If Nichole Lynn Cooper runs into Robert Plant backstage at the Waterfront Blues Festival, she has one hell of an icebreaker. Just before leaving Portland to attempt making it in Nashville, the then-25-year-old aspiring soul-blues singer had her wisdom teeth taken out. Halfway to Tennessee, her face suddenly swelled up. A dentist in her new hometown told her she needed surgery to remove leftover bone fragments from her mouth. The procedure would cost $2,500 with full anesthesia, $300 with only a local anesthetic. Her insurance had lapsed, and she'd already dropped nearly all her savings just making it out there. She went through the operation with a shot to numb her face and Led Zeppelin blaring through her headphones.
"That's a real sexy conversation to have with Robert Plant," laughs Cooper, 28, over the phone. "Hey, buddy, thanks for the anesthesia when my face was all busted open from a nasty infection."
Well, if that doesn't work, she can always tell Plant the story of how she wound up standing in front of him. A small-town girl with visions of stardom dancing in her head, Cooper spent her childhood tending cows on her family's farm and her teenage years competing in beauty pageants. She moved to Portland for college, worked doing burlesque and bartending at a strip club, then, after graduation, quit her job, drove to Nashville in a VW bus, slept on an air mattress in a run-down apartment, and eventually convinced a producer to let her record a few songs in his Music Row studio. Now, she's returning to Portland with an album of Dusty in Memphis-style Southern soul heartbreakers, and performing at one of the city's biggest summer music festivals, warming up the main stage for Mavis Staples and her favorite male singer of all-time. It's the stuff Journey songs and American Idol audition tapes are made of. But at a time when musical careers are often made in front of a laptop, Cooper's bio reads less like a cliché than a throwback to old-fashioned, grind-it-out moxie.
Growing up in tiny Bridge, Ore., with a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked loading barges, Cooper was raised on classic-rock radio and her grandmother's George Jones and Patsy Cline records. Unsurprisingly, her favorite movie was Coal Miner's Daughter, and for a while, she wanted to be Loretta Lynn. Then she heard Janis Joplin. "When I found out you could emote like that, that you could use your voice as a tool to let out all your emotions, I got hooked," Cooper says.
In a town of 300 people, though, the only opportunities to perform, aside from county-fair talent shows, were at pageants. A former Miss Multnomah County, Cooper, with her round, soft face and magma-flow of curly red locks, looks the part of a beauty queen, but she insists she did pageants out of necessity, and that she was never comfortable in her own skin until she discovered burlesque. While attending Portland State University, she got a weekly gig at Dante's Sinferno Cabaret, developing an act that allowed her to hone her honey-and-whiskey voice. The byproduct, she says, was the liberation of her self-esteem. Although she appears on the cover of her debut album, Motown Suite, in a tight black dress, fondling a .45, it's not about using her looks to jump-start a fan base: Her physicality is tied to the music itself.
"I believe all of my songs are about empowerment, about owning your emotions and about self discovery," she says. "The performances, videos, photographs and all other art forms I create reflect that sentiment as well."
That confidence helped Cooper make the push to Nashville—one fried van engine and a $4,000 rental-car bill later—and compete with all the other "little red-haired girls from tiny towns" following the same muse. She now has two bands, in Nashville and Portland, and a record she's proud of. And, after six years of trying, she finally got on the Waterfront Blues Festival lineup. A few days away from the show, reality is sinking in: She's opening for Robert fucking Plant.
"I'm scared as hell," she admits. "And I'm really good at amping up the pressure: I decided a couple weeks ago we should do a Led Zeppelin cover. A really stupid idea, but Iâm married to it now.â