Danielia Cotton & The Church Boys | A Different War | (independent)
Four out of Five stars
“Love each other, we’re all we’ve got,” Danielia Cotton tells us, and with her stunning and stirring new EP A Different War, she shares that insistence with an uncompromising urgency that transforms its songs into anthems for our times. Always a fierce warrior and driven singer and songwriter, Cotton has never been more forthright than she is here, solidly defiant and consistently determined even in the face of an ever-widening social, political and racial divide. There’s no shortage of attitude and amplitude borne here, and on songs such as “Forgive Me,” “A Different War” and “Cheap High,” she not only speaks her mind, but also speaks for all those marginalized by an unholy variety of suffocating shortfalls.
“A deep cultural and political dissatisfaction — even maybe anger — was driving and inspiring these songs, but without my being aware of it till the work was done,” Cotton tells us. “During composition, though, I wasn’t thinking too much about larger themes, political or cultural. Each song was a one-off, and seemed deeply personal — reflective of my own highly subjective mood, spirit, history, etc. In other words, I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Ok, now it’s time for a tune about ‘gender inequality,’ or ‘racism sucks,’ or ‘I despise our current leadership and the culture of sociopathic narcissism that permits our current status quo — so let’s write songs about those things!’ But looking at the songs as a whole now, I see that those larger themes both political and cultural of course were influencing me. I’m not sure though if the music would be particularly good or moving if I had started off with a specific theme in mind, and then tried to make a song out of it.”
Cotton of course is more qualified than most to share those kinds of incisive offerings. One of just seven black kids in her New Jersey high school, and the product of a mixed racial and religious upbringing, she was often ridiculed as a child. Later she survived cancer but then had to deal with the tragic loss of twins during birth. Yet for all her hardships and disappointments, she’s never lost her will to make music or express an opinion about what’s transpiring in the world around her. The turgid yet soulful ballad “If You Don’t Want Me” makes it clear that she’s still ready to rebel even when faced with rejection, and not let it diminish her in any way. As she declares on the fierce rocker, “She Too,” “I was not born a man but I can do anything that he can.”
“I see A Different War as reflecting a newfound confidence and happiness,” she explains. “This may be a function of age, or that these are the first songs I’ve written and recorded since the birth of my daughter….Songwriting for me is sometimes catharsis. It is the actual act of creating a piece of music that allows me to frame, understand, ultimately digest, and then let go of a difficult experience. But sometimes it is what the poets call ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’ I’ve had the experience, I’ve had the catharsis — and now I can look back on it and make a song about it.”
Fortunately, Cotton finds herself in a safe place, both physically and psychologically. Yet, it doesn’t isolate her from the tumultuous circumstance that has become a constant source of mistrust and alienation in the world today. Likewise, she sees it as her responsibility to speak up when necessary and allow her music to carry that message forward.
“I’m in an incredibly privileged position,” Cotton concedes. “My family and the people to whom I’m closest are healthy. I am not threatened with unemployment, eviction, or hunger. Yes, I watch MSNBC fanatically, and a day doesn’t go by when I don’t feel visceral anger at our current government, or despair over the racial divide in this country — but I also feel lucky and protected. As an artist, I think my role is pretty simple — to create and perform music that people enjoy, that moves them, and that hopefully makes their day a little better.”
Even so, after ten albums and EPs, Cotton says her trajectory has been rather erratic at best — or as she describes it, “zigs and zags; a few very sharp drops; a bunch of loops; some horizontal stretches; and more recently a straight and steadily rising line.”
Fortunately, her prolific prowess has never waned, although she does confess that songs can come to her in different ways. “Each song seems to have a different origin,” she suggests. “Sometimes, it’s a melody I’ll find myself mindlessly humming, and it seems like it might be worthwhile to sit down and do something with. Usually, it’s the music first, and the lyrics come second. The first glimmer or spark of inspiration is always the most exciting — ‘hey, this could be a whole song!’ — but then comes the real work.”
She also notes that she’s currently inspired by a variety of artists as well, listing Citizen Cope, Lizzo, H.E.R., Travis, and Coldplay among them. “I’ve been discovering a few new bands while listening to some of my favorite independent radio stations that support new talent,” she says. Not surprisingly, her influences vary as well, with the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Tina Turner and Nancy Wilson among those that she can cite right off the bat.
“I’m a rocker at my core,” Cotton insists. “But all genres speak to me when the message is pure and the musical construction is infectious.”