“Why aren’t there more female bass players?” Danielle Nicole asks, firing back the same question that had just been posed to her. She thinks for a moment, then answers, “I don’t know why, really. I always thought it was cool to play the bass. As a female, it’s empowering to be part of the rhythm section and work a groove. You’re part of the foundation of the music, rather than being the sprinkles on a cake. I think if more girls tried it, they’d like it. It’s sexy, it’s grooving, it’s hardcore … I love it!”
Anyone who has seen Nicole onstage can attest that the Kansas City southpaw is more than just “sprinkles on a cake.” Fronting her own powerhouse blues-rock trio (which also includes drummer Rodd Bland and guitarist Brandon Miller), she can drive a low-down groove with a style that combines robust, roadhouse authority with sneaky and slippery melody lines. In 2014 she was the first woman to receive the Blues Foundation Award for Best Instrumentalist/Bass.
Nicole grew up in a musical family. Her parents, Bob Schnebelen and Lisa Swedlund, led a blues band called Little Eva & the Works, and they encouraged Nicole and her two brothers, Nick and Kris, to join in on house-party jams. Nicole learned to play saxophone in school, and by her mid-teens she was singing and playing rhythm guitar in a series of groups. In 2002, however, guitarist Nick and drummer Kris decided to form a trio, and they asked their kid sister to join in. “We were talking about who we should hire on bass, and I just said, ‘How about if I try it out?’” Nicole remembers. “It was kind of a question that answered itself: ‘Yeah, I should try it.’” Not to imply that she wasn’t intimidated. “I was pretty scared at first. Just thinking about it—I’m going to sing and I’m the bass player. I can’t stop what I’m doing; if the other guys get tripped up, I have to keep going. I didn’t know if I could actually do it, but I took to the bass kind of naturally. And then I fell in love with it.”
Nicole woodshedded for three months and then hit the clubs with her brothers in their new outfit, Trampled Under Foot. The trio played in and around Kansas City for the better part of six years before issuing their self-titled debut album in 2006. Over the next eight years, they released a steady string of records, culminating in 2013’s Badlands, which won Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the 2014 Blues Music Awards. By this time, though, the group had begun to splinter: Kris was the first to go (he was replaced by drummer Jan Faircloth), and after a year Nicole decided that the time was right to go solo.
Her first solo recording, 2015’s Anders Osborne-produced Wolf Den, served as a dramatic intro for her new album, Cry No More. There’s no shortage of talent—blues producer Tony Braunagel does double duty on the skins, and hotshot guitarists Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Sonny Landreth contribute head-turning solos—but Nicole’s full-throttle bass playing and gutsy vocals dominate the 14-song set of roadhouse rockers, aching ballads, and soulful groovers. “Way back when, I might have felt intimidated to be surrounded by such amazing players,” she observes, “but I feel comfortable with my abilities now. I’ve put the time in, and I’m ready for anything.”
When you first started playing bass, how did you go from zero to 60 in only three months?
I basically taught myself, although I took lessons from the bass player in my band at the time. His name is Les Moore, as in “less is more,” and I took that to heart. He taught me some basics, and after that, I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones is one of my favorites. And I went back to Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters for traditional blues. Willie Dixon’s bass lines were really easy for me to pick up—very melodic stuff over a blues scale.
You’re a lefty, but you play a lot of righty basses turned upside-down.
I do. I’ve been playing the same Jazz Bass for 14 years, and I have a custom-built Delaney. Mike Delaney wanted to make me something that was my own, so we sat down and constructed this bass, which is a nice cross between the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass. It’s a really comfortable instrument to play.
You play with your fingers. Did you ever use a pick?
Never. I’ve got a big ol’ hard callous on my thumb now, so it kind of gives me a little pick action. I’ve always been a finger player, even when I played rhythm guitar. I like the actual sound of your finger on the string—it sings out more. Plus, you can be more versatile with your fingers. I use the corners of my fingers for more rocking stuff. You can get a very punchy attack that way.
What do you look for in a bass sound?
I love a very deep sound. I have both my highs and lows way up, but I don’t like a lot of mids. When you play in a three-piece, you need a rich, full-bodied sound. You have to have clear distinction in your notes; nothing can sound muddy, or it turns into mush. Give me a nice rumble I can feel in my chest. I don’t do a lot of slapping; that high-end sound gets too noisy for me.
Do you write songs on the bass?
Absolutely. I used to write on guitar, but I ended up getting an acoustic bass guitar so it’d be easier for me to write. If you’re sitting on a hotel bed with an electric bass, you can’t really hear what you’re doing, but the acoustic bass guitar lets me hear what I’m playing, and I can sing along and find melodies. And yes, those melodies do come out differently when you’re playing one note at a time on a bass rather than playing chord structures on a guitar. The melodies dance more.
You have a Bill Withers original on the album, “Hot Spell.” A lot of his tunes feature distinctive bass lines, but for the most part, you play whole-notes.
Yeah. That’s what was on the demo he gave me, too, but I didn’t want to change it. In the bridge I get more fluid and slinky, more intricate, but for the most part I keep it really simple. It works. It sets a nice mood.
Generally speaking, what kind of interplay do you like with a drummer?
I lead. I have to, really. I’m singing and playing bass, so two out of three grooves are in my hands, you know? It would be extremely difficult if I were following the drummer—I would be contradicting myself, basically. I know where I want my vocals to sit, so unless you can play to a metronome and keep things perfect at all times, the drummer kind of has to follow me.
What’s your studio setup for tracking bass?
We did a combination of DI and bass amp on the Wolf Den album. We had an amp in its own room, and we had it cranked. For this album, we just went direct, which I wasn’t super excited about. It was the way that the studio was set up. It was a very small studio, and there really wasn’t anywhere to put a huge bass amp. I prefer the combo, but it just didn’t happen this time.
What would you say is your biggest weakness as a player?
I would like to work on my soloing. It’d be fun to step out a little more. I think I’ve got enough of a bass player mentality that I wouldn’t let it get out of control. It’d be cool to get into real jams rather than just sticking to plotted-out songs. So that’s something to work on.
Danielle Nicole, Wolf Den [2015, Concord], Cry No More [2018, Concord]
Basses 2003 Fender Jazz Bass, Fender 60th Anniversary Precision Bass, Delaney Danielle Nicole signature model
Amps Markbass Little Mark III 600-watt head, Markbass 104HF 4x10 and 10HF 2x10 Front-Ported Neo cabinets
Effects Boss OC-3 Super Octave pedal, Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mosfet
Strings GHS Bass Boomers or Ernie Ball (custom sizes: .050, .075, .090, .100)