“Survival,” says Danielia Cotton after a long pause, when asked what she’d like people to take away from her new album.
“’Survival,’” she repeats slowly. “That word comes because something came beforehand that made you have to try. Survival also means great strength on the other side. It’s a dual-edged sword.”
Cotton knows a lot about survival, and it shows on “The Gun In Your Hand,” her third album. During the time between this album and the critically lauded “Rare Child” (released in 2008), the singer endured devastating and life-changing loss – the kind that makes you question the universe, your sanity and your choices, not to mention whether you have the strength and will to go on – when she lost the twins she’d conceived through in-vitro fertilization five months into her pregnancy.
It’s the kind of real life stuff that might’ve knocked the wind out of a weaker person’s sails, but Cotton established a wealth of inner strength as the child of a single mom raising several kids, not to mention a mixed-race youngster in a small, almost exclusively white town.
“(When we’d get hurt) my mom would say, ‘Get up. Are you bleeding? No? Alright, you’re fine,’” she explains. “It makes you realize you can get knocked around and you’re going to be OK. Those are the times where you gain character and they enable you later in life to have the strength to go through very intense moments.”
Those moments exist on “The Gun In Your Hand” as what Cotton calls “minutes” – those periods when life feels completely and utterly overwhelming.
“’Save Me’ is me having a minute,” she explains. “’Save me, help me, save me. If I could, I’d help myself, but it’s a minute.’
“But it’s definitely not somebody trying to go down,” she quickly clarifies. “It’s somebody trying to keep their head above water.”
It would be a stretch to interpret “Save Me” as anything but a fight song. The album’s opener, it kicks off with a squall and jagged guitar before Cotton’s voice – raw, unbridled and undeniable – ignites the proceedings like a flare with her cry for help.
On some level, every song on the album is a fight song – whether it’s about the struggle to keep your head above water (“Lighthouse Keeper”), putting yourself in the shoes of those who are lost (“Boy Blue,” which was written after a friend’s son hung himself – proceeds benefit the Suicide Hotline), social justice (“Long Days” and a hauntingly beautiful cover of “Strange Fruit”), escaping and embracing your roots (“Torrent Bay”), temptation (“Deep Dark Love”), dealing with mistakes (a pleading version of “Purple Rain”) or weighing choices (“Easy”). Even the love song (the resolutely uplifting “The Only Reason”) is a fortress from the storms, as Cotton sings “You’re the only reason anything good happens at all; you’re the only reason I don’t fall” with hard-won triumph tempered with humbled resolve.
Recorded with producer Kevin Salem, “The Gun In Your Hand” may have been born of trying times, but it has the bracing, life-affirming feel of opening all the windows on a house that’s been boarded up and letting the spring air work its healing magic.
“Going through this album, it was a lot about life and birth and death – it was a really powerful album for me,” Cotton explains. “It was really great to get back with Kevin and be in a place where I really had more of sense of who I was and he embraced where I was at emotionally. To work together is really beautiful – the two of us coming together, the power of it. “
Working with a producer and friend who respected her talent as well as her experiences going into and recording the album resulted in a powerful, eclectic and emotionally rewarding record for all concerned. “The Gun In Your Hand” showcases Cotton’s riveting voice, naturally stunning and heartfelt whether she’s delivering bombastic rock or tender gospel; whether she’s raising hell with a howl or giving Billie Holiday a run for her money with her goosebump-inducing cover of “Strange Fruit.” It’s not, as Cotton laughingly describes, an “incense burner” – an album made for background ambience.
For that reason, Cotton considers the album a personal success. “I listen to it a lot of different ways. I like it,” she says. “The albums I like are a little eclectic and emotional – they get off into so many different things, top to bottom. That’s the album I like to put in my car – the kind you want to take with you everywhere. I just love that kind of thing. So this is the closest I’ve ever got to creating an album that I really thought was eclectic and strange but still cohesive.”
The album may offer a broad spectrum of styles and emotion, but it is definitely cohesive. If there’s one song that sums up “The Gun In Your Hand,” it’s the sprightly “Smile,” the second to last track and a message of hope from someone for whom music has always been a lifesaver.
“As a child, I suffered from depression,” explains Cotton. “My mom bought me a guitar and it saved me. Whatever I was feeling, I got to let it go and verbalize it – to put it somewhere. It gave me a way to write the story and get it out.
“One reason I wanted (“Smile”) toward the end is because every day is not a good day – but that’s alright,” she offers. “You just have to hold on and try to smile a little bit more. That’s just life – even in a good one you’re going to have some really hard times. And when you’re down, the only way to go is up.”