Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

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.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.