As with her multi-ethnic background, Danielia Cotton’s music is a compelling mix of elements: soul, folk, blues, jazz and a whole lot of emotionally powerful, no-nonsense rock and roll. The only way to describe it, really, is to say it’s all her – Cotton is channeling her extraordinary real life into her songs, her triumphs and her tribulations. As she puts it, “Being a little kid going to an all-white school when your hair isn’t straight and your eyes aren’t blue, you get a little angry that you don’t look like everybody else. Rock was a place that I could go to, a genre I could live in, that let me say everything I felt. I could scream, I could cry, it was explosive. I could recycle the bad and make it into art.”
Though clearly not afraid to confront her toughest feelings, Cotton is as ebullient talking about her career as she is fierce when she performs. Pure self-determination and talent got her to a place where she’s been chosen to play festivals including Lilith and Sundance, and open for some of the biggest names in rock, R&B and blues including the Allmans, B.B. King, Derek Trucks, Bon Jovi, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Robert Cray. Her latest disc, Live Child – winner for ‘Best Live Album’ in the 9th Annual Independent Music Awards – is a riveting, unvarnished document of her live set, a companion piece to her 2008 studio album, Rare Child. She garnered a lot of notice for that CD – as well as its predecessor Small White Town (2005) – both from Adult Alternative radio and from the press. The LA Times declared, “Cotton brings a freshness to the soul-rock formula, not to mention a contagious fervor that is near irresistible,” and the Chicago Tribune concurred: “Cotton’s raspy holler atop such tightly messy hard rock is genuinely funky stuff, like a cross between Thin Lizzy and Sly Stone.”
As she says now, “With Rare Child, we wrote and then immediately went into the studio. And now there’s the benefit of having played these songs time after time. When you write it new and put it down in the studio, it’s cemented there. I always think it’s better to take the songs out and try them out on people. Live Child let us do that. Songs are like shoes – you’ve got to break ‘em in.”
Cotton was raised in the small western New Jersey town of Hopewell, population 2010. She never met her Puerto Rican father and was raised, along with three siblings, by her African American/Native American/Caucasian mother. A jazz singer by avocation, her single mom supported the family doing accounting work. They didn’t have much, but Cotton’s mother made sure her children were well-educated and nurtured through books and music. Cotton clearly inherited the music gene: “I can remember the first time I heard my mom playing Nancy Wilson’s ‘Guess Who I Saw Today.’ My mom says I was the littlest kid with adult contemporary taste. I loved Bing Crosby; it was the craziest thing – this little black-Puerto Rican girl obsessed with Bing. And I really loved all the old movie musicals. I would sing and mimic them. And there were no other little girls my age listening to Phyllis Hyman’s ‘Somewhere In My Lifetime’ or her version of ‘Rainy Day.’ Those songs made me feel something; she had such great tone.”
However, it wasn't only jazz that was firing up the young Cotton's ears. The Cotton household seemingly had more going on music-wise than the most free-thinking radio station. Along with the jazz sides she played, Cotton's mom collected LPs by Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt and Jimi Hendrix and, she recalls, "my brother would be upstairs listening to Todd Rundgren, Chicago, Foreigner, Yes, Led Zeppelin. It was like, where am I? And my aunts were on the road with Southside Johnny. That’s why I can’t reduce my work to one little thing, I want it to reflect my life, and what sews an album together is you – as long as you’re running through each and every song, as long as you’re in it, your life and your body. A great album is one that keeps surprising me, that takes me for a little bit of a ride.”
With her 2005 debut Small White Town (title inspired by Hopewell), her 2008 follow-up Rare Child, and now Live Child, those are exactly the kind of albums she has made. Though she has some female antecedents – Tracy Chapman, Toshi Regan, Shemekia Copeland are a few who come to find – Cotton perhaps has more in common, given her harder rock approach, with Lenny Kravitz or Living Colour. (And, like Kravitz, she also happens to be Jewish, although in her case as a convert.)
Cotton didn’t come to music simply by listening to everything in her house or by mimicking the songs she liked. At the age of 12 her mom gave her an acoustic guitar, a prescient move designed to help a daughter find an emotional and creative outlet. Their relationship was deep and complex; Cotton explores it on “Didn’t U” from Rare Child – her most downloaded track to date. She also started harmonizing with her mom and her aunts in a gospel group, the Brookes Ensemble Plus. Cotton wound up at the top of her high school class, the first to graduate from the New Jersey School of Performing Arts. Her vocal skills earned her a full scholarship to Bennington College, a storied – and costly – school where the arts were emphasized. Cotton chose to pursue acting there, eventually spending most of her senior year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. But she doubled up on credits, so she still could study music, taking tutorials with avant garde jazz trumpeter-professor Bill Dixon, who, she says, “really trained my ear.” Acting has had a serious effect on Cotton – she’s commanding onstage and off, a natural raconteur as well as a singer.
Along the way, Cotton, now based in New York, married a restaurateur turned lawyer, a kindred spirit not averse to taking risks. After he’d opened a restaurant in Soho, her husband encouraged Cotton to pursue her music in the same way her mom had: “He bought me an electric guitar. The electric guitar is so different than an acoustic, it howls and screams, it’s intense – and it was the birth of another career. I started doing gigs at the Bitter End in the Village, that nasty little seven o’ clock slot with nobody in the audience, and I built my way up.” She jokes, “If someone told me that this is where I’d be, I’d say get the hell out of here. But that’s the thing about my life, I like to mix it all up.”
Cotton relishes her independence as well as her eclecticism: “Once you sell your soul, I think it’s very hard to get it back.”
Her tenacity is a gift to us, and in her songs one can indeed hear something rare: an unfettered artist singing out her life story. No sellout, just soul.
- September 2010