If Danielia Cotton seemed, well, a tiny bit out of breath and a tiny bit distracted, it’s because she was working out at a Manhattan gym right before this interview. “I had just started to do cardio and I realized I had to call you,” she says, laughing. Danielia Cotton, an up-and-coming rock diva from Hopewell, laughs a lot.
“I’m trying to get ready for the Lynyrd Skynyrd show,” she says. “I’m opening for them at a very big venue in Times Square, the Nokia Theater (for a March 12 show commemorating the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). It’s the second biggest gig I’ve ever had, outside of opening for Bon Jovi at Madison Square Garden. I want to be nice and toned and tight.”
Before her Nokia show, however, there is perhaps what could be the third most important gig of her career, a Thursday, March 9, performance on the Patriots Stage at the War Memorial in Trenton. It will be Cotton’s debut performance at the venue and one of the few times she has performed in the Trenton area. “I am very psyched to be playing the War Memorial; it’s a great venue,” says Cotton, who moved to New York eight years ago. “My family will be there, and my mom, sister, and niece will come up and sing with me.”
Cotton’s family is integral to what she does and who she is as an artist. Born in Hopewell — “I am definitely a Jersey Girl” — Cotton is the daughter of jazz singer Winona Brooks. There is also another cultural dimension to this rock-and-rollin’ dynamo: she is also part Latina, thanks to her Puerto Rican father, whom she has never met. “My surname comes from my stepfather,” she says. “It is really great that I have this name; it gives my image some character and mystery. I do wonder sometimes what it would have been like if I had had a Spanish surname. My life would have gone a different way. It’s already hard enough for people to get their fingers around a black person who is into rock and roll. Add a Spanish name to that, and there’d just be more confusion.”
Her experiences as one of the few African Americans in her hometown — “pretty much everyone in the town who was black was related to me,” she says — shaped her as a musician and as a person. Cotton says she chose the title of her album, Small White Town — a direct reference to Hopewell — without rancor or irony. “I do not want people to take it the wrong way. Everything I am I am because of where I grew up. I learned to fight early on, and I defined who I was very quickly. I also received a great education. I love Hopewell.”
She graduated from Hopewell Central High School and Bennington College in Vermont (“another small white town,” she says with a laugh) with a degree in theater. But she won’t tell you what year she got it. There’s a reason for that. “The recording industry really does not deal well with you as a woman if you’re not 17,” she says. “It is the way things are. That’s why, in most interviews, female performers never say what their age is. I would rather not lie.”
She recorded Small White Town with her band, the Pistoleros — Winston Roye on bass, Marc Copely and Clancy (just the one name) on drums. In January, 2005, the album got a huge boost when Philadelphia’s WXPN-FM (88.5), one of the most influential noncommercial adult pop stations in the country, named Cotton its “Artist to Watch” for that month and put several cuts from the album on heavy rotation.
Bruce Warren, program director at WXPN, says he simply was very impressed with Cotton when he first heard her record in November, 2004. “It was just an exciting rock and roll record. It just jumped out at us,” says Warren. “It was our music director, Dan Reed, who popped it into his stereo, and he said to me, ‘My God, you have to hear this woman sing.’ We didn’t skip a beat. We just plugged her in there. It was her drive, her energy, her confidence. It all just felt so real, just so emotionally intense.”
According to Warren, the station’s listeners reacted positively to Cotton as well. “She played the All About the Music fest in July, just to help build her career. People were just blown away. She is just charismatic. You don’t expect this five-foot-five, tiny African American woman to climb up on stage and rock it like there’s no tomorrow. People who have heard her record probably expect to see a white person. But color does not matter.”
That is what Cotton has been saying all along. Music, she says, kept her going as a teen. “My mom gave me a guitar when I was 12, and I’m glad she did. I was a very moody, emotional, temperamental teen. It gave me an outlet. My aunts were singers too; one had gone on the road with Southside Johnny as a backup singer. My mom was into jazz, but we listened to everything — Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Stevie, Donny Hathaway, Etta James. Meanwhile, my brother was listening to Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Todd Rundgren, and Judas Priest.
Cotton says: “Me, I was always the ‘little black girl,’ the only one in all of my classes. Nobody looked like me. Rock was this outlet, where I could be angry. It gave me a place to get out all this aggression. It was very important in my youth to have that, and so rock and roll has been very instrumental in my life.”
Of course, the whole debate about black musicians and rock doesn’t take into account the role blacks played in the development of rock and pop in the latter half of the last century. Many people don’t know that in fact black musicians originated rock and roll music in the 1940s and the 1950s. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard were just three of the many early black rock legends who had a huge impact on all future rockers.
There have always been black rock musicians and rock bands. Even after the word “rock” became associated with predominantly white performers, acts such as Hendrix, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Parliament-Funkadelic, Living Colour, the Bus Boys, Fishbone, the Black Rock Coalition, Nona Hendryx (as a solo artist), Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, and countless others have, to various degrees, played music firmly planted in the rock category.
So Danielia Cotton isn’t as much an exotic anomaly as one might think. Cotton moved to New York eight years ago, and now she has finally gotten to the point where she makes her living performing. She and the band tour about 50 percent of the time.
Cotton says she “was completely overwhelmed” when she got to New York. “But once I got my bearings, I thought it was so extraordinary to be an artist here. There is so much life here — you can either take it all in and do something with it, or let it scare the s — out of you. I have been a fighter all my life, so I got my bearings, and was like, ‘Yeah, I like this.’”
Danielia Cotton, Thursday, March 9, 8 p.m., Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Rock and roll from the former Hopewell resident. $25. 609-984-8400.