Shimmering melodies and emotional, incisive lyrics swell out of the songs on a Whoa Dakota album.
This Nashville-based, Arkansas-born artist has been producing captivating indie pop songs for most of the 2010s. It’s looking like she is coming into her own.
Whoa Dakota released her EP I’m a Liarin 2015, followed by a full-length album, Patterns in 2018.
Since that time, she’s been named as the “Best Pop Artist” of 2018 by Nashville Scene and recognized by NPR. Now it’s just time for the rest of us to catch up.
Born Jesse Ott, Whoa Dakota is in the middle of touring and bringing her music to new audiences. Her next performance will be in Little Rock at Stickyz Rock N’ Roll Chicken Shack on Friday, Nov. 22.
The show start at 9 p.m. at Stickyz Rock N’ Roll Chicken Shack. Find out all the details here.
She chatted by AY Editor Tyler Hale ahead of the performance. Check out our interview with Whoa Dakota.
Where does the story of Jesse Ott begin? What got you into music and led to the creation of Whoa Dakota?
I actually grew up in North Little Rock in Park Hill but I also grew at my dad’s house in Scott. I went to high school at Episcopal Collegiate and I graduated from Columbia College in College.
Both my parents listened to a lot of really good music My dad’s really into country – George Jones, Dave Allan Coe. My mom really liked different songwriters like Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. I think just listening to the music that my parents loved instilled a love for songwriting and storytelling and an early age.
In middle school, our choir teacher and a couple of friends how to play guitar, and we had a little band and played a couple shows. Upon moving to Chicago, I initially was going to school for English and then I befriended a bunch of artists who were going to Columbia for music and I was like, well, if they can do it, I can do it. So let’s just see how it goes.
I went the school had a couple of bands there, one sort of like a soul funk and toured around a little bit. We never really got to the studio but played a lot live. After being in Chicago five years, I wanted to come a little bit closer to home and I kind of wanted to be back where it was warmer, so it was either Austin or Nashville.
Whoa Dakota sort of developed in that first year of living there [Nashville] and it sort of started out as more of a blues rock band. And then in 2014 I transitioned it sort of a moniker for myself. It sort of became a bit more songwriter and pop-based, not quite so much focused on like ripping guitar solos. It was more of a springboard for the songs that I was writing myself as to things that I had written with the people in my band years prior. Um, so the sort of the first journey into autonomy for me as an artist and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Who is Whoa Dakota? What’s the boundary between Jesse Ott and Whoa Dakota?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Whoa Dakota, the reason I wanted it to just sort of be like a moniker for me because it would create a situation where if I couldn’t play a show with a full band, I could still build the show as Whoa Dakota. I think a lot of people think my name is Dakota, and it’s not. I feel heavily identify as Jesse and I put a lot of myself into what I do. Whoa Dakota, to me, really came about as my moniker for convenience, but as I do this more, I’m, I’m getting to the point where I want to maybe operate and give myself some more boundaries within that so that things could happen and things don’t always hit me.
It’s still personal…but I do think there’s a distinction of who I am in life and who I am on stage. So if that’s Whoa Dakota that’s pretty great, but I also feel like I bring a lot of myself into it. So, the lines are pretty blurred. Moving forward, as like my career progresses and as more and more people get to have skin in the game of the thing that is Whoa Dakota, I think it will create more of a boundary with those two identities.
Where are you in your career right now?
Right now, we’re working on getting out of Nashville more and doing weekend runs and 10 day runs and like slowly greasing our wheels with touring. And beyond that, I’ve got a bunch of new songs in the pipeline that I’m working on demoing. Honestly all the songs from Patterns and even my first EP, those songs were written several years ago. Patterns came out 2018 but some of those songs I wrote in 2016. So, I’m chomping at the bit to get going and to even further deepen my, um, my identity as a writer and now as a producer. And so I’m really excited about that.
How do you think your sound will evolve as you continue to record?
I think the production on the stuff that I’ve put out in the past has been really great. But in some ways I think that, um, the message of the songs…can sometimes get buried with the amount of production that goes into it. I love artists like Natalie Prass who has a lot of pretty sounds, but the production is very simple. Within the scope of one song, there is a lot going on, but it’s never all going on at the same time. That’s I kind of want, I want it simplified so that the listeners can digest and comprehend what’s happening instead of just having sort of like a wall of sound hit them. And I think that will help the messages of the song will do a lot more for talking.
And uh, you, you mentioned a Whoa Dakota record. What, how would you overall describe that you, you know, if, if he had to give one person, uh, give a person one song and say, you know, how would you describe your, your overall, um, repertoire? That
The term that I use, in terms of like the genre, it’s indie pop. And I always, you know, I always sort of explain what I mean by that. It’s not Top 40 radio pop. But I always mention that I’m a songwriter first. And so some of the songs, have a bit more of like an Americana undertone. And I think that’s because most of these songs were written like on an acoustic guitar, like me sitting a lot in my bedroom. Um, and I actually struggled in the past with sort of an identity crisis of genre, but I think as we’re moving forward in the music business, we’re seeing artists like Billie Eilish…and they don’t define themselves by one genre.
It’s just sort of here’s my point, here’s my story, here’s what I have to say. I’m going to choose the way that I want to say it. And I think that’s really nice because ultimately, if you think about it, genre really only exists for categorization in radio. So it’s not real. I think artists are often inspired by an amalgam of different things. Listen to a Rolling Stones record or even a Led Zeppelin record. Some of that is downright country, and then some of it’s like inspired metal and some of it is hard rock, and then some of it’s really beautiful ballads.
In the past I have really been like, what is Whoa Dakota? What am I, how do I describe myself to people? Are people going understand it? But I think it’s actually served me well to just create what I create and let the listener sort of define for themselves what that means. You know? And I think the production does a lot of sort of tying all that stuff together. It’s my voice and it’s my story. So I think that does a lot more for the cohesiveness. But anytime someone says, so, what kind of music do you do? I’m like, how long do you have?
How do you create your songs?
For some of the stuff on Patterns, like the for song “Patterns” itself, I was just at the studio I was working at at the time, and I was just messing around with some instruments. I found a glockenspiel and I wrote that line [starts humming] and just started singing something over it. A lot of times, it’ll be like a chord on guitar or one melodic line like that that I just sort of play over and over again. And what I try to do is create enough space where I can just sort of open my mouth and see what comes out. I don’t write words first. I just come up with some chordal structure or melodic line.
I’ll just sort of mumble words, just nonsense words. And then as I do it repeatedly, I’ll sort of carve out a clear melody and a clear lyrical phrase. And the more I work, the more defined it becomes. I won’t always know what I’m going to write about, but, I feel like I am always sort of unpacking some sort of emotional, uh, you know, and so whether it’s positive, negative or there’s something that’s giving me trouble or something is bringing me joy. I’m like, I’m sort of meditating on where I am emotionally. And then I just sort of like let the creative space, uh, sort of fill that void with a song.
And then what else, what I been doing is I will start to map that out in Garage Band and then from there sort of build different layers and different hooks. That’s been really cool because I actually have more say now in what I want long term in production.
Natalie Prass and I had coffee one day and I was just sort of picking her brain about how she got to where she is. She’s the one that gave me the idea to build playlists based on production ideas that you like. So, she has had a whole playlist of piano sound, so she likes…it’s kind of picking and choosing from everything you hear. That’s why I think like genre is ultimately on its way out because there’s great music coming from everywhere. And I think it’s really important to not try and keep yourself as find in a little box.
Speaking of Natalie, who are some of the artists who are inspiring you now?
I love St. Vincent and Kimbra. the Highwomen. I listened to their record for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve listened to it four times in a row now. Childish Gambino. I’ve always loved Jenny Lewis. Honestly, she’s one of those artists who can do no wrong. I want to hear her story and the way that she chooses to express it, even if it’s not something I would imagine for her. I’m just a big fan of hers. Lizzo – she’s doing her thing and I’m stoked about what she’s doing.
That’s a pretty eclectic list. Genre clearly does not matter to you.
Yeah. And one of the first bands actually that I really, really, really, really, really fell in love with and was a reason I started playing music was actually Led Zepplin.
You seem to be heavily influenced by the 1990s in Patterns. What kind of influence does the period have for you?
That was a lot of nineties R &B. My cousin and I watched Sister Act and Sister Act 2 all the time growing up. So like some of the melodies from those songs are sort of slipping in. I think the reason I’m so attracted to the vibe of 90 throwback is because like that was when I didn’t have any responsibilities. I’m recording this cover right now of Lovefool by The Cardigans, and that was one of the first songs on the radio that I heard. I was like, this is great, right? It’s like riding in the car with your mom, eating sour candy, not a care in the world. And I think the reason I’m drawn to that is because like, being an adult can be really challenging and there’s so and there’s like a lot happening in the world today that you don’t have any control over and you know, rapid change in climate and what’s going to happen the political landscape of our country. I think there’s a part of me that like, is trying to like revert back to childhood, when like my biggest decision of the day was which backpack should I wear.
You talked about your parents earlier. Your dad was in one of your music videos. What impact have they had on you?
What’s really cool about that is like both my parents are incredibly supportive. On the phone today, my mom was like, ‘I think you just need to go ahead and buy what you’re going to wear for the Grammys.’ She is blindly supportive – you can’t tell her anything. She’s like, ‘No, you’re going to be famous. Like you’ve got this.’
For what it’s worth, like I don’t think enough kids have that. And it’s a really crazy, ballsy thing to do to try and be a musician and make your living to as an artist. Not just just to play or be a wedding musician but like you’re trying to create your own brand. Like that’s a ballsy thing to do. And a lot of that is like both my parents like blind, unwavering support. Like I think I can be 60 years old and they would still be saying, yeah, go ahead and pick out what you’re going to wear Grammys because like it’s coming. The other thing is that my dad, when I was growing up, was always telling me stories of being a bull rider. He and his friends bought a van and they traveled all over Arkansas and traveled all over the country, every weekend riding bulls, taking this huge gamble. Something that was all risks and doing it when they had hardly any money in their bank account. There’s so many parallels between being a rodeo cowboy and being an American musician, and you wouldn’t choose this sort of lifestyle, this super inconvenient lifestyle if you didn’t really, really love it. And so I think I had the audacity to believe I can do this because of hearing those stories from my dad. And so that’s why I wanted to include him and his farm and his sort of legacy in that video because it’s really important and it’s really helped shape why I do this. And same goes for, um my mom.
I’m really lucky cause like I have friends that are artists and, and their parents aren’t not supportive, but they also, they don’t have like a visceral support, like they’ll go to the show. But it’s really different when you have like parents like cheering you on hardcore it’s really great.
What does it feel like to come home for a show?
It’s really fun. A lot of people come out and you know, you change so much from especially in like middle and high school, to stepping into adulthood and deciding the life you’re going to have. I went Episcopal with a bunch of kids from well-to-do families – a lot of the families were more often the parents were doctors or lawyers. It’s so funny because for, for a little bit there, I sort of felt like I could never quite be legitimate enough if I wasn’t choosing those types of career paths. It’s something I projected entirely – no one that I went to school with and none of their parents like made me feel like I had to be anything I didn’t want to be.
But now that I’ve sort of like stepped into who I am and, and now that I know that this is like, like the jig is up – this is what I’ve chosen and it’s music, music or bust. I show up and I’m such a different person that I was, but at the same time, all the people that are there, they’re like, no, that was always you and we’re here to support you because we love you and it’s a really good feeling. It’s like a nice warm hug all the time.
Is there a feeling that you’re chasing on stage?
I think when you’re on and the band is on and you and the crowd are exchanging energy, it’s like everyone’s there in that moment. You hit this like point of presence that I don’t think most people get in everyday life unless you’re a zen master. And I think that that feeling is like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be right in this moment, and it’s like everybody playing their parts and it all coming together to create this like this experience for everyone. And when you have an audience that’s receptive to, and, and that’s like willing to go there with you it’s like the stars align.
The biggest thing I’m trying to do is to not get in my own way. I just sort of let what happen happens and not let me be in my head about it when I’m on stage. I want to be be in my body, be there in the moment and like let what’s happening happen.
What are your goals – artistic, career or otherwise?
I would love to at some point have a music video that tells my grandmother’s story – y dad’s mom Nanny. She has a really, really fascinating story. And so I think putting myself in a position where I have more financial access to create those that type of content and to be able to do it well. That would be really great.
Ultimately, as far as career goals go, I really want to get to the point where I do this full time and don’t have to have another side gig. I wait tables now at restaurant Nashville and it’s great. As far restaurant jobs go, it’s the best one I’ve ever had, and they’re really supportive. But to just get to a place where the train is moving enough so that like I can just work, because right now as an independent artist, your work more often than not costs you money. And when you’re not making money to fund that, you’re not making money through your art, it can be sort of tough to get things done. So just having a bit more access to those resources would be really exciting because I mean, I think we can tell so many great stories through video and your more albums.
Image courtesy of Whoa Dakota