Singer-songwriter Whoa Dakota released her 2018 album, Patterns, to much-deserved critical acclaim. The record, a woven fabric of spoken word and impressive indie songwriting, left an indelible mark, and people were paying attention. However, things weren’t so kosher behind the scenes. Relationships with her creative team and producers unraveled, and she soon parted ways. “The falling out left some emotional scar tissue for me,” says Jessica Ott, the mastermind behind the project.
The Nashville musician scoops up that pain into her new song and music video “Walk Right By,” premiering today, and it’s very clear she’s regained some of her swagger. Set inside Smack Clothing, a trendy hot-spot in Midtown, Ott browses through the racks and even becomes part of the display herself. “I caught you looking at me/And it felt nice,” she sings. “Red velvet blur, and my faux fur down to my thighs/You never make it easy/To change my mind/Yeah, I can tell by the way you stare/You’ve got a lot to hide.”
Ott dresses her lyrics with ripe imagery and metaphor, but her message still cuts deep. The album’s producers were unfortunately also close friends, and when the split happened, the pain shocked her system. “They weren’t bigwigs by any means,” she tells Audiofemme, “but it occurred to me how quickly people can turn on you when the idea they had about your relationship and who you represented for them feels threatened.”
She began to ponder the commodification of her art – and of herself. “It’s the music, too, but really, I get turned into a product,” she says. “The thing that’s tough about that is that in order to be a good human you have to be willing to change, grow, evolve, and be fallible. But it seems like in order to be a good product, the industry wants you unchanging, predictable, and to easily fall in line with whatever trends are currently returning the highest profits.”
In the two years since Patterns, Ott took plenty of time reassessing her life and what she wanted her music to be. She was unchained by a toxic past, so possibilities were endless. “I spent a lot of time sort of redefining how I approached music on my own without their input and gained a lot of empowerment around my abilities as a writer, composer, and producer in my own right,” she says.
She toured extensively to promote the record, too, which allowed her to hit thrilling creative strides in her career. The chance to perform in front of audiences was unmistakably vital to her craft and the ability to figure out “how those songs felt on stage and how we could apply them to a live setting in a way that felt both engaging and authentic,” she says.
“Walk Right By” (co-written with Nathaniel Banks of indie band Arlie, BESHOOTiN, and producer Timothy Ryssemus) is markedly different in style from her previous work. She leans hard into disco-pop and R&B, her vocals like a chameleon changing its colors. “And in my mind, you’re all I need/To get me higher, to get me higher,” she coos over a delicious sparkle. “But every time you worry me/I’ll walk right by ya / I’ll walk right by ya.”
The song began with its pulsating bass line, courtesy of Ryssemus, who had it on loop. On that particular day, Ott sauntered into the studio wearing “this great vintage fur coat with some red cowboy boots, so that sort of set the tone for the imagery,” she recalls. “That bass line and the imagery combined sort of created this ‘70s ‘don’t fuck with me’ kind of vibe, and we went with it. Then, BESHOOTiN added the screams that you hear in the background throughout the chorus, and it gave me major ‘Maggot Brain‘ vibes. And I just get so tickled every time I hear it.”
The visual, directed by BESHOOTiN, who also works as a prolific photographer in town, celebrates the song’s innate quirks and utilizes a host of creepy mannequins as a metaphor for the soulless poseurs that lurk in the music industry. “I think it’s great that the mannequins are creepy,” she remarks. “It’s creepy the music execs try to water down something as complicated as a human and lead the collective to believe that that’s all that person is.”
“I knew I wanted Be to film the visual. I’ve followed his photographs and video work for years. He’s got such an intuitive and authentic eye,” she raves. “I said I wanted a vintage ‘70s vibe and wanted to be dancing around, and he nailed it. The mannequins were his idea, and I love it.”
Ott’s willingness to dabble and stretch her chops marks an exciting chapter for her. She is now free to soar, explore, and create something new. Oddly enough, her renaissance and recent immersion in the Nashville songwriting community wouldn’t have been possible if not for the current pandemic. She explains, “In many ways, it’s opened me up creatively because I’m no longer burned out from working two jobs and trying to tour in between. Had it not been for the pandemic, I’m not sure I would have started writing country and setting up co-writes and trying to get into the ‘songwriter’ world of Nashville.”
“There’s only so much time in a day. So, when you’re working full time at a restaurant, and trying to get your business afloat, and be creative and inspired, sometimes something isn’t gonna get done,” she continues. “I realized for me what wasn’t getting done was having the time and space to get creative and really listen to what I had to say.”
However, the last five months have wrought anxiety, anger, and fear, too. “I’m terrified that we as a country won’t wake up to the role racism plays in our culture. I hate that we could have allowed such injustice to ever happen, and I’m afraid that we won’t rise to the occasion to be our higher selves and really come together in unity to get to the root of this problem. I’m terrified about the election” she expresses. “I don’t feel confident in any of our leadership to guide us through the pandemic. Some days, I’m afraid to be in this country at all. I have a scheme to book a house show tour in Europe whenever we’re allowed in and just play music there for a few months.”
Even more, she’s concerned “music will never really take off for me now because I’m 30 and this whole shit storm has really thrown a wrench in the plan. I’m afraid I’ll run out of time and will have to start thinking about kids before my career is able to stay afloat. The list goes on…”
“Walk Right By” is a call for liberation. Whoa Dakota exchanges her pain and disappointment for redemption, hope, and light. She learned what she needed to, and now she can stand in the sun. As much as she would love to be gearing up for a new album, it might not be totally realistic right now. “I don’t even think in terms of a full record these days,” she says. “It’s a bummer but it’s true.”
Recording even a nine or 10-song record can bear a considerably hefty price tag. As an independent artist, it’s too risky to dive head-first into another full-length. Instead, she eyes a series of singles and EPs. “I’m trying to be very smart about how I spend my money. I also have to be cognizant of the fact that records aren’t always the thing people are drawn to now. I love them. I love making them. Ideally, when I [make an album] again, I will have financial backing or will have placed some of my singles and created some capital for myself.”
To tide us over, Whoa Dakota and Collin Gundry (of Tuxedo Wildlife) are teaming up for a new project called Rodeo Glow. Details are forthcoming. “It does feel sometimes like we as artists have to be a canvas for whatever is currently trending in order to be relevant,” she says. “I’m okay with the work. I’m here to work, and it’s ultimately rewarding. But between all the social media platforms and different hats I have to wear, I sometimes forget about just sitting alone in my room strumming some chords and singing whatever the hell I want. That’s it’s own reward.”