Meet Dead Nettle: Lindsey Wall begins her recording career with a new artistic identity

Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Lindsey Wall
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Lindsey Wall releases her debut album under a stage name that speaks to her love of plants and her image of herself as a tough-minded artist capable of surprising her audience.

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When Santa Cruz musician Lindsey Wall unveiled her new artistic persona, “Dead Nettle,” it was not a universally popular choice with those close to her.

And that suited her just fine.

“I kinda loved that, when I told people about it, not everyone liked it,” she said of her new stage name. “I’ve always been a person that makes sure everyone’s happy all the time. And this feels like stepping out of that box.”

On Saturday, April 30, Wall officially steps out of that box when she performs live at Felton Music Hall to celebrate the release her first album — or, more accurately, Dead Nettle’s first album — “How I Thought.”

For the record, a dead nettle is a type of flowering weed, which often produces purplish blooms. It resembles the stinging nettle, but doesn’t produce that plant’s characteristic sting (thus, it’s “dead”). Anyone who knows the 29-year-old singer-songwriter is not surprised that Wall would choose a flowering plant for a performance name. She’s been interested in plants and flowers her entire life, and has worked as a florist.

But the name choice is more than merely a lesson in flower identification.

“It feels really fierce and bold,” she said, “and it sounds like ‘death metal,’ which is kind of funny. And it throws people off, which I really like.”

Once upon a time in the music business, creatively cryptic names were reserved for bands or groups. Pseudonyms did exist, of course. They just sounded like plausible names (think Elton John, or Elvis Costello). That’s not so much the case anymore, particularly with indie artists, where musicians commonly adopt a performance name that works for them when they perform or record, either as a solo act or with a band. Examples include St. Vincent, Lorde, Eels, Waxahatchee, Bon Iver, Washed Out, Tame Impala, and Hurray for the Riff Raff.

And, now, Dead Nettle.

Wall said she grew into the name amid the recording of her debut album last year in Nashville, with producer J.D. Tiner. As Wall was exploring her new songs, Tiner and the musicians recording with her encouraged her to try on the new persona, to see if it made a difference in how she wrote or sang. It was an idea she quickly got used to.

“At first, I was a little opposed: ‘People wouldn’t know who I was anymore.’ But a lot of times, (a real) name can imply ‘singer-songwriter,’ and I didn’t necessarily want to do that. And it just felt really good. It was the first time when I felt that I wasn’t trying to sound like anyone or emulate anything. And, it was just a realization, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to create from an authentic place.’”

The result of the first Dead Nettle sessions is a collection of songs that defy easy categorization. Pop polish meets a bit of a hard edge. Folk longing meets rock energy. It’s as uniquely beguiling as its artistic moniker, though unlike that name, it sounds nothing like death metal.

Tiner, who has worked with a wide range of Americana-flavored artists like JD McPherson and Austin Manuel, said, “What she brought to the table were these beautiful songs that could easily be stripped down with her and her acoustic guitar. But she had these references to bigger guitars, bigger drums. So we just started building out some of these songs in that way. So the thing I love about the record is that we’ve done some big things on it. We’ve made some big sounds, but at their core, they’re still these beautiful songs that she has written.”

Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Lindsey Wall
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lindsey Wall grew up in Bonny Doon. The quiet and isolation of that environment taught her how to entertain herself, which she believes allowed her creativity to blossom. She began to explore songwriting even as a kid. Her first musical fascinations were artists who had been stars decades before she was even born — Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks.

As a teenager, she drifted away from music for a time. Then came a turning point. She went to see a John Hiatt concert, and opening the show was singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. Young Lindsey was transfixed. “She was sitting on stage,” she said of Colvin, “just her and her guitar. And she was singing these beautiful songs and I was just captivated by the way she was describing this thing that happened to her. It was such a dark thing, but she made it so beautiful. And, at that moment, I was like, ‘I need to do that.’”

In pursuit of whatever magic Colvin had captured on stage that night, Wall dove into music. At Santa Cruz High School, she signed up for the school talent show, but was so mortified at performing, she asked to audition facing away from the judges. She not only passed the audition, she ended up winning the talent show — faced toward the audience this time.

After high school, Wall didn’t find a lot of encouragement to pursue that life, and convinced herself it was too big a mountain to climb. But around the age of 23, the itch hit her again: “I just realized that life is too fleeting and precious not to do what you were meant to do.”

She spent about a year concentrating on getting better as a singer and a songwriter, and that work resulted in an audition for “American Idol” in 2019. Despite her stage fright — “I just about fainted” — she performed on television in front of “Idol” judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan.

She ultimately didn’t make it on the show, but after the “Idol” experience, Wall began playing regularly around Santa Cruz and beyond. She fell into friendships with many of the other locals of her generation trying to make it as working musicians, including Henry Chadwick, Taylor Rae and brothers Kellen and Jamie Coffis.

Amid sweeping market changes and technological turmoil, the neighborhood record store improbably finds a way to survive.

Now, as Dead Nettle, Wall has put together a touring band that will travel to gigs on the West Coast. Since the recording of her debut album, she’s also embarked on another recording project with a producer in Maine. Wall is scheduled to go to Nashville for about a month to film a music video, perform a few shows and make some more connections that will help her write the next chapter.

She said that she’s shooting to release two more albums over the course of the next two to three years. All the while, Wall wants to be open to see where Dead Nettle might take her creatively.

“I just want to leave what I’ve done behind and really start new,” she said as she prepares to unveil her new artistic identity. “This feels like the start of everything.”

Dead Nettle plays live at Felton Music Hall on Saturday, April 30.

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