Nina Storey plays Moe's Alley on Jan. 12.
Sultry-voiced songstress Nina Storey made her initial visit here more than a decade ago, with a club show in February 1999 and later that year at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival. “The first time I heard Nina I knew I was experiencing something very special,” says Moe’s Alley owner and Blues Festival producer Bill Welch. “She has a one-in-a million voice.”
Over the ensuing decade, Storey has become something of a fixture on the local music scene, playing here more than a dozen times and garnering a loyal international audience while headlining blues festivals around the world. She’s produced seven albums and provided the soundtrack for several commercials, films and television shows. “With a voice like hers,” People magazine wrote, “pyrotechnics are redundant.”
Storey, who now lives in Los Angeles, will return to Moe’s Alley on Saturday, Jan. 12, where she’ll celebrate the release of her new album, Think Twice, which showcases her vocal talents and finds her exploring new genres while revealing herself, in the words of one early review, as a “mischievous and seductive temptress.”
“I like to call it ‘future retro,’” Storey says of Think Twice. “It’s got the sensibility of an old-school soul record with a modern, pop edge. The record has all the ferocity of my live performances, plus a focus on unforgettable melody.”
Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Tess Dunn, whom Welch introduced to Storey as a youngster, shares a personal conversation with Santa Cruz Weekly readers in the interview that follows.
TESS DUNN: Tell me a bit about the creative process of making the new album. Did you write all the songs yourself? Who did you collaborate with? Who were some of your main influences?
NINA STOREY: I did a ton of writing for this CD. There were probably 45-plus songs in consideration for this record. I wrote with so many amazing writers who really helped me grow as a songwriter, which also helped to inspire what direction I went with the overall feel of the record. I wrote with some incredible people like Chris [Seefried], Stefan Skarbek [Amy Winehouse], Mikal Blue [Colbie Callait, Jason Reeves, One Republic], Jeff Trott [Sheryl Crow] and two of my favorite writers and producers ever, Ryan Franks and Scott Nickoley.
That’s quite an eclectic list.
I listen to all sorts of music. When I heard the Fitz and The Tantrums record, I knew I wanted to do this record with Chris. So that was a big one. But I also am a fan of quirky pop and great songwriters like Regina Spektor, Lily Allen, The Weepies, Jason Mraz, Keb Mo’; and great singers like Adele, Amy Winehouse, Eartha Kitt, Bruno Mars, Sara Bareillis, Billy Holiday. Great bands with groove and vibe like the Black Keys and Spoon, and then of course crazy awesome dance music like LMFAO, Lady Gaga and Goldfrapp.
How personal are your lyrics? Do listeners gain insights into your life and your relationships through your music?
They are all personal in one way or another. You know, of course, that we use our language and music to express how we are feeling about what’s going on around us. Even if it’s fictionalized, it’s coming from some personal frame of reference. Listeners can definitely gain insight into me through my lyrics, although the question is: what’s true and what’s written to make a good story? I hate to reveal it, because I want everyone’s experience and interpretation of my music to be their own.
It can be a problem when an audience takes things too literally. Are there other things that influence your lyrics?
With this record, I was doing a lot of reading and so several of the songs are influenced by what I was reading at the time. The title track, and first single, “Think Twice” was inspired after I read Chuck Palahniuk’s book, “Damned” and it’s about how this girl goes to Hell and she meets all the coolest people there. The Beatles are in Hell, and so is Darwin. So I thought this was a colorful idea and took the idea of, “Careful what you wish for, you just might get it,” and created a story about a person who was really quite devilish. So if you want to be with her, be careful because there’s more to her than meets the eye.
What is special about your Santa Cruz fans?
I love Santa Cruz, as everyone there always makes me feel like I am home. Two great things about Santa Cruz fans: First, they love and appreciate music and the experience of hearing and seeing it live. This is a very precious thing. Second, everyone has a great sense of humor, and they get all my ridiculous jokes.
All of them?
Okay, most of them.
I first saw you at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival when I was 5. It was like an entirely different century. You had a more R&B sound back then. Your music has evolved quite a bit through the years, and this album is no exception. Can you share a bit about the evolution of your style?
Well, I think it’s important to evolve as people and artists. I am a fan of all music. I can learn from everything that I listen to, both as a singer and a writer and producer. What I love about this new record is that I feel it really embraces my soul roots, while also encompassing the evolution of my writing over the past few years. I got into comic books a few years ago, around the time I started working with film composer, Ryan Franks. So we started a journey of writing music that was big and epic, dark and cinematic. He turned me on to Danny Elfman, Tom Waits and Mike Patton. We wrote music that takes the listener on a whole different kind of journey as well as writing a graphic novel called “Welcome To Happy.” We developed a totally new side project that allowed me to grow even more as an artist. What I love about this new record is that I feel it really embraces my soul roots while also encompassing the evolution of my writing over the past few years. Hence the ‘future retro.’ But our band Welcome To Happy will also be releasing music and the comic book later this year too!
That’s very exciting!
Speaking of collaboration, Tess, do you ever collaborate? If yes, how was it? If no, how come?
I’ve written with friends of mine, and I’m really proud of how the songs came out. None of them have made my past two records, though. I wrote all of the music and lyrics on the albums. However, on Honesty Box, Noah Shain and Ari Shine [the producers] played around with the songs and added instruments to them. I love the collaborating I’ve done so far.
In the short term, would you consider putting a cowbell in a song for the show, just so I can play it?
I’ll get back to you on that one. Maybe if you play your cards right? Since we’re on the topic of the show, what do you like best about performing?
I love getting to interact with the crowd when I’m singing. It’s as though the energy of the experience is multiplied by every single person in the room, so it then elevates the joy of the moment exponentially. Yeowza, that sounds so Bouldery, huh?
A lot of your longtime fans identify you as a Colorado singer/songwriter. You live in L.A. now. How is it seeping into your music—or is it?
I know, it’s funny, I’m still considered a Colorado singer/songwriter. But I’m so proud to be from Colorado, so that’s all good. Let’s see, living in LA…well, there’s a truckload of amazingly talented people, so you really have to keep pushing yourself and exceed your expectations constantly. I see and hear a lot of incredible music, and it inspires me and makes me want to run home immediately and work on my craft.
My first time ever on stage was with you. While we have become good friends through the years, I’ve been really lucky to have you as a musical mentor. Did you have someone in your life who filled this role for you?
I would say I’ve had a few mentors, but I am also always looking for new people to look up to and learn from because that process never ends. Keb Mo’ has been a great mentor to me over the years, as I met him when I first started doing music in Colorado. He actually worked with my mom in the studio when I was a little girl. He’s given me some great words of wisdom over the years.
Everyone tells me that the music industry has gone through this massive transformation in recent years. How has this impacted you?
Well, it seems I work about 10 times harder today than I did a few years ago, but because I do it on my own, I tend to spend more of my time on business stuff and less of it on creative music stuff, and so that is something that is a bit of a challenge at times.
So you need a lot of business savvy?
I worked with PledgeMusic.com to raise the funds to record, “Think Twice.” What that involved was creating incentives for my fans to get them involved in the process of making the record. The incentives ranged from hand-written lyrics, to private concerts, to me singing on their voicemail. I have shared exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and music from the whole process of making the record, and even had several pledgers who came and recorded backgrounds on the CD. It’s been amazing, fun, a lot of work, and a new way that has connected me to the people who care the most about seeing me succeed.
So it’s a way of building your audience?
Yes. And also, as part of my Pledge Music drive, I raised money for Cystic Fibrosis Research, Inc. They ask each artist at the beginning of their campaign what charity they want to be involved with, and I chose CFRI [Dunn has cystic fibrosis]. It obviously has a special meaning to me, and I wanted to raise money for this really great organization. I don't know what the total amount is yet, I've written them to find out, but I think it's somewhere in the $1500 range.
Thank you. It means a lot.
The campaign is still open until January 8th, so if people want to pledge, a portion will go to CFRI until January 8th.
What is your idea of success in the music industry? What are your dreams?
How much time you got? Grab a sandwich, this could take a while.
I prefer sushi.
Ok, I’ll keep it short. I used to say it’s about continuing to improve as an artist, a writer, producer, composer and getting my music to the next level. I realize now, I need to be more specific on where that level is. There are many different definitions of what success is, and in many ways, I have achieved that. That said, I want to be playing to hundreds of thousands of people. I recently saw Madonna in concert. Let’s just say I want her crowd. I have gotten my music in lots of television and film, but do I want to do more of it? Absolutely! I want to score a film. I want to sell millions of records (or downloads!). I want to tour the world and headline shows to thousands upon thousands of people.
Big dreams! I love it. What is your advice to independent musicians and bands trying to make it in the industry?
Wear comfortable shoes. Work hard. Work smart. Think outside of the box. Be true to your artistic goals as much as possible, but be prepared to compromise for the bigger picture. Stay humble and respect other artists. Stay for the whole show. Buy other artists’ music. Talk to your fans and ask questions about them. Find out about the people who are taking time to write you, buy your music, schlep to your shows. Do things other than music to become a well-rounded human being—it will make you a better artist. And know that if you keep fighting the good fight, you’ll get to the top of your mountain.
Nina Storey plays an ‘album release celebration’ show at Moe’s Alley on Saturday, Jan. 12, with special guest Tess Dunn; 8:30pm; $15/$20.