Since vocalist and songwriter Danielia Cotton grew up surrounded by singers and musicians, it’s safe to say that good things are in the offing for her. Upcoming performances — in Princeton Thursday, August 13; Rahway Thursday, August 27; and Trenton Saturday, September 19 — will let area audiences find out for themselves and get a sense of her musical background.
Cotton was raised in Hopewell, the daughter of jazz, blues, and gospel singer and educator Wenonah Brooks. Her aunt, Jeanie Brooks, is a fixture on the club scene and was sitting in with blues bands like the Hounds back in the 1980s at John & Peter’s in New Hope and other venues. Her brother and manager, Craig Shofed, is a talent photographer who years ago was also a huge rock ‘n’ roll fan, constantly playing albums by Foreigner, Led Zeppelin, and others that are now considered to be part of the “classic rock” genre. Another aunt, Carol, was a background singer for the internationally touring Ocean Grove entertainer Southside Johnny.
“I was always listening to new stuff at my aunt’s house, and back then there was quite a scene with music clubs in Lambertville and New Hope,” Cotton says. “At home, my brother would be listening to Foreigner and Yes albums upstairs, and downstairs my mom would be listening to Nancy Wilson and Johnny Winter. So I was getting it from all ends, a great variety of artists who held their own and still hold their own today,” she says.
Additionally her mother and five sisters formed an a cappella group, the Brooks Ensemble, now known as the Brooks Ensemble Plus as the group also includes Cotton and Cotton’s sister, Cathy Fulmer. “It’s complicated. We got different last names. When you’re talking about black people, it gets complicated,” she says.
Asked about her father, Cotton says she wasn’t raised with him and only knows that he was a guitarist. She grew up in Hopewell, one of a handful of children with African heritage in the district’s schools. She graduated from Bennington College in Vermont, where she majored in theater. She was also aided in her earliest jazz and blues singing endeavors by trumpeter and professor Bill Dixon.
After college, Cotton left Hopewell for New York City, where she honed her craft at various small clubs in lower Manhattan, including the prestigious Bitter End.
“I mostly performed by myself, with guitar in those days, and I was kicking around the clubs until I found the first guy to give me a deal, and that was Anthony Liberatore,” she says. “He was following me for some time and eventually he approached me about working together.” Salem has been her producer on all of her albums, most of which she will have for sale at the Princeton Shopping Center gig on Thursday.
Cotton has several recordings under her belt, with critically praised albums including “Small White Town,” her debut, “Rare Child,” “Woodstock,” and her latest album of covers, “The Real Book,” which includes her interpretations of songs that were important to her in her youth.
One would think that with a powerful blues singing mother Cotton would have been exposed to blues and jazz before she learned anything about rock music, but the opposite was true. “Initially I was interested in traditional rock, the kind of music my brother was listening to. So my brother turned me on to soul and rock music, which is actually what I think of myself as doing to this day,” she says.
In addition to giving her daughter a connection to blues and jazz, Wenonah gave her a path when she gave 13-year-old Danielia a musical instrument. “When she gave me a guitar, I wanted to be writing my own stuff right away, and I had some pretty clear ideas. As soon as I could make enough chords I was writing my own songs,” she says.
While the biography accompanying “The Real Book,” her album of cover songs, says Cotton suffered from depression as a child, the reality, she adds, was simply growing up in Hopewell schools where she often felt alone. “Songwriting gave me a way to write my story and get it out. PR people will over-dramatize things, and I had some autistic modes. But I was the only black kid in my classes for years,” she says.
She credits her time away at Bennington College as a particularly creative period in her life and Dixon for helping her to realize all the possible ways her career as a performer could take shape. “I don’t know if I sing straight-ahead blues, but I dabble in that genre, and I realize it’s a great genre, but in recent years it’s sort of been pushed to the back burner. Our family definitely dabbles in different genres and we all have pretty eclectic tastes. We just appreciate good music, whether it’s jazz, rock, blues, or gospel music,” Cotton says.
Is hip-hop today’s blues? “I hope not. Modern day hip-hop is not appealing to me at all, and music sometimes takes a turn like the way it is now and then it swings back into greatness,” she says. “I think the world is really hungry for great music. I have more respect for the Gregg Allmans and Robert Crays of the world, and I realize people who’ve had such long careers deserve a legendary title.”
Because of her good management and booking agency connections, Cotton has toured and shared stages with Allman, Cray, Buddy Guy, Little Feat, Etta James, Collective Soul, and others.
“When I look at who we’ve opened for over the years it’s been quite extraordinary, including opening for Bon Jovi at Madison Square Garden,” she says. She also had good musical backup, including longtime drummer, John Clancy. “We usually play as a quartet and sometimes we have a keyboard player as well. We just do our shows the same way each time, whether it’s a small club or a theater,” she says.
Asked what she’s learned about reading her audiences since she began performing professionally after college, Cotton answers, “I don’t think you can ever really read your audience. I just go out and do the best I can, and I hope I reach them. I’m telling my stories and hope they get a piece of it or they can jump inside of it and understand it,” she says.
“I never know what I’m going to get anytime I go on stage. You just hope for the best and give them the best that you’ve got.”
Danielia Cotton, Arts Council of Princeton’s Summer Courtyard Concert Series, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. Thursday, August 13, 6 to 8 p.m. Free. artscouncilofprinceton.org/events/danielia-cotton.
Opening for Aaron Neville Duo, Union County Performing Arts Center, Irving Street, Rahway. Thursday, August 27, 7 p.m. Free. www.facebook.com/events/773983542652953.
Danielia Cotton with opening artist Chalk and the Beige Americans, Levitt Pavilion Concerts, Capital Green, 201 Barrack Street, Trenton. Saturday, September 19. Free. concerts.levittamp.org/trenton or www.destinationtrenton.com/events/amp-trenton.