Danielia Cotton has always stood out. In her hometown of Hopewell, New Jersey, (population 2,010), she was one of only a handful of black students at her junior high school. However, she didn’t just stand out because of the tone of her skin. She also stood out because of her powerful voice when she sang in the church choir.
While she embraced the rock music of her friends, she also embraced the jazz and soul enjoyed by her mother. That marriage of different styles has informed her sound for as long as she has been recording. Her discography is full of songs that intertwine rock sounds with her powerful, soulful vocals.
Her album The Real Book is a good example, where she brought some soul to classics like showed that in “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Gimme Shelter”. On her latest album Good Day (available everywhere now), she blends Motown with rock sounds on songs ranging from the bright title track to the hard-hitting “A Different War” about not knowing the struggles others are experiencing. As a cancer survivor, she certainly knows a thing or two about struggle and isn’t afraid to sing about those struggles. Of her music she said, “If I didn’t have music saving me every day, I wouldn’t have a place to put a lot of emotions that I have that could potentially be destructive,”
By phone, she recently discussed her writing process, finding her voice as a songwriter, and the importance of treating everyone the same.
Glide Magazine: How’s it going?
DC: My other half has mantle-cell lymphoma and he got pneumonia. He’s here with his oxygen tank. That’s a reality as I accept an invitation to run my sixth marathon. That’s surreal in and of itself. And then a three-year-old added in. It’s a lot of life-death things. With the world being the way it is, it makes you put things in perspective.
GM: Do you find you write from this sort of thing?
DC: I’m an emotional performer, so I can’t fake something. I went to college for theater. My class is pretty famous. Pete Dinklage and I were in the same class. We went to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. When I saw him in Game of Thrones and now he’s in Cyrano, I was like, “Whoa!” We thought he would have the most struggle to get parts, and he’s the most famous. The world flips things. I love him. He’s supremely gifted, and what a great thing that he was the one. Back then, I was a fan of the Hagen method. You have to pull from things in your life, but you can only pull from a pool of things you have come to terms with. If you use something that is still problematic for you, you won’t be able to control the emotions when they come to the surface. I write about things in my life that I’ve gone through but also resolved, so I can go safely back into that story each time I perform for the audience. Then it’s true. It’s real, and I can just emote whatever.
GM: You have a song about your partner. As an emotional performer, is that difficult for you to sing?
DC: I think I don’t have an issue with it because I use things safely. You go in and out of moments. I want to see a show where I’m moved. I could sing about a lot of things. Even when I take a cover like “Purple Rain,” I envision “Purple Rain” as “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” That’s how I sing that song. That’s all I did. I found thematically what was right for me, and I was like, “That’s what it is.” It’s probably that theater background. I look at everything. You just do it and do it safely. You go into moments you’ve resolved. And we haven’t resolved everything. There are lots of things I’d love to write about, but I’m not there yet on that topic. I’d be a hot mess onstage. When someone’s a hot mess, that never goes away. I’m careful.
GM: I don’t have a performing background, but I hear some songs and I know that I could never write or perform a song like that because it would be too much emotionally.
DC: I wrote a new one when we were recording all the country stuff, the Charlie Pride EP. It’s called “Scars”. It’s about how your parents and everybody pass down scars. I sang it and my manager was like, “I want to go shoot myself.” It was more like how when Johnny Cash did “Hurt”. “I hurt myself today.” There’s a line, “Who struck you so hard that you spit out your youth?” People don’t mean to. We just continually pass down scars. We’re all just passing them down.The last line is, “I’m not going to.” I’m going to fix my chance so I don’t pass it down to my kid. Life is so full of moments that you can write about that are beautiful and full.
GM: How did you go about choosing the songs for The Real Book?
DC: The manager that I had at the time made me do “This Will Be Our Year”, which I would never have done. And we did it with that ukulele. Levon Helm’s daughter did whistling in it. She’s known as a good whistler. I loved that weird, abstract Radiohead tune. That (“They Won’t Go When I Go”) was one of my favorite Stevie Wonders tune. Bill Withers, who I actually got to meet and sit with at a benefit. I think you should be able to go from here to there. That was a fun album to make. It was great to go from there to jazz. When people ask “Where did you get your influence?” everyone around me has eclectic tastes. That’s why I am the way I am.
GM: What was that like meeting Bill Withers?
DC: (laughs) It was a suicide hotline benefit and it was clear I was the only black girl. They were like, “you’re cute. Go sit with him and entertain him.” I was like, “Really? Did you just say that?” So I sat down and we started talking. I had just come back from the road, opening for Gregg Allman. He had a drink in his hand. He would tell stories like, “Yeah, they was drugs and they was driving on the coast of California.” I couldn’t follow him sometimes. Then he was like, “I was just writing simple songs, and then it happened.” He was almost in shock that he was who he was to some extent. He had dignity and he wore it well. He was warm and simple in a good way.
GM: When did you start to find your voice as a songwriter?
DC: While I was touring. I saw Wolfmother, and I was like, “They need a song like deh deh deh deh deh.” Then I asked someone for a piece of paper and we just started writing it. Then it became part of our set. On this album, I opened a Bob Dylan book about his songs and how he crafted them. I love that he uses objects a lot for people. They say smart people borrow from geniuses. They do. You go to the best and you figure out how they do it, and then you begin to gather your own technique for how you want to do it. I started looking at some of the best songs I love and why are they great. Eventually, I found my own voice using some of those techniques. I’m getting there. Working on this album with Jeff Cohen, who is a full-time writer. That helps you a lot. I think more. I edit more. I never write in one sitting anymore. Unless it all flew out, which can happen. I take the time. Like if you’re writing a book, you edit until you get it right.
GM: You mentioned that a lot of this new album came from you singing into your phone.
DC: Yeah. The voice app. The other day, I was like, “Oh my God! I deleted it!” Apple is so smart, you can just go to the trash and hit recover. I was starting to sweat. You get a melody and then you’re down the street. Then people watch you have a fit because you can’t remember. Now I just immediately hit record and sing into my phone. Now my daughter picks up the phone and goes, “Laaa”. She sees me do it. Right now “Kookaburra” is her favorite song, which shows my age. She makes me sing that song. “Again! Again!” That saves me. I’m of the spiritual people who write. Some of this album, I had to call my teacher and ask, “What is that chord?” When you feel like you’re getting it and you don’t put it down or write it down, it’s gone. We always say that the rock gods are like, “You missed the opportunity. I gave it to you. You should have wrote it down.” When I’m really that possessed, I get up out of bed and I do what I gotta do. Then I’ll go back to bed.
GM: How do you label these little snippets on your phone?
DC: Sometimes. But sometimes, I just look at the date. It tells me where I was. It says my address. I can tell if it’s 24 serconds, 34 seconds, less than a minute. There’s things I haven’t gone back to, but they’re only 24 seconds long. Now I do this thing where I record it, and I record myself taping it. I write now a lot with the right and the left. I just do everything. It can get a little complex. I’m taking lessons from two teachers, and sometimes I get ahead of myself technically. They come in and say, “Show me the video.” Then they identify it and we write it out. It’s awesome.
GM: I listened to “A Different War”, and I almost think that’s required listening. What do you hope people take from that?
DC: You can make it applicable for “anybody who is not white and male”, as my sister says. If you feel like your in the “other” group and you feel like a minority, or just that people don’t understand. We’re really at a time right now where we could go back if we’re not careful. Yesterday should not be tomorrow. Tomorrow should be tomorrow because we’ve begun to listen to each other. The second verse is like, “You don’t know how I feel because you can’t walk in my shoes.” I can tell you. I would rather you just have compassion than telling me, “I know how you feel.” We should all be on the same playing field. We should all have the same view. We’re farther from that goal than I thought we’d be at this point in my life. Yes, I went to college on affirmative action at the most expensive university in the country at the time. I picked it for that reason. I thought it would be different by the time I had a bi-racial Jewish child. She’s beautiful and smart, but she’s going to deal with all the same things unless we get there. Because she’s black and she’s Jewish. It could be problematic for her. And she’s a woman. It’s now. We gotta listen to each other. We should do everything we can so we can all be on a level playing field. I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime. That’s OK, but I’ll die trying for her.
GM: I had to report for jury. Every potential juror had to answer whether they knew someone who was charged or if they were the victim of a similar crime to the case. It was eye-opening to see how much stuff people are dealing with that you have no idea about.
DC: I was raped in my late 20s. I lost because at some point they asked, ‘are you sure it was him?’ When I was at the hospital, I asked them to test my blood for drugs. I felt like I was mickey’d because I don’t do that sort of thing. I was hazy. With the amount of semen they found, they thought it was more than one person, which was devastating. I couldn’t say for sure that it was that guy. To this day, I’m sure it was that guy who took me there. It’s a deep thing. I feel bad for every woman who has been there because you usually lose. It’s difficult to win a rape case as the victim. A lot of times I get dismissed from jury duty because my partner is a criminal defense attorney. Everybody has to speak up. I’m glad that I did it. Whether it’s racism, or when it’s that kind of trauma, when we don’t use our voice, it’s like we’re not here. To be alive, one must use their voice. If you can’t get in a movement, and you can’t wake up every day and treat every person the same, right there, you’ve done something. If every person did that, we’d be done. People are like “I don’t have time to do anything.” Walk out your front door, and treat every human being the same. Try it one day. There are simple ways in life. We could all be doing things. That’s a simple thing that calls for no time. It’s just how you behave.
GM: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
DC: Listening to it. I like art. The space that we live in, we spend so much time. I like getting to know someone and then saying, “Yeah, I can make your space.” It’s important where we go home at night and how we are in our space, that we’re comfortable. It’s important. It’s how we express ourselves with clothing. I would probably have gone into that design space.