Rare rocker

Danielia Cotton reinvigorates the Southern rock scene

August 21, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Danielia Cotton knows she's not the first "black girl to rock out." There's a shortchanged lineage before her that includes Joan Armatrading, Nona Hendryx and a former chitlin circuit darling by the name of Tina Turner. But years after the groundbreaking work of those powerhouses, Cotton still finds that people are shocked to see a black woman singing rock music.

"If you're not doing R&B, you're not black enough," says the singer-songwriter-musician, who headlines the Recher Theatre in Towson tomorrow night. "But I'm hopeful: The world is changing. ... But there's still so few [black women] who made a big enough impact in rock. We're still overlooked and still fighting for a place."

In the first two lines of her acclaimed new album, Rare Child, Cotton stakes her claim: "I'm a little black girl who'll rock your world," she belts on "Make U Move," the swaggering opening cut. And throughout the 10-song CD, the New Jersey native invigorates the vintage sounds of Southern rock - a coalescence of slashing guitars and bottom-heavy funk.

"I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel," says Cotton, who last week was in New York City, her home base these days. "Rock is just rocking whatever - country, blues, R&B - at high voltage. But I missed that Southern rock sound, you know? That old Lynyrd Skynyrd sound."

Growing up in rural New Jersey, where she was the only black girl in her neighborhood and one of only seven blacks in her high school, Cotton absorbed the music loved by her white classmates. Judas Priest, Todd Rundgren and AC/DC were among her favorites. But after a short time studying acting at Bennington College in Vermont, Cotton decided to learn guitar and seriously pursue music.

Her 2005 indie debut, Small White Town, garnered mostly favorable reviews. It was a fine, if at times an overly derivative, introduction to Cotton's sincere, throaty vocal approach and uncluttered sound. But Rare Child is a more fluid and gutsier move.

"Having complete and 100 percent control over something is the thing," Cotton says. "I didn't allow somebody to lead me down a path. I took more chances. I made the album I wanted to hear."

Given that few are revitalizing '70s-style Southern rock these days, Rare Child is refreshing. To further underscore the throwback approach, the CD cover sports a tinted profile shot of Cotton overlaid with simple graphics. The look is reminiscent of an old Odetta or Roberta Flack LP. But the pensive cover shot is a bit of a misnomer, suggesting an album of calming tunes. Rare Child is anything but.

Cotton also shows more vocal versatility than she did on her debut. She offers introspective, sweet-and-sour crooning on "Didn't U" and "Let It Ride" and sassy full-throttle howling on the title track or "Bang My Drum." But beyond the mic, Cotton's guitar playing has become more concise and imaginative.

"Being on the road with the last album so much, I learned a lot about what I wanted to do on my next record," she says. "I was opening for people like Robert Cray, Etta James - you can't help but absorb something."

But it's all about churning those influences into something distinct.

"That's why I called this record Rare Child," Cotton says. "Everybody is a rare child. It says I can be anything I wanna be. I'm free."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Danielia Cotton at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, tomorrow night at 7. Tickets are $12 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.

ONLINE

To hear clips from Rare Child go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

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