Growing up in a town best known for being the home of the DuPont dynamite plant can make quite an imprint on an artist. In the case of Nichole Wagner, spending her formative years in Louviers, Colorado, necessitated a bit of wandering to figure out how to make her own mark on the world. Now established in Austin, Texas, with new EP Plotting the Constellations in hand, Wagner is forging a path in music that is rooted in a strong musical history while being distinctly her own.
“I don’t remember NOT having access to a record player,” she notes. Colorado summers were spent at bluegrass festivals and concerts, and Wagner remembers the simple joys of dancing in the living room to the albums her parents spun with the likes of Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and John Hiatt on the turntable. Branching off from her parents’ record collection, Wagner discovered artists such as Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell and Nanci Griffith. “It changed what music could be in my mind.” In high school Wagner became a writer and a poet; artists like Nicks had already drawn her in with their mysterious, confessional work, though the songwriting pieces took a little bit longer to come together. The summer she started college, Wagner bought a red Galveston guitar and taught herself some chords, but she lacked the confidence to perform on stage. “I played one open mic in college and it didn’t go well,” she laughs, “so I resigned myself to playing solely for my dog in the kitchen.” Still wanting to be involved in live music, she began photographing music festivals, which eventually lead her to Austin where photography opportunities were plentiful in the Central Texas music scene. While she was capturing moments in time from off the stage, Wagner realized she was circling her dreams but not quite chasing them.
A few things happened around that point that all aligned as a push toward music. “I had already been thinking about the ‘what if’ when I reconnected with a very dear friend, and one of the first things she asked was why I had given up on this dream — she had been with me the day I bought that first guitar. I realized I didn’t want to be 80 and in my rocking chair wishing and wondering what could have been if I hadn’t been too scared–to quote Stevie Nicks, ‘fearlessness IS fearlessness.’ Trying to get credentials and interviews for an independent publication had helped me develop an attitude of ‘the worst that can happen is they say no, and even then no one is going to die.’ So I applied that same logic. I knew if I gave it my all and it didn’t work for whatever reason that would be ok, but I couldn’t not try.”
In less than 24 months, Wagner went from writing her first real song to recording her first EP, Plotting the Constellations, released in early 2017. The impetus for the EP came about simply enough. Wagner was offered showcases at the 2017 Folk Alliance International conference taking place in Kansas City, Missouri, and decided she needed a musical calling card. As the EP was fleshed out in the studio and started taking on its personality with production by Justin Douglas at King Electric Recording in Austin, it evolved from a demo to pass to conference attendees into a full-fledged recording.
Plotting the Constellations puts Wagner’s lyrical prowess front and center, accented with her wistful alto and Douglas’s tasteful production. Rooted in the Americana-folk traditions of Emmylou Harris and John Prine, songs like “Pennies” and “Lies (A Murder Ballad)” add a modern twist to classic themes of regret, loss, and love. “Fires of Pompeii (We Should Walk Away)” encapsulates the familiar feeling of sinking into a love that will not end well, and the listener is drawn into the story right along with the protagonist. The EP is capped off with a cover of “Tougher Than The Rest,” which Wagner sings with a conviction and plaintiveness that brings a sweet but mournful quality to the Springsteen song. Reaction to the EP has been heartening. “It’s weird, you work on something, and there’s mixed feelings…some days it’s ‘yeah, I’m really proud of this,’ and other days all you can hear is the stuff you wished you would have done differently or ‘better’ but that’s all up in your head. The fact that people I’ve never met are finding it and writing me little notes about how much they’re enjoying it and are showing their support…it’s pushing me harder to find the next steps.”
The next step is no different than any other Wagner has taken: set goals and work fastidiously toward them. She is currently gigging in support of Plotting the Constellations while writing and planning for a full-length album as her next project. Though Wagner has found a great community of support and inspiration in Austin, it’s clear her EP title is more than a poetic nod. She will be charting her tour paths across the country while writing her next batch of songs. That’s Wagner’s music at heart, a lot of reflective star-gazing and thoughtful mapping…and a little bit of dynamite to make things really move forward.
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