Records picked it up, and we put some overdubs on it. I was very much schooled by the patriarchy of my own childhood. And then watching Ani DeFranco do what she did, I’ve really been determined to wear as many hats as possible. You end up with an experience where you’ve created something as pure as possible. That’s not to say you don’t want to collaborate with people. You can’t be closed off, and it’s good to get other people’s opinions. But to make final de-cisions is important to me because I grew up in an environment where women were not even allowed an opinion about certain things. So I push myself to make those choices.
MC: What can you tell us about transitioning from a major label or distributor like Hollywood Records to becoming an indie artist?
Nicholls: I think they always knew I was an indie artist from the beginning. The first record did really well on the Top 10 college charts. And I think that was something they really liked about me. But, when you get into the corporate element, the bottom line is money. That can, over time, play you a little bit. And you have to keep your wherewithal for sure.
But it was a remarkable time. I feel very lucky I was able to experience it. But I feel a lot more comfortable being an independent artist because you can fully get into the artist you are. And nobody is gonna tell you what to do. Inside a corporation there is that pressure to write the perfect 3 ½ minute song at 113 bpm. A major label might initially sign you for your individuality, but then often you are channeled into a cross-pollination of things that are already making money. “Oh your chorus should be your bridge or you should speed this up a couple beats.” There are too many fingers in the pie. I like the pie to be fully baked before I share it, you know?
MC: However, one has to make money. How do you balance commerce and artistry?
Nicholls: I think that you do it gracefully. In this day and age you’ve got a situation where people are not even purchasing music anymore. You do it for the love of it. You do it because you don’t have a choice. You do it because you’re grateful. I don’t even mix commerce anymore. I feel that’s the best way to approach it. Then the art is free to be what it’s gonna be.
I live pretty frugally, to be honest with you, but I’m perfectly satisfied with that. Being a songwriter is feast or famine. Sometimes you make a lot of money and other times you’re figuring out how to pay your bills.
MC: What is the challenge of your message? Do you feel you’re reaching your audience where they are picking up on what you’re putting out there?
Nicholls: When you say “audience,” I’m trying to do this from a place of non-attachment, in the sense that I’m gonna put this stuff out there. If people hear it, that’s awesome. But if they don’t, I’m unattached. I’m not trying to proselytize anything, but these are what the songs are about. I don’t have an agenda here. I’m not trying to find an audience. If they find me, that’s great and I’m so grateful, but I guess I’m not much of a marketer. ... I think people are finding me, and that is the only way to do this. If I was attached to how many people liked my music I’d be a mess.
MC: How active are you on social media?
Nicholls: Yeah, you do have to stay in touch with people through social media to build your community. But there are some people, like you see on Venice Beach handing out flyers and self-promoting. I tend to be a bit more reserved and British about it.
MC: What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you’re doing?
Nicholls: I think the key is to take nothing personally and to keep on keepin’ on. And don’t give up. If you’re dedicated, you do it for the love and you are comfortable and confident in that. You’re declarative about it and you just act on that instinct. And things really do fall from the sky. I had all these songs written and no means to record them in the quality that I wanted to. And a guy who was essentially a fan dropped five figures on me and said, “Make a fucking record.” So I did and I called in this massive super band of amazing people. It really is about staying on that focus and that vision.
See sheilanicholls.com; contact Mike Gormley, [email protected]
Event: Nicholls is also hosting a release party on Saturday, Sept. 16. 8 p.m. at The Hotel Cafe. 1623 1/2 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood Blvd. Los Angeles, Ca 90028