Nikki O’Neill is a singer, guitar player and songwriter, deeply in love with soul music. She recently released the Americana-flavored single, “Where Luck Can Find Me" and her next single, “When Do I Tell Him,” will be out in March. O’Neill writes most of her songs in collaboration with her lyric writing partner Paul Menser. They worked together on her 2017 EP, Love Will Lead You Home, which received positive reviews from Americana and Blues magazines and blogs in the U.S. and Europe. Here, O'Neill and Menser tackle their Essential 8 and talk in depth about songwriting, "Where Luck Can Find Me," meeting their heroes, and more.
With “Where Luck Can Find Me,” what was the “a-ha” moment when you knew the song was completed and perfect?
Paul: I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved perfection. We had the verses worked out when Nikki asked for a bridge. That pulled the song together and gave it a point of view, addressing the listener directly and providing a contrast to the verses, which are more situational.
Nikki: When Paul came up with the bridge lyrics, I saw the contrast in perspective and it made me hear equally contrasting music: an introduction of new chords and a different rhythmic phrasing in the melody.
Also, my husband Rich is a drummer, so when I played him a rough idea on the guitar, he gave me a rhythmic suggestion for one of the phrases. I think he asked “what would that sound like with quarter note triplets?” That one comment was all I needed to become mindful of all the rhythmic possibilities in the song. That exploration and Paul’s bridge helped me to complete the music, and then the song arranged itself.
What’s the story behind the song’s title?
Nikki: I had a conversation with a spiritually oriented woman. She believed that for each individual, there are places in the world that will be more lucky than others. There are also places where life will be an uphill climb no matter how hard you work. I don’t know if it’s true, but that statement struck my curiosity.
Paul: Nikki came up with it. When she mentioned it to me I wanted to run with it right away, because I do believe that each of us makes our own luck. If you put in the work and get yourself in the right place, you’re bound to be noticed. Since I’m writing lyrics for women to sing I have to kind of invent characters. I can almost see this one as a musical number, like “La La Land.” The singer is someone who is stuck in a dead-end job, knows she can do better but has to psych herself up to rise and fight for her due. Maybe someone who hears it will draw motivation from it. The bit about the drive-thru is based on my son, Bill, who has spent eight hours on his feet many days at the window at McDonald’s. I don’t know if he makes up songs in his mind. Comedy monologues more likely.
Why did you choose to anchor your 2017 EP, 'Love Will Lead You Home', with the songs you did?
Paul: That’s a question for Nikki.
Nikki: I wanted some songs to comment on the racism and division that I feel is dragging this country backwards. But I also wanted uplifting songs about love, happy and transforming relationships, and spiritual strength. The Staples Singers were my role model for those particular songs; they were able to do social commentary with amazing singing, deep grooves, soulful guitar playing and great hooks. That’s rare. And I love how warm and human their records sound. It’s very far from Pro Tools perfection, Auto-Tune gloss and massive studio compression.
Where do you draw inspiration from when writing?
Nikki: Things that I see or read, conversations I hear... and my reflections on all that. I like intriguing titles. Also, Paul and I have done professional work as writers, so we probably both get inspired if we see a colorful headline or great profile story.
Paul: Stuff I read, stuff I hear, things I feel. I like Paul McCartney’s approach. He’ll see a phrase or a name and suddenly a song will start taking shape around it. John Lennon, too. He was talking to a reporter in 1969 and just said, “All we are saying is “Give Peace a Chance.’” Boom! He had his chorus. How 'bout that?
When/where do you do your best writing?
Paul: Early morning hours, making coffee in the kitchen or just putzing around.
Nikki: I’m the same. Early mornings are the best and I’m really lucky to have access to a loft where I write. I can see the rooftop and the treetops from my window. It’s peaceful, but I also feel this weird, giddy sense of adventure and freedom. Both Tom Petty and Goffin/King have written about the beauty of being in a “Room at the Top” or “Up on the Roof.”
Do you write about personal experience, the experience of others, observations, made-up stories, something else or a combination?
Paul: Personal experience, which I will often hide inside a made-up story.
Nikki: My lyrics used to be all autobiographical, until I got really bored with my own perspective. I opened up to other possibilities at a songwriting workshop with Berton Averre (The Knack), where he wanted everybody to write a song in third person. Since Paul and I started writing together, we’ve also done songs about made-up experiences, but there’s always something in them that I can relate to. I can’t sing about stuff that’s completely out of character for me.
Have you met any of your heroes? If so, how did it go?
Nikki: I got to meet Lamont Dozier in person. I interviewed him for thisebook on songwriting that two Swedish guys wrote (“Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics.”) We sat at a grand piano for over two hours in a recording studio in this rough, industrial area in Los Angeles. He was so generous in sharing not only Motown stories, but also his thoughts on work ethic; writing; how ideas come to him, and the successful matching of artists and songs. I couldn’t have asked for a greater master class. It’s one of the highlights of my life.
Paul: I met Joe Strummer of the Clash. It was after a concert in 1980 at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, in the green room. He wasn’t in much of a talking mood — and I’m not sure I would have been able to understand him if he had been.
What’s the best advice you have ever gotten from another musician?
Nikki: Quincy Jones has said: “Get better, not bitter.” I love that. There’s also this guy who wrote a song with Adele... he said that it’s better to write the kind of music that you genuinely like, because you’re only going to get more of what you’re focusing on. I agree.
Paul: Don’t take criticism personally if that person is trying to help you. If your desire to achieve or attain something is sincere, it will almost always happen, but it won’t necessarily be when you expect it or as soon as you’d like.
Photos Courtesy of the Artist