Nikki O’Neill | World Is Waiting | (Blackbird)
Four out of Five Stars
Nikki O’Neill had a great year last year, prior to the pandemic. She took the opportunity to record at the iconic Royal Studios in Memphis, made her first appearance at AmericanaFest, and successfully launched a guitar lesson channel on TrueFire.com, aptly titled Nikki O’Neill’s Twang, Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll.
However, as anyone who’s spent any time around the music business knows, past accomplishments can rapidly pale if they’re not followed up by something special today. In other words, you’re only as good as what you can offer right now.
Fortunately, O’Neill has nothing to worry about. Her new seven-song EP, World is Waiting, proves that last year’s success was only a preview of the new music that reverberates though these grooves. It’s a solid mix of blues, soul, spunk and sass, well finessed and confidently delivered by O’Neill and an able backing band consisting of Rich Lackowski (drums), Rob Fresco (bass) and Joshua Pessar (guitar), as well as a group of guest musicians that includes Doug Organ (piano, Wurlitzer, organ), Jon Gold (organ), and her backing vocalists, Manda Mosher, Deb Morrison-Littell, Halina Janusz and Lisa Malsberger.
With all the songs co-composed by O’Neill and various collaborators, the new album reflects both confidence and credence in equal measure, and also provides a reflection of the multiple influences O’Neill acquired early on.
“My mom had a really eclectic record collection, covering everything from soul to country, jazz, classical music, disco and cabaret songs from the 30’s that originated in her native Poland,” O’Neil recalls. “And all of it made me fall in love with songwriting. However she mostly played Al Green’s records around the house. I’ve loved his music ever since I was five. When I was a teen, Carlos Santana and Prince got me into playing lead and rhythm guitar seriously, but I was also crazy about classic rock and hard rock. I love a great riff, and I love writing riffs. As far as singers were concerned, Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington were huge influences. They opened my heart with their depth of expression and incredible musicianship. Then, when it came to composers, I would have these phases where I obsessed over Sly Stone or Carole King, or Joni Mitchell, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Laura Nyro, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Fortunately, nowadays I can listen to more than one songwriter at a time.”
Not surprisingly, O’Neil was soon inspired to pursue a music career of her own, one that’s proven quite productive over the past few years. She started out playing rhythm guitar in several bands, then began singing, and eventually progressed to the point where she could take center stage as a lead guitarist. Most of her early efforts were in the soul/blues/groove-based vein, but she insists that she’s always loved guitar-driven music and the sound of a Hammond organ above all, making those prime elements as far as her own efforts were concerned. “It took some experimentation to figure out what I could sing versus what I was able to play on guitar,” she admits. “I can write a bold and brash funk tune on guitar, but I can’t sing like Betty Davis or Chaka Khan.”
O’Neill met lyricist Paul Menser at a Louise Goffin songwriting workshop in L.A. in 2016, and the songs the pair co-composed ended up on O’Neill’s 2017 debut album, Love Will Lead You Home and as singles in 2018. Her sophomore set, World is Waiting, was released soon after.
At this point, O’Neill says she feels that her songwriting, singing and guitar playing are in sync and evolving the way she had hoped. She’s especially pleased that the new record is a sonic step forward when it comes to the production, the mix and the mastering.
“We recorded the bed tracks live with everybody playing together in one room,” she explains. “That made such a huge difference, especially with this rootsier style of music. You get to capture the musicians interacting with each other in real time. Many of the people on the album are part of either the L.A. Americana scene or the L.A .jam band scene, and it was fun to bring the two worlds together.”
Indeed, it’s clear that O’Neill has the kind of passion that’s essential to cultivating creativity. “Music saved my life because things were turbulent at home when I grew up,” she reflects. “It allowed me to express my feelings, and it gave me a sense of purpose and direction. It’s empowering to plug an electric guitar into an amp when the world around you thinks that you’re a wallflower. Practicing an art form is magic, because it lets you create something from nothing… it shows you possibility when you feel powerless. And it makes life more fun.”
So too, it’s clear that O’Neill is having fun on her new album. The songs provide a variety of musical tapestries, from the funk-fueled opener “That’s How You Lose Her” and the smooth groove of “World Is Waiting” to the celebratory sashay of “All I Wanna Be Is Yours” and the sassy spunk of “You’re the Only One Who Gets Me.” Yet despite the fact these songs are easy on the ears, O’Neill is quick to suggest that they have deeper meanings as well.
“’World is Waiting’ is a hopeful song that asks us to turn the chapter on 400 plus years of racism and exploitation in America and start embracing other values,” she says. “‘A Place at the Table’ is a gospel song with colorful chord changes, soaring harmony vocals, and call-and-response parts between me and the backup singers. Paul and I wrote it shortly after Aretha Franklin’s passing. It’s a good example of how writing with a title in mind can lead to something very different. At first I thought we were going to write a social commentary song, but then Paul sent me a spiritual lyric, I loved it and decided to roll with it. ’Take Back What I Said,’ the last song on the album, is just me playing acoustic guitar and singing. [Engineer] Boo Mitchell told me about how his dad, the legendary producer Willie Mitchell, used to hate perfectly executed but lifeless performances. The fourth take was the keeper. I’m really happy with how the song turned out.”
Indeed, when it comes to hearing a fine example of all O’Neill has to offer, the world need wait no more.