Seeing as how it’s only been three years since her first time braving an open-mic, one can forgive Nichole Wagner for still having the occasional “Wait, how did I get here?” pinch-me moment of surreal epiphany that yes, she really is getting to live out her childhood dream in real-time.
Granted, it certainly didn’t come about overnight, let alone even right after the native of the tiny mountain town of Louviers, Colorado first moved to the live music hotbed of Austin, Texas in her early 20s. At that point in her young adulthood, Wagner had already decided that the closest she’d likely ever get to the world of performing songwriters would be as a concert photographer and blogger, or perhaps by putting her coding skills to use building websites for some of the local artists she met along the way.
But it was only a matter of time before destiny caught up with her, helped along in part through a fateful reconnection with one of her oldest and closest friends from her formative years. “She remembered this dream that I had had in high school about being a performer, and she went, ‘Whatever happened with that? Why aren’t you doing that?’ — and I didn’t really have a good answer,” recalls Wagner. “But I looked around at my life at that point and realized, ‘I don’t want to look back someday and regret having never even tried to do that, or wonder what would have happened if I had.'”
So she pulled the guitar she hadn’t touched since college out of the proverbial closet, blew the dust off her starry-eyed teenaged fantasy of growing up to become the next Steve Nicks, and at long last decided to give it a why-not whirl, consciously setting her “sights really high, but also keeping my expectations really low, which is something I’m pretty good at.”
It turned out she was pretty good at sticking to it, too — and that’s when the aforementioned moments of surreality started occuring on a regular basis. Within two short years, she went from that first tentative open-mic performance to juggling multiple solo gigs a week in and around Austin, recording a well-received four-song EP in advance of her first trip to Folk Alliance in 2017, and even landing an opening spot for Joan Osborne back in her native Colorado.
And though she may not yet be that “next Stevie” (or Emmylou), she’s definitely found and embraced her calling as a woman burning with a true sense of artistic purpose. With a hint of whimsy (and a nod to her habit of rocking the occasional sequined dress), she calls her music “sparklefolk” — but don’t let that handle fool you, because even some of her most playful-sounding songs (“The Rules of Baseball,” for instance) are often spiked with the kind of hard truths that can test the mettle of the strongest human heart. Sure, that catchy murder ballad (“Lies”) that opened her Plotting the Constellations EP may have just been in fun, but Wagner pulls no emotional punches on her just-finished full-length debut, And the Sky Caught Fire (May 2018).
Produced by Justin Douglas and basic tracks tracked live to tape with a band featuring Will Sexton on lead electric guitar, its nine originals and one heartbreaking cover (Warren Zevon’s “Reconsider Me”) pulse with the palpable tensions of love coming undone (“Winner Take All”), caught in the agonizing/electrifying flux of uncertainty (“Let Me Know”), or dangerously close to catching spark (“The Fires of Pompeii,” a song first captured in a more spritely arrangement on her aforementioned EP but reimagined here as a slow-burn duet with special guest Rod Picott.)
Upon hearing an early mix of the record, renowned producer, guitarist, and songwriter Gurf Morlix was quick to discern “a certain dark ambiance that I love — I’m drawn to the shadows.” But as befits its title, And the Sky Caught Fire casts more than a hint of gorgeous color and light through its confessional prism, too — more than enough, at the very least, to illuminate Wagner’s way forward as a determined performer primed and ready to catch fire herself.
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