On the outside, Danielle Hickson, aka Dano, had it made. She had a well-paying job, an MBA that she got for free by working at Rutgers, a new house and a loving husband. But she was still dealing with depression and felt like something was missing in her life.
“I’m in a great paying job, I had great colleagues, I got married to the love of my life and we just bought a house together. I didn’t get what was still missing in my life,” explains Hickson. “I realized it was music, and no wonder why I was upset. I am a songwriter who is refusing to make music, and I realized it was because I thought I sucked or thought I was bad. It was important for me to get back into music and put my mind into it.”
Hinson was on the beach in Asbury Park pondering about life when she faced the music.
“I was writing in my journal on the beach in Asbury and I was like, ‘Why am I so unhappy?’” remembers Hickson. “But then I remembered that I was a musician who wasn’t making music. Of course I was going to be unhappy. I wrote a note to myself that I would make it up to myself for all the years that I put myself on the sidelines.”
She was surrounded by music growing up in one of the Garden State’s most fertile soils for musicians, Middlesex County, and the New Brunswick area to be exact. Hickson grew up playing the violin and the piano, but was most interested in singing.
A lot of the anxiety she had about music can be traced back to the way she learned how to sing. Hickson grew up taking classical music lessons, but by the time she wanted to sing contemporary music, it was a tough adjustment.
“I took classical music lessons as a child, and learned how to sing opera,” explains Hickson. “It kind of hindered me as a vocalist because I could sing these complex arias really well, but I couldn’t sing Britney Spears really well. It was really frustrating when I had a rock band because opera is so heavy with the head voice, and pop music is opposite. It’s chest voice and loud. With classical, you have to do it a certain way. I quit music for 10 years, and only got back into it three years ago.”
Hickson was able to get back into music with help from a vocal coach who specializes in helping classical singers transition into contemporary music.
“The biggest change between contemporary and classical is in contemporary we use our mixed voice a lot to belt really high,” explains Hickson. “Contemporary singers use their chest voice, but the issue with that is it doesn’t go very high. So if you want to belt Ariana Grande or Mariah Carey you have to use your mixed voice which is a mix of your chest and head voices. That is really really, really hard, at least for me.
“Like if you’re playing the guitar or piano you can see where you are messing up. For example, you aren’t hitting the right fret because your hands aren’t placed properly, but for voice it’s all about feel. My vocal coach would always ask me, ‘How would it feel?’ Because even if a sound is coming out decent, but it didn’t feel right, I was doing it incorrectly. She taught me how to be intuitive about your body and getting it right. She always told me to remember the feeling when I got it right.”
How it felt applied to the progress Hickson was making musically, but also applied to her mental health as well. Truth be told, getting back into music terrified her.
“At first it was absolutely terrifying, and it took me a year to be happy,” says Hickson. “But I had a gut feeling, and if it scares me I probably have to do it, and get out of my comfort zone. The reason why I stayed away from music was because I was afraid of it so I had to face my fears. It’s terrifying to share your own words and your own music. I hadn’t written a song in year and here I am writing an elementary level song. It was scary, but I had to do it.”
Hickson faced one of her fears head on in Asbury Park recently during a performance. Her drummer had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t make it. Hickson was nervous, but after going through it, now has confidence in herself in a live setting.
“I played a show on the boardwalk and our drummer had an amazing opportunity that he could not pass up,” says Hickson. “Our replacement drummer had to learn an hour’s worth of music in one day, and that was terrifying. The night before the show I couldn’t sleep, my stomach was in knots, and I felt like I was going to puke. The show went awesome and after doing the show, I was like, ‘Man I’ll never be afraid to play a show again.’”
Hickson likes to take apart the music of bands she loves because it helps her with her songwriting and the way she makes music.
“I like to break down the music of the artists that inspire me and find out what they are doing,’’ says Hickson. “It’s been really helpful, and when I write a song I have a reference song in mind. For example, I want to have a guitar part that is influenced by 1975’s song ‘Chocolate.’ I get a lot of inspiration from other artists.”
People can watch Hickson break down music on YouTube as well; she started her YouTube channel as an extension of how she makes music by learning from her influences.
“I started it as a way to hold myself accountable,” says Hickson. “I had to analyze an album a week so I might as well share it with others. Also on top of that, being a musician for a really long time, I never really stopped to listen really deeply into music. I would listen to it, and sometimes pull up the lyrics, but I wouldn’t go deeper than that. You listen to the guitars, the synths, and the jazz parts and wonder why the artist made those choices. It gave me a whole new respect for music.”
Going deeper into music also means gaining respect for genres that you previously brushed off. For a while, that genre was pop but Hickson has became one of the genre’s biggest defenders.
“Pop music feels like it has changed over time,” says Hickson. “I do genuinely like today’s pop music more than 10 years ago. Artists now have more creative freedom and are able to do what they want. That said, music is completely subjective, and just because I’m not into a certain genre doesn’t mean it is bad. A lot of musicians get jealous or upset with the popularity of pop music because a lot of times pop music is easy and digestible. No one has to justify the music that they like.
“I also realized that I needed to stop talking negatively about anyone’s music because it makes it scarier when you go out and put your own music out. You are expecting negative feedback if you give out that negative feedback. If you don’t give out criticism it just feels like a safer environment for music. Artists need to be careful about crapping on others’ music in general.”
Like many people who took part in the Great Resignation, Hickson quit her full-time job to pursue a career in music. She’s a songwriting coach, and runs her own business in which she provides toplining for tracks. It’s been an adjustment, and she took some time away from YouTube because of it. In the end, Hickson is happy that she made the leap of faith even if it meant making some sacrifices.
“All of these things I like to do went out the window,” says Hickson about the financial sacrifices she made after quitting her job. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way because I’m finally feeling happy and confident with the person I am today.”
One of the ways that Hickson makes money now is as a songwriting coach. She teaches songwriting skills to kids, and in return, it makes her a better songwriter as well.
“My kids have all these different influences,” says Hickson. “One of my students loves Tyler the Creator. I don’t normally listen to Tyler the Creator, but now I do to help out my students. It makes me a well-rounded musician listening to all of my kids’ favorite music. It’s easier for me to overcome writer’s block now since we all have overcome a lot.
Hickson teaches her students how to sound like different artists by analyzing choruses and melodies, and she also teaches them how to overcome writer’s block.
“There’s two types of writer’s block,” explains Hickson. “One of them is, ‘I know I am a great artist, but I’m stuck on one line,’ and with that I encourage my students to write bad verses and bad lyrics. I tell them to write down something that is bad, and write down three crappy verses. They’ll write down three crappy verses and they are like, ‘OK, I actually like this one line,’ and now they can piece together the song. What happens is when the ideas they come up with aren’t great, they stop it before they put it down on paper, which is the biggest mistake because you have the chance to evaluate it on paper. If you put it down on paper it’s not set in stone and we can change it and work on it. The second type of writer’s block is a deeper kind of writer’s block, which is what I had, which is a fear of creating, and that one takes time to fix and address. The best thing to do for that type of writer’s block is to write every morning.”
Hickson will be playing at the House of Independents on Sept. 2, opening up for Natalie Farrell, and she’s excited to get back on stage again. She also has plans to release an EP in the near future.
“It’ll be a totally fun party,” says Hickson. “I’ll mostly be playing originals, and the originals I had were modified from piano to a full band setting, and I am really excited with how they came out.”