By Allyson Klein
On Friday Nov. 15, the lineup at Liar’s Club was an energetic mix of rock n’ roll and pop musicians consisting of Chicago’s own The Baby Magic, Sugarpulp and The Tomblands – and, out of Nashville, indie pop band Whoa Dakota.
Prior to the show, the members of Whoa Dakota – lead singer Jesse Ott, guitarist Collin, drummer Brian and manager Samantha Zaruba – sat in the corner inside Lincoln Park taco joint El Presidente recharging before the upcoming performance.
WLUW’s Allyson Klein met up with the band to discuss, over tacos, the struggles that go into making it as a musician, the ways in which Jesse and Whoa Dakota continue to grow and what’s coming up next after their current tour.
Ott grew up as a competitive dancer in Little Rock, AR, turning to singing in high school. It was there her choir teacher taught her about harmony and how to play the guitar, and the group of small town kids even got invited to sing in cathedrals across New York City.
Starting off college studying English at DePaul University, Ott later transferred to Columbia College to study music when she realized her passion for singing was more than just a childhood dream.
It was in Chicago that Ott learned to just jam. The young singer went to open mic nights, played in a couple of different bands and got her toes wet in touring before moving to Nashville in 2013.
Ott is a passionate, introverted artist who delves into her creative mind through tranquility and having space to herself – which can be hard when you have to have to make a living on top of funding your upcoming band. She is thankful for her band members who do it for the love of making music.
“If I could, I would pay these guys a thousand dollars a night,” said Ott. “I want everyone to make a living off of this project and to be so stoked about it because they feel like they get to do their thing and that they have their stamp on it.”
Outside of music, Ott hosts the podcast Spill The Tea which serves as a medium for her to foster discussion with other musicians.
Allyson Klein: Why the name Whoa Dakota?
Jesse Ott: When I first moved to Nashville, I lived in The Nations. There was a street called Dakota, and the guys I was living with at the time – we were playing in another band version … Whoa Dakota is kind of like my moniker now … it was kind of like a blues-rock band version, and my friend Houston said, “Why not Whoa Dakota?” I said, “That’s dope.” And there you go! It looks good, an “a” at the end of each word. I also just like the word “Dakota.” It’s one of those things that I don’t even think about anymore – it has been that way for so long, it feels like it has always been that way.
AK: What sounds inspire you the most?
JO: I started off singing a lot of blues. There is a lot of R&B in my early days – lots of R&B still – and now it’s a lot of pop. I say indie pop, but if you have 20 minutes I could go really in depth. I grew up listening to a lot of country artists. My dad loves really good songwriters and people who can tell a story with their songs; my mom listened to Bonnie Raitt and John Prine, Van Morrison – those types of writers are what set the framework for what I write. Sonically, I am drawn to really powerful singers and people who have interesting melodies. Sometimes with traditional Americana songwriters, there is a very basic melody and very basic progression. On the other side of things, if it is a really fun, up-beat and catchy melody, there is not so much a focus on the story of the song. So what I try and do is blend both. That is what is going on in the back of my mind.
AK: Do you have time to write while on tour?
JO: I do not have a lot of time to write while on the road – even at home I’m working. The thing with being creative is you need space and time. Self care is overused now, but I really think you need to tend to yourself and treat yourself with respect and grace. Being a creative person is not the same mentality of working a traditional job. It’s not “‘work, work, work, work, work; grind it out, grind it out.” Sometimes you do need structure, but more often than not you need grace and freedom to get into the creative zone. But it’s hard. Even describing the side hustles and prepping for tour and actually being on tour because there is no time on tour. It’s “wake up, coffee, get in the car, drive, go from place to place.” It’s hard. I do write. I have a lot of songs that I have written since Patterns has been released that I am working on demoing to get a feel for what I want to happen sonically. There is a pretty decent distance from what I do sonically, from writing with my guitar to then where it ends up. I have never been super hands-on with the production side of things, but I am starting to learn more about that which is great because I am able to put my stamp on that.
AK: What is coming up after your final tour date of November 23?
JO: I started recording a cover with some friends – we’re doing a cover of “Lovefool” by The Cardigans. I am going to hammer that out when we get home and then I want to start the process of actually producing the songs that I’ve demoed, and I will do that with Daniel, our keys player. I am really excited to get out new stuff – it took awhile for Patterns to get released. I wrote those songs in 2016 so now I have a lot of new things that I want to say.
AK: I read an interview that you do and we were talking about We Create – you said it was about sadness, guilt, and joy at the same time. Can you elaborate on that?
JO: With We Create I was thinking that I just started this relationship and it was going really well, but at the same time a lot of things were happening in the world. But when something happens, I am a major Taurus – a bedtime bear. I like to cocoon in my bed. But especially when you find out there was another mass shooting, or a horrible earthquake – it seemed like it was back to back to back. I was sitting at my desk like, “Uh, what do I do with this?” I also felt guilty; at the same time that these bad things were going on, I was really happy with my life because I had a great place to retreat to. I wanted to say something, but it was hard because I am not traditionally a pot-stirrer. I do not want anyone to feel so confronted by something that I write that it creates disunity. I have a lot of people that I really care about and really love that I do not see eye-to-eye on. That was my first attempt to speak to something beyond my own experience.
AK: In your songs you talk a lot about finding peace, what do you do outside of making music to find peace?
JO: I do a lot of walking and have been ramping up the focus on my spiritual life. I have also been listening to a lot of Oprah’s podcasts – people will talk about meditation and how it can rewire the pathways of your brain and help you deal with anxiety and depression, so listening to that and centering myself through those types of practices, and I do pray. I do not identify with any one religion, but I appreciate it, and I value that. I would never shame anyone who is religious. I pray to my nanny. I wrote a song about her called “Banshee.” She was one of my favorite people and she passed away in 2011, so sometimes I talk with her before a show. I ask her to help me to empower everybody and speak truth. Those types of things help me feel safe and centered.
AK: How did you start your podcast, Spill The Tea?
JO: The reason I started it is because I needed a forum to have conversations with artists about how challenging the music industry can be. It’s cool because I can access people that I would not normally speak with; I can say, “Hey! I have a podcast, I care about what you have to say – want to come and talk to me on it?” … and I get an opportunity to learn something about being an artist that I never knew before. It’s about shedding some of the bullshit. If it’s just seeing each other at shows where it’s loud or on social media, we do not really know that we are all having the same experience in so many different ways.