Please don't make a big deal of it, OK?
Danielia Cotton is a black chick from New Jersey: pretty, svelte, the camera loves her. But she isn't trying to be the next Mariah or Beyonce. Armed with her guitar, a take-no-mess attitude and a blues-rich voice, Cotton is an AC/DC-loving rocker determined to make her presence felt in a melanin-challenged arena.
Besides, the singer-songwriter-musician isn't the first black woman to rock out - and do it well. Surely, you've heard of a force of nature named Tina Turner. With her likable debut, the independently released Small White Town, Cotton wants to extend the legacy of black "womanist" rock.
"I think people look, and they're like, `Whoa, a black chick,'" says Cotton, who's calling from the road en route to a gig in Milwaukee. She plays the Recher Theatre tonight. "I hope I'm opening doors for other blacks who enjoy rock 'n' roll. We have a history: Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Living Colour. We're all in there."
For months, Cotton, who performed here this summer at Artscape, has been generating a buzz along the East Coast and in the Midwest. The strong word-of-mouth about her full-throttle music and spirited performances recently led to an opening slot for Bon Jovi at Madison Square Garden.
"That was incredible," Cotton says in her direct, throaty tone. "I mean, Madison Square Garden? All those people? It was great."
Her hometown, Hopewell, inspired the title of Small White Town. Growing up, the artist, who doesn't divulge her age, was the only black girl in her neighborhood and one of only seven blacks in Hopewell Valley High School.
"Being the only black kid in an all-white town in an all-white school, I was angry that I didn't fit in," Cotton says. "And there was this music that was so loud and expressed all the anger I felt."
Although at home the artist was exposed to the mellifluous sounds of Phyllis Hyman, she gravitated toward what her classmates dug: AC/DC, Judas Priest, Todd Rundgren. Cotton, whose mother is a jazz singer, appreciated standards such as "Here's That Rainy Day," one of her personal favorites. But it was the rawness and immediate rush of hard rock that hooked young Cotton.
Music may have been an early obsession, an escape, but the artist didn't pursue it as a career right away. At Bennington College in Vermont, Cotton studied acting. She was so good that during her senior year she accepted an opportunity to study the craft at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. But not long after Cotton earned her degree and landed a few small acting gigs, the performer felt unfulfilled. So she decided to revisit music and make something happen with that. Already accomplished on the piano, the New York City resident learned the guitar. Eventually, the songs that would make up her debut tumbled out of her.
While recording Small White Town, Cotton says, "I remembered why I do what I do. It's a necessity. I can recycle my pain. It's a calling. It's an extraordinary haven. I think my whole experience is in the album."
Here and there, the 11-cut CD glimmers with obvious influences from Cotton's idols: Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. Every song, especially "Devil in Disguise" and "It's Only Life," has an amiable pop sheen. But for all her directness over the phone and on stage, Cotton's approach on the record feels a bit tentative at times. She's a talented songwriter with a good set of pipes. But she doesn't really rip into the material with the fury and confidence of a young Turner. As a vocalist, Cotton says she's learning to trust herself.
"It's all about pushing yourself, you know," she says. "As an independent artist, I have artistic freedom, more so than artists on a major label. I just wish I didn't have to reach in my own pocket as much."
But her doggedness is steadily paying off as she nets more national gigs and glowing reviews in the press, including a recent write-up in Essence. There is still a healthy amount of angst in her that keeps her going.
"I'm fighting people's perceptions. I'm fighting the industry, so I'm still mad as hell," Cotton says. "Rock is always a place where I can go and express myself. Loudly."
Check out Danielia Cotton at Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, tonight at 7. Tickets are $12 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com