Nikki O’ Neill is a singer-songwriter and guitarist whose vibrant music encompasses Americana, soul, R&B, country, and the blues. Recently I spoke to her about her music and her new album , World Is Waiting. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity is below.
Americana Highways : Who would you consider to be your biggest musical influences when you were growing up?
Nikki O’Neill : Without question, I would consider Al Green to be my single biggest influence largely because my mom would play his records all the time. She was also a big Santana fan and would play their records too. I know that a lot of people don’t always stick with the music that their parents listened to as they get older, but I always loved those records and I still do. Carlos Santana is the reason I wanted to learn how to play guitar. I am not into everything he has done, but I really love his early stuff especially when Gregg Rolie was with the band when it wasn’t just the jazz or spiritual thing but it had a lot of the rock elements too.
My mom would also play Dinah Washington and the blue eyed soul singer Timi Yuro a lot too and I loved listening to them as well. She just had such a diverse record collection. Even though no one played any musical instruments in the family there was definite love of music in my house growing up.
I lived with my mom and grandmother , who were both from Poland and after she remarried we moved to Sweden. And along with who I just mentioned she would also play Polish and Swedish radio stations and on them we would hear Chopin or maybe Polish and Swedish pop bands. The point is there was always all kinds of music playing in the house and it was wonderful.
AH: Do you feel like your music is a synthesis of all of your influences?
NON: Carlos Santana recently told me in an interview I just did with him for Guitar Player Magazine that we all are an amalgamation of the things that we love and I think that that is so true. So, yes I feel like I hear and use all of my influences in my music. I would like to add that the thing about influences is that they will only take you so far. As an artist you have to keep working and creating until you yourself comes through.
AH: Can you point to a specific time in your life when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
NON: I started off being interested in the visual arts and writing stories and songs. I went to high school in Stockholm and started playing guitar really seriously when I got into my high school’s music program. That was really one of the big defining moments. With music, it was the whole notion of creating something together with others that really appealed to me because as opposed to when you are a writer or a painter, you basically create alone.
AH: You have written a rock guitar instruction book and e-book called “Women’s Road to Rock Guitar” (available here at Amazon.com) and you have a guitar lesson channel on TrueFire.com called Twang, Soul & Rock n’ Roll . What is it that you like about teaching music?
NON: After a lot of my experiences, I discovered that I have a talent for breaking information down and I also have empathy for anyone who wants to learn how to play a musical instrument, especially adults. I think my love of teaching music comes from not having a lot of encouraging teachers when I started out.
AH: How would you best describe your songwriting process?
NON: It has varied over the years. In 2016 I met my songwriting partner Paul Menser at a songwriting workshop in LA and connected afterwards and we started our collaborative songwriting process which continues to this day. But I always keep myself open to new and different ways to approach writing songs because I don’t want my songs to ever come off as formulaic.
AH: What inspired you to write the title track “World Is Waiting” from your new album?
NON: I wrote it as a comment on America’s long history of greed and racism and it’s meant to be a hopeful song. It’s a plea for people to embrace other values. Musically speaking, it’s very much a rhythm and blues song which I play lead guitar on and whose inspiration actually came from a drum machine pedal I have in my house.
AH: Can you talk a little bit about the background of the new album and how it came about?
NON: I think it’s very much a snapshot of where me and my band were in 2018-2019. We got together and found that we had a really good musical chemistry and started playing a lot of shows together, mostly in the LA area. People noticed this chemistry and we just thought it would be great to capture it on tape, which is what we did with this album.
AH: How would you best describe the power of music in your life?
NON: For me, it saved my life. It was very turbulent at home where I grew up. My family comes from different countries and different cultures and that contributed to the turbulence. I was born in the US and moved to Sweden and my mom and grandmother were from Poland and there was always just this feeling of rootlessness. This feeling that we were from everywhere but really nowhere. So music really helped me find a direction in life. A sense of purpose and a sense of doing something constructive instead some of the things my friends and classmates who went in a different direction were doing. It also gave me a sense of magic because you’re creating something from nothing when you’re writing songs. If you feel powerless in other parts of your life, writing songs just gives you a sense of possibility.
The other thing is that I was kind of shy and very much like under a rock personality-wise. Plugging a guitar into an amp can be really healing and empowering if the rest of the world thinks that you’re a wallflower and don’t think you amount to very much. Music helped me know my truth and I think it probably has that effect on a lot of other people.
AH: What advice would you give other female musical artists?
NON: If you’re a singer and you don’t play an instrument, I think it’s a really good idea to learn how to play an instrument. You don’t have to get great at it, but learn the basics. If it’s a guitar – learn the chords, the strums, and rhythm guitar playing. It will put you in a better position in the sense of influence when you are dealing with musicians or a producer or songwriters. Some kind of instrument is essential.
The other thing I find is that when I was young I didn’t have a lot of self confidence so it was easy to get swayed by what people thought or what they said. So you have to believe in your truth. Everybody has their own sense of truth and the more you follow it, the better you are going to get at doing what you want to do. If you do that, your confidence will grow and that is going to be reflected in what kind of people you meet and how they see you. I know that may sound a little new- agey but it’s definitely an experience that I found to be true. When I was very insecure I would get a lot of stupid comments from teachers or guys but the more I stuck with my truth, the less that stuff mattered. Get as good as you can get and develop your scales and your craft and display confidence. If you do that, you are going to find that the people you meet and the way they see you and what they tell you is going to change. It all starts with you being confident and knowing what you do and getting better and better at it. Keep at it and you can end up in a very different place.
AH: What are your future plans?
NON: Ideally, once it’s safe to fly and once the venues start to open up again, to start gigging again . I’d love to perform in Europe , hopefully in 2021 because of the response to the album and because I just think it would be a blast because it would be my first European tour. Also, my husband and I are going to be doing a lot of traveling between Chicago and L.A. because that is where he is from and I am really excited about learning more about the music scene there, once that’s safe to do. I still have my guitar lessons channel on Truefire.com, I post lessons on there every other week and I will continue to do that. Hopefully, I will be able to start writing new songs in the near future because I love the notion of creating something out of nothing.
Nikki O’Neill’s latest album World Is Waiting ( Blackbird Records) is now available on her website. Her book Women’s Road to Rock Guitar is available here on Amazon.com . Her guitar lesson channel on Truefire.com can be accessed here .