"Making this record was an opportunity to see if I was any good at it," she says, "without any big names"
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Credit: New West Records

When Nikki Lane releases her anticipated third album on Feb. 17, it won’t be the set she originally thought you’d hear. Between tours for her second album, the well-received, Dan Auerbach-produced All Or Nothin’, she holed up in New York City’s fabled Electric Lady Studios with producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes) to record. But at the end of those sessions, she realized everything had to be scrapped. “I just didn’t hear enough of myself on it,” she tells EW.

The legacy of Nothin’s success was weighing on her, as was the shadow Auerbach cast across it. Working with the Black Keys frontman and renowned producer was, as she recalls, “a wonderful thing.” But it also messed with her head. “Most of the interviews that I had for that record began with, ‘Oh my god! You worked with Dan Auerbach! What’s he like? What’s his new music sound like?'” Lane started to question if it was his genius — or that of Dave Cobb, the producer of her first record, who has also helmed brilliant sets from Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton in recent years — that made her records crackle. “Would mine be good if a famous rock star didn’t make it?” she says she began to wonder. She decided to find out.

Highway Queen, which EW is thrilled to premiere a week ahead of its release, is the product of primarily Lane and Jonathan Tyler, her boyfriend and frequent collaborator. They recorded in the Spring of 2016, while Lane was visiting Tyler in Dallas a few months after she’d been off the road. The last several years of touring had taught her that the more personal the fare, the more fans connected to her. “We’re all coming from the common denominators that we all have feelings and we’re trying to find friendships and relationship that are eternal,” she says, “I realize the more that I was open and honest, the more people could relate to [the music]” — and the more intimate studio environment aided her in letting loose. “I have to sometimes work through with myself what I’m willing to share,” she admits.

Across Queen‘s 10 tracks, Lane shares plenty. On “Big Mouth” she calls out a fellow Music City artist for badmouthing one of their industry-mates. “Jackpot” sees her admire her luck in finding Tyler and on the title track she admires her dream alter-ego.

The notion of the “Highway Queen” was largely inspired by Zane Grey’s 1950 Western novel The Maverick Queen, Lane says.The woman here, with tight blue jeans and long black hair, helps the singer-songwriter stay on the road for long stretches, something that she’d struggled with early in her career. “My life had become a character that didn’t know how to come home,” she says. “Because when I did, the house was empty, the dog was at my sister’s, my friends had had babies that were already walking. So I created this persona who, if I could slip into [her in] the evenings, would help me forget the fact that there was another side of me that was being put on hold.”

Overall, through this process, Lane says she’s more sure of her talents than ever. “I entered this [industry] as a bonafide rookie. I couldn’t play guitar, I just made up that I could do this job. And then the co-writes on my records, the producers in the studio, the album covers and fonts — everything was assisted,” she remembers. “So the thing I am most proud of now is the difference in myself, six years later. [This album] has given me an awareness that I am good enough at my job to get to call the shots and if things fail, now, I am much more comfortable with that than as a byproduct of a famous person making my record.” Fail? Not a shot.

Highway Queen is streaming exclusively on EW below. The raucous set will release via New West Records on Friday, Feb. 17. It is currently available for pre-order.