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The power of Cotton

Rocker Danielia Cotton recycles pain into beauty


Flash forward from the music that exploded in the late 1940s and you'll be swimming in a sea of white. Black is beautiful, but today, it's rarely considered rock 'n' roll.

"I think it is," says New York City rocker Danielia Cotton. "Blacks were instrumental in rock 'n' roll coming into play. No one gives us that credit. I think there's a slight bit of racism in the industry in the sense that people just want to see you do soul music. It's become that way because very few have crossed over and been successful. I think it's harder because we haven't remained visible in that genre."

But Danielia Cotton is.

Cotton recently opened for The Derek Trucks Band in Rochester during the Jazz Festival. As she and her backing band nonchalantly took to the outdoor bandstand, nobody knew what to expect. Within minutes, everybody was blown away.

They tore into their set voraciously, immediately hitting a passion peak --- as opposed to the dynamic tease 'n' build some artists choose. Pedal kissed metal from song one.

Switching between acoustic guitar and singing with Joe Cocker-with-a-feminine-twist moves, Cotton belted, bellowed, shouted, and sang. Her songs combined a singer-songwriter tone with rock passion and determination, all of it seasoned with anger and joy. Her voice soared the East Avenue sky, breaking just when the lyrics sounded as if they couldn't take it anymore. She was mesmerizing. People were knocked out.

"They're doubly thrown back because you're black and half Hispanic," Cotton says. That shouldn't matter, but it does.

"People want young and obvious," she says. Cotton's talent is obvious, but she wouldn't fit into the current wave of adolescent concubines the big wigs tout.

"I'm not 17," she says. "And if you say to somebody you've passed over the 30 threshold, they're like 'ohmigod' and you know, that's not old. But when you hear me, how could I sing those stories? How could I sing that way? It came from a life, it came from a life. I couldn't have sung that way at 17 --- nor could Janis Joplin, nor could Tina Turner, who made her debut in rock 'n' roll at 40."

"It was a rocky road in my life," she says. "It's all made me, me. I rose above it. I got out. I went to college, and you know, I'm here and I'm telling my stories in these songs."

The songs on her self-released EP are full of a resilience that shrugs off life's trouble, making the most of it.

Rock 'n' roll seemed like an obvious outlet.

"It's great music in that it's sort of cathartic," she says. "You can really let a lot out. I like that about rock 'n' roll; it can tell a story but it's also a great release."

Cotton's tunes are fleshed out in such a way it's easy to see where they came from: They're lean and tight interpretations of simple, beautiful ideas accompanied by simple, beautiful hooks. They may not come from a place of splendor, but Cotton's brassy patina sure makes them sound that way.

"What I do is I get to recycle pain," she says, "and make it something beautiful and give it to other people so they know they are not the only one. And it's great. I think that's the beauty of art. Most artists have these tortured souls and they need some outlet for that. And that's extraordinary."

Some might be quick to point out she's still just a singer in a band.

"Am I a singer?" she asks. "No. Am I an artist? Yeah. Yeah."

Danielia Cotton plays Wednesday, July 13, at The Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, 232-1520, at 8 p.m. Tix: $15. 21+