Sheila Nicholls
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Sheila Nicholls

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Sheila Nicholls
Wake
Hollywood Records

By Darryl Cater



"I am woman," says Sheila Nicholls in one interview. "Hear me pontificate." And oh she pop-pontificates on her instrumentally and lyrically over-the-top new career-making album Wake. If Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco or Alannis Morissette are having any thoughts as they enter their 30s of tempering their famous art-pop expressions of the fury of the woman culturally scorned, this 20something acrobatically voiced feminista is clearly willing to step in cover their vacated position.

Both thanks to and in spite of the hyper-creative instrumental frenzy of superproducer Glen Ballard's arrangements, Nicholls' second self-released record brings a strikingly original musical palette to a public persona that is distinctly second-hand: she wears her devotion to fellow bisexual singer-songwriter-entrepreneur Ani DiFranco so brazenly on her record sleeve that one photo virtually duplicates the cover of DiFranco's Little Plastic Castle: natty multi-colored dreads hang from her head as she stares at a fishbowl, complete with (yes) little plastic castle. Blessed with pliable, raw, rangy eccentric vocals, English born LA resident Nicholls fleetingly catches the cadences of many different singers: from the burbly eccentricity of Bjork to the hissy-fits of Morrisette, from the smart spice of DiFranco to the staid sweetness of Amy Mann and Emily Saliers.

Nicholls, who has actually been performing in America for the better part of a decade without much attention, almost lets her posturing overshadow her ample talent. Her songwriting, full of catchy multi-octave hooks and surprising key changes, deserves points for boldness and not devoid of snappy clever lines. But her words are a bit more strident and less interesting than some of the elder stateswomen she idolizes: less mature than DiFranco, less honestly confessional but occasionally as spacey and esoteric as Amos.

She somehow seems a logical choice for Ballard, who coated Morissette's quirky but ultimately airheaded songs with enough consumerist pap to help her outsell less commercial she-singers who can write circles around her. Ballard layers on track after track of sitar, strings, all manner of hand-held acoustic instruments, record-spinning DJs. Nicholls plays piano on every track, but half the time the keys are nearly impossible to make out amid the piles and piles of brightly colored pop production. Interestingly, some of the best tracks on the album were not produced by Ballard. A handful of songs bear equal creativity to the superproducer's stuff but with considerably more restraint (case in point: Jakko Jakszyk's rich string-bending acoustic cover of Leslie Duncan's "Love Song").

At least one Industry press outlet speculated that Sheila Nicholls might find a market in Christian Contemporary Music, which seems absurd considering the album is dedicated to "the infinite, universal, indefinable goddess who makes all things possible." Prone to tough girl expletives and frank talk about her personal life ("I'm bisexual and so are all the boys I f---"), Nicholls hardly seems the top candidate for the tightly conservative CCM industry.

Still, her lyrics flirt with religious themes, in her build-me-no-walls, categorize-me-not, sex-is-so-important-and-I-am-so-oppressed sort of way. "We talked of God about God and the limbs on the floor, and the legalization of deviance," she sings in one song co-written by Ballard. In others she imagines romances between Delilah and Icarus, and a Biblical era female "Moses with a different band" who pointedly tells her husband where to stuff his patriarchy. Her best shot at a chart-topper appears to be the catchy, sugar-sodden "Faith," whose inspirational Adult Contemporary sweep has already earned pre-movie airplay in Megaplexes. - chicagogigs.com


Sheila Nicholls has a battery-acid wit, a fierce fuck-off rebellious streak and a drop-dead gorgeous mug -- which is to say she‘s a hell of a dame. But the singer-songwriter-pianist’s most appealing attribute is her deep intelligence. She proceeds thoughtfully, questioning her motivations, mapping out her goals. And then, when everything has been carefully laid out, she executes a perfect swan dive off a cliff, 100 feet into the waters of uncertainty.

This combination of deliberation and fearless abandon is evident on her newly released second album, Wake, on her own Essex Girl label distributed by Hollywood Records. The set had no less than four producers, including Nicholls and Glen Ballard of Alanis and No Doubt fame. Taking a year to record, the British-born Echo Park resident bounced between Los Angeles and London, fastidiously working and reworking the production until every minute detail was to her satisfaction. And yet, for all the sonic cartography, the result is risky pop with a high lyrical IQ that may scare away those who find self-examination too challenging.

Awareness is Wake‘s theme, iterated in such songs as “Faith” (the first single and video), “How Strong” and “Maze.” “There is a slight skein,” says Nicholls. “It’s based very loosely around the concept of faith and integrity and inspiration: What inspires us. How we find inspiration. What we put faith into. What works. What doesn‘t work. Why it doesn’t work. Why we so often have to pick up our shit and start again. Why it‘s imperative to have faith and inspiration even when it’s fucking impossible. a You have to find the phoenix. It‘s not just your fate, it’s everybody‘s fate.”

Nicholls sees the human condition as interlocked, and she’s acted on this belief, working to support political movements from the Zapatistas to medical marijuana. When she first came to the States a decade ago, she volunteered as musical director at City Kids Foundation in L.A. and N.Y. and ran arts programs for children. She‘s organized a multidisciplinary performance series for women artists called Chicks in Arms. (Men are allowed to participate, but only if they wear a skirt. At the most recent Chicks gig, the sight of respected -- and stout -- poet Jerry Quickley was particularly memorable. Quickley seemed empowered by the courage to look different.)

Inspired by Ani DiFranco, Nicholls insisted on forming her own label though she was an unknown at the time of negotiations with Hollywood Records, which has the first option to distribute. Label chief Bob Cavallo is himself a rabid Nicholls fan, and Hollywood is aggressively promoting the album. In April they presented a showcase at the swank Park Hill Mansion in the Hollywood Hills. More than 70 entertainment-industry machers were held spellbound by Nicholls’ short performance and showed their appreciation with prolonged applause. It takes authentic talent to move the jaded to enthusiasm.

Nicholls has little in common with current musical trends. She‘s a singer -- not just a stylist -- with range, chops, dynamics and a healthy portion of blue-eyed soul. She walks the talk and not only advocates social harmony but works with a band that projects a joyous family vibe. The pursuit of consciousness permeates every aspect of her life, largely because she takes the state of the planet personally.

“I frequently feel sad that we can’t seem to move past things we already know don‘t work,” she says. “But it’s a metaphor for personal life, too, when you watch yourself repeat patterns that are familiar to you but don‘t work any longer. It’s incredibly difficult to let those things go and to let a new way into your personal space. As a species, we continue to perpetuate this paradigm that‘s been dead for quite some time. There are ways we could live that would be better for everyone. That may be utopian and idealistic, but an ideal is unreachable only if you decide it’s unreachable.”

It‘s a big reach for the daughter of a pub owner from a small English town to migrate to America with nothing but talent and end up with her own record label in the City of Angels, courted by the moneyed class and on the brink of what is characterized by the mainstream as stardom. In her own way, Sheila Nicholls is already a star. If she tops the charts and MTV -- and in the process helps people think about their own place on Earth -- that’ll be an achievement. But she‘s attained a holistic world-view, applied theory to practice and created a life for herself based on that vision. In what is a very unhappy time for many, a time of loss imbued with the queasy feeling of just being lost, that accomplishment is rare and precious. - LA Weekly



INTERVIEW: Sheila Nicholls
From Essex To L.A., Sheila Nicholls Writes Piano Pop Like No Other (Essexgirl/Hollywood Records)
By: Alex Steininger

She's been a nanny and a waitress, all the while writing songs on her piano in her spare time. She moved from her hometown of Essex, England, against her family's wishes, to pursue music, eventually landing in Los Angeles, home of the stars. Through it all she never gave up hope. And then one day someone saw her live, fell in love with her no-holds-confessional lyrics, coupled with beautifully crafted piano pop melodies bringing them to life, and she soon found herself signed to Hollywood Records with her own imprint Essex Girl Records, a rare accomplishment for an unknown.

Then again, Sheila Nicholls is a rare gem, the kind of songwriter who doesn't come by very often. She can sing a ballad one moment, happy and relaxed, and vent her anger a few minutes later without second thought.

Her debut, Brief Strop, was a lot sparser compared to the follow-up, Wake. Recorded primarily live in the woods, self-produced, with complete creative control and no outside influences, its minimalist approach matched the rawness of the songs themselves.

"It was an acoustic, independent record that was recorded live," Nicholls says of Brief Strop. "I told myself once that was done I could go anywhere I wanted. I created my own record from beginning to end. There was complete artistic control. After making something like that you have nothing to prove."

She toured relentlessly in support of Brief Strop, booking the majority of shows herself, calling upon friends and bands in cities she had played previously to help her get another gig on her next trek through town.

"Brief Strop was never really something I thought would be commercial," admits Nicholls. "It was good work and we accomplished a lot. We recently did a 63-date tour and fans at every stop had Brief Strop, so the groundwork we did with it has definitely helped us."

With the recent release of Wake, Nicholls has upped the ante. She now has a booking agent. The band is larger. She’s added a second guitarist and a drummer, and she’s playing larger clubs.

"Live, we add drums to songs on Brief Strop that don't have drums on the record," she tells me. "We've also become very adept to playing the larger clubs and making our sound fuller. The live show doesn't sound like the record. I reclaimed the more produced songs and (give) them a different life and direction when I play them live.

"Live I can do that. I can make bigger songs sound smaller, but not the other way around."

Brief Strop was an open wound, containing songs you could hear and feel from the opening chords, urgent, heartfelt songs that were both intimate and honest. And though Wake still has the fire that burns inside Nicholls, it is less personal and more universal.

"Wake is more universal because I was working with other people. I'm not sure if it is the choice I'll make with the next record," Nicholls says, making no bones about it.

Wake was recorded in several different cities and studios with several different producers helping out.

The fiercely independent Nicholls, though appreciative of the education she got working with other producers, says she will probably do the bulk of it herself for the next record.

"I know what I like about the recording process and I know what I don't and I'll be clear about them with future collaborations," explains Nicholls. "The next record I'll produce more on my own, because I learned a lot from the producers I worked with while recording Wake, information I didn't have for Brief Strop."

Looking back on it all, Nicholls is quite content with the way Wake turned out.

"I'm pretty happy with it all," she tells me. "I was very meticulous about this album. I thought a lot about it. If there is one thing you don't want to do it is you don't want to look back and have regrets.

"I went in different directions and chose to do so and am pretty happy with my choice. I could have went a bunch of different directions, but chose the direction I went."

Nicholls went into the studio with a batch of songs she thought would become Wake, but by the time the recording was finished, it had taken on a life of its own.

"At the beginning of the recording for Wake I had other songs I thought would be on the record. But, part way through I had to let go and let it take its own journey," she informs me.

"There were a good four or five tracks that didn't make the album. Anything I was unsatisfied with I didn't put on. 'Faith II', another song about faith ['Faith' being the first single off of Wake], didn't make the record, because the record would have been too long. I wanted the record to be 'Bam! Here it is' and leave people hanging a bit, so it unfortunately got cut. It will, however, probably be the first track on the next album as-is.

"'Lime Green' was another song that I cut. It is a pisse - inmusicwetrust.com


Essex-born (a county in England) Sheila Nicholls left her home for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, picking up odd jobs while writing what would become her 1999 debut, Brief Strop. Touring non-stop in support of Brief Strop, Nicholls' was able to hone her songwriting skills, advancing beyond the oft-desolate, angst-ridden sexuality of her debut.

Her sophomore effort, Wake is a mature, beautiful collection of folk-inspired, piano-based pop songs that jump and shake between glorious melodies and shocking confessionals.

Album opener "How Strong" is tailor-made for radio, string arrangements smoothing out the rough edges, while the rhythm section delivers danceable percussion on top of beautiful vocal melodies. The song flows nicely, confident and precise, speaking its mind while singing to whoever is listening. Sheila's lead vocals are driven by the angst that lives inside her, but have enough restraint (courtesy of her backing vocal tracks) to know when it is time to be civil and when it profits to bleed your confessions out on the world.

Nicholls' has one of the strongest, left-of-soul voices out there. It is deep and roots-y, can harmonize, and carry a melody like no other, shifting in range and tone whenever the song calls for it, complimenting Nicholls' equally versatile songwriting style.

Songs like "Ruby" prove just how much of a treasure Nicholls is to the music world. She turns her rage into a danceable storytelling number that starts off with a delicate groove and soon launches into a melodically rich, hook-laden chorus that melts you each time it comes around.

"Love Song", with an acoustic guitar leading the way rather than a piano, strips things down to the bare essentials. Laying down a flawless folk-soul number that shows you the core of all of Nicholls songs: emotive vocals, comforting grooves, well-written lyrics, simple melodies that take on a life of their own, and the ability to wrap life into a four-minute short story.

"Maze" delivers you an orchestrated pop song that still stays true to the basic folk fundamentals that make Nicholls the songwriter she is. But, it also shows the progression and star power Nicholls possesses, as the easy-going, slumbering song takes you away to a mindset of rest and relaxation and makes you feel like Nicholls could deliver a massive hit on the radio that would turn the music world upside down.

Album closer, "Breath" brings the album to a close with a big bang, as Nicholls layers it all into one big number. Pulsating rhythms, stress-building strings, and her gloriously melodic voice, all of which make the song a banner number to close out a real, flawless record of delicacy and emotional perfection. I'll give this an A+. - inmusicwetrust.com


Discography

Brief Strop - Hollywood Records
Wake - Hollywood Records
Songs from the Bardo - Essex Girl Records

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Bio

In her own words.....

... I made my first record in 96-97, after a demo of my NYC band Sheila Nicholls and the Splendidfrock reached producer John Boylan who provided a studio for me in LA to record. Hollywood Records then released this first album Brief Strop in 1999. It hit top ten in US college charts and the song Fallen for You was featured in the film and on the soundtrack of the 2000 movie High Fidelity. Hollywood used the euphemism “radio friendly” when they asked me to record a second, Wake (it’s a triple entendre). I partially obliged by having a number of songs produced by Glen Ballard. This turned out to be a very interesting experience, that later empowered me to learn protools, so to become more of a producer myself.

I toured extensively and one of the tunes Faith made US billboard top 40. I got to play the tonight show with Jay Leno and open for KD lang in Europe.

I liked the life, but I was always a bit of an introspective hippie. The years before NYC, I had been living in my car wandering the U.S. and digging anonymity. I had always preferred writing so I decided to settle and ground out a bit. In the last few years I built my own studio and have improved my skills from being a piano singer/songwriter to midi-software queen. Oh yeah and I had a baby. Amazing thing uteruses, so glad to have one. She’s outstanding.

Now I have a new record Songs from the Bardo. It’s collection of tunes focused around making the personal infinite and the infinite personal. I looked in the spaces between the spaces and this is what I found. I love it. I hope you do too.