Danielia Cotton: A ‘Rare Child’

via Daniella Cotton’s website


Beware, U.S. census-takers: Danielia Cotton doesn’t fit neatly into any box. She’s an African American, from a nearly all-white town in New Jersey. She’s a singer and songwriter who can sound like a blues balladeer on one track, and a hard-rock wailer on the next. She’s influenced by gospel music, but she’s also a convert to Judaism.

Danielia Cotton has mined parts of her childhood and her much more recent adulthood for a new CD. It’s called “Rare Child,” and she joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. DANIELIA COTTON (Singer): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let’s begin with hearing a little bit of the opening track on this CD, which is “Make You Move.”

(Soundbite of song, “Make You Move”)

Ms. COTTON: (Singing) Well I ain’t gonna preach to you, ‘cuz I ain’t your mother, and I ain’t gonna stay the night ‘cuz I ain’t your lover. I’m gonna make you feel, feel, that you never (unintelligible) over to the other side. (Unintelligible). Make you move…

Ms. COTTON: I do a cover of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” and we were trying to write a song that was yah-yah, you know, just kind of…

SIMON: Now let’s diagnose that.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

SIMON: Yah-yah?

Ms. COTTON: Just like a good guitar riff, good hook, sort of rockin’ tune.

(Soundbite of song, “Make You Move”)

Ms. COTTON: (Singing) ‘Cuz I’m a little black girl, gonna rock your world. You’re gonna move me. I don’t need no (unintelligible) to win you over…

SIMON: Did you grow up listening to a lot of rockers with the volume cranked up to 11?

Ms. COTTON: I was initially attracted to rock ‘n’ roll because I was a little black kid in a white town, and I was angry, and that music sort of was a place I could put all that aggression in.

SIMON: Now what town are we talking about?

Ms. COTTON: Hopewell, New Jersey.

SIMON: Do you mind me asking: Why were you so angry?

Ms. COTTON: Because I didn’t look like everybody else, and I didn’t – you don’t always fit in, and I think that kids are mean when you’re young. I mean, if I could go back and take back a few things that I said to some people when I was in grade school, I think that sometimes that sticks with you. I still as an adult remember specific events, you know.

SIMON: It’s interesting to me, and very revealing of your character, that you say you wish you could go back and take some things back because a lot of people spend most of their lives saying I wish I could go back and show that guy.

Ms. COTTON: It’s more that I understand the impact that some of those things had on me, and so, you know, if I had done that to someone else, I would like to wrong that right – I mean right that wrong.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

SIMON: What was it about music, do you think, that unlocked something in you? Firstly, when did you notice you had a hell of a voice?

Ms. COTTON: My family is all musical. My mom’s a jazz singer, and my aunts were background singers. One of them was on the road with Southside Johnny when I was young, and they had a group, a capella group, called Brookes Ensemble Plus, which comprised of my mom and her six sisters, and I joined by the time I was 12, and you just sort of realize, like, wow, I could do that, too.

SIMON: I’ve got ask you about your choir.

Ms. COTTON: Oh, Colahan(ph)?

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. COTTON: Colahan, which means one voice, is a multi-racial, Jewish children’s choir, and I think it’s because I just – when I initially converted, a year into Judaism, community service is a very big thing, and I thought that, you know, having been given the gift of song and voice and what have you, playing an instrument and being able to make a career of it, that I would give that back in some way.

And I think if I have children, they will obviously be, as I am, black and Puerto Rican and white, and my husband’s a Russian, European Jew. Our kids won’t look like a stereotypical Jew.

I knew there were a lot of little kids out there that needed to know that needed to know that not every Jewish child looks like Jason Schwartz(ph).

SIMON: Jason Schwartz, do you mean?

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Ms. COTTON: Yeah, you know, the kids – we definitely, I mean, I think we all cried at our last show. It was great. I mean, we all got something out of it. Music’s great.

SIMON: Did you go back and forth between jazz and gospel and hard rock?

Ms. COTTON: No. My taste has always been eclectic. I didn’t come back to rock until later in my life. I think I was more, sort of, even when I first came to New York, a little more singer-songwriter, a little bit more soul in the music.

(Soundbite of Music)

Ms. COTTON: And I think when I was brave enough, I went back to where I wanted to be, which was more a place that I felt at home, where I could live. When you’re singing rock it’s powerful, and through that emoting to the audience you get a lot out too. You’re able to let go of it.

(Soundbite of song, “Rare Child”)

Ms. COTTON: (Singing) From the day I was born, I (unintelligible). We had to fight to survive. (Unintelligible), and I’m standing here because I wanted you all to see I’m a rare child, (unintelligible). I’m a rare child, (unintelligible). I’m a rare, rare child, (unintelligible). I can see everything that I want to be because I’m free.

SIMON: The title track. Now was that at least partially your story, may I ask?

Ms. COTTON: A little bit. I haven’t – I’ve never met my father. You know, I would hope that he would regret not being in my life, and my mom was, you know, a single mother raising four kids. So we definitely struggled to survive at times.

SIMON: Do you know if your father is still around, or do you know who he is, even?

Ms. COTTON: I’ve made an attempt twice, but I failed in my efforts. So I really don’t even know if he’s alive.

SIMON: Forgive a pop-psychology question.

Ms. COTTON: Okay.

SIMON: Are any of your songs an attempt to make him pay attention?

Ms. COTTON: No, no, no, I don’t think so. I could be some subconscious. I don’t know. No, I really don’t – it’s not something that I’m going for.

SIMON: You wrote or co-wrote the music and lyrics for just about every track on this CD. Is that important to you?

Ms. COTTON: Yes it is, actually. When I sing something, even if I’m going to do a cover, it has to be a story that I relate to. For me to be able to sing the way I’d like to and give something back to the audience, then I really have to sort of feel that I can live in it, and I never really write about things that I haven’t really dealt with in a healthy way myself.

It’s almost – I studied acting for so long. As Uda Hagen(ph) would say, be careful of the moments you go back to. If it’s a moment that you really haven’t reconciled with yourself, it could be not a healthy place to go.

So if I write about anything, it’s because I really sort of dealt with it myself, and I put it out there because I know I’m not the only one to have the experiences that I’ve had.

SIMON: We might want to play another clip from this album, I think of a song that might be familiar in the life of any road musician: “Let it Ride.”

(Soundbite of song, “Let it Ride”)

Ms. COTTON: (Singing) Sixteen days and I’ll be home again to my own bed and my old friends, the things I’m used to. But there’s a charm to all these nameless towns, the brand-new streets, I’m in and out, the (unintelligible) settle down. But this is what I am. It’s just something you have to understand.

SIMON: Boy that summarizes it so beautifully.

Ms. COTTON: It’s the road.

SIMON: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. COTTON: You know, I actually co-wrote that with my husband, who’s sort of the person that has to deal with me going. So it was kind of – it was great that we did it together.

(Soundbite of song, “Let it Ride”)

Ms. COTTON: (Singing) I’m gonna let it ride, let it ride, and it’ll be all right, and I’ll see you on the other side.

SIMON: Ms. Cotton, so nice talking to you.

Ms. COTTON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Danielia Cotton, the singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her new CD, her second, is now out, and it’s called “Rare Child.”

(Soundbite of song, “Let it Ride”)

Ms. COTTON: (Singing) I can hide.

SIMON: And to hear a full concert from Ms. Cotton, go to NPR.org/music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I’m Scott Simon.

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