On a balmy and clear December Tuesday, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson makes herself comfortable in a patio chair at the Hotel San Jose. Even off the red carpet and out of the glare of stage lights and cameras, she's striking.
At 52, the actress retains a thick mane of buttery curls framing the regal bone structure famously remembered opposite Chevy Chase in Fletch and Kurt Russell in Tombstone. Austin's Richard Linklater cast her in 2006's Fast Food Nation. Five years later, she starred in two South by Southwest Film Festival premieres, 5 Time Champion and Blacktino, while wrapping the final season of her role on the beloved Friday Night Lights.
Wheeler-Nicholson considers herself lucky to have won her role on the late, lamented TV series. As an Austin resident, she commutes to the coasts for auditions and acting, recently completing a film directed by her husband Alex Smith, Winter in the Blood, as well as another upcoming feature titled When Angels Sing, starring Harry Connick Jr., Lyle Lovett, and FNL castmate Connie Britton. She's also taught acting classes for the Austin Film Society.
Living here also stirred another muse. A passion deeply rooted in her New York upbringing. One landing her slots at the Continental Club Gallery last year, and a monthly residency beginning now at the Sahara Lounge.
San Jose owner Liz Lambert strolls out on the patio. She greets the actress warmly and they chatter about Mexico, where Lambert's doing interiors for a hotel south of Cabo San Lucas. Wheeler-Nicholson's just back from New Orleans. The two met through Alex Smith eight years ago.
At that time, Smith taught screenwriting and directing at UT. Once his future wife began visiting him here regularly, she – like so many before her – fell hard for the local charms.
"People fall in love with Austin and they buy houses," she quips.
She brushes some hair from her eyes as Lambert blinks back the sun streaming down into the serene landscaping.
"Did you see RP on Letterman?," Wheeler-Nicholson asks her, using local code for recent Austin resident Robert Plant.
"Patty [Griffin] said it wasn't airing until the 6th!"
"It was last night. Someone sent me a clip."
Lambert laughs, countering with, "The Kennedy Center thing isn't on yet. Patty said she got kissed by Obama."
"That makes us two degrees from Obama!" exclaims her friend.
Given her big and small screen allure, including stints on Sex and the City, Law & Order, and Seinfeld, it's not hard imagining Wheeler-Nicholson singing one of her favored jazz standards to the president like another screen gem.
"In New York, the rooms I was playing lent themselves to those songs," she says. "The material chosen included a lot more ballads and moodier things because they were listening rooms, jazz rooms. Alex keeps saying the music is so beautiful and romantic because it's from another era.
"At the Continental Gallery, we found that couples were coming to enjoy the music. That people were getting dressed up and coming out in the middle of the week together to listen to songs. It was lovely!
"I grew up listening to singers all over New York City, but it's more singer-songwriter in Austin, which I love. I've written a couple of songs other people seem to like more than I do, but I don't have a burning desire to write songs. Why should I fumble in that territory?
"There's nothing worse than mediocre songs."
A quick survey of her recent repertoire indicates a distinct Southwestern flavor to her great American songbook, with Willie Nelson's "Night Life" next to Billie Holiday favorite "Comes Love," and Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" beside Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." Other standards include "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" from Pal Joey and Tony Bennett's "I Wanna Be Around."
"It's like acting," offers Wheeler-Nicholson, considering the challenge of performing as a singer in a town where the bar for every musical genre sits high. "I like interpreting other people's impressions. Other people's songs."
Paradoxically, that's led her back toward songwriting. She's a veteran of the ultimate collaborative art, so working alongside celebrated local talent such as jazz pianist Eddy Hobizal finds them now working together on new material. Pinpointing the right co-workers was itself a challenge. In New York, she doubled up with both keyboardists and guitarists.
"I asked a lot of people – asked around a lot," she nods. "And David Pulkingham suggested Eddy and a couple other people, not strictly for jazz. We started playing songs and it was so good. Then David stopped working with Alejandro Escovedo and I invited him. So it's the three of us."
Pursuing work as a singer isn't a bad life, but every now and then the day job takes her away from it all, as it did for most of last year. When she did get a chance to relax on local stages, her guests included Heartless Bastards' bassist Jesse Ebaugh on pedal steel and bassist Chris Maresh.
"There's a baseline of 30 or 40 songs per show," she enthuses. "It's really about choosing the songs I want as centerpieces. The night Jesse sat in on steel, I sang more honky-tonk – country stuff we hadn't played before. Other times we'll do something like 'Night Life' that everyone knows. What a song.
"That's the stuff I love, and I'm always trying to walk that line.
"To me, it's the same at heart; I love singing jazz with country instruments and vice versa. Some of what I do is take songs out of their genre and move them to other areas.
"I love singing ballads with a jazz trio, but I like to mix it up too."
Now, there's even demand for a Dana Wheeler-Nicholson CD.
"I've never sung with any agenda, so recording seems ... well, I don't have a plan here. All I do is gigs and sing, so the idea of recording seems mysterious, something you do to get on the radio. I'm not necessarily trying to do that."
In addition to the mon-thly Sahara Lounge gigs, she returns to New York City at the end of March to sing. It's a trip she anticipates, slightly bittersweet because her old hometown continues changing as fast as her adopted one of eight years.
"Part of why I sing these songs is old-fashioned, but I feel strongly about where I come from in the history of music in New York. I've been able to see Lydia Lunch at Max's Kansas City one night and Blossom Dearie at a jazz club the next.
"And somebody's got to sing these songs. They mean a lot to me. Maybe that's why I don't have a plan to record, because others have sung them a lot better.
"But these songs should be sung."
Dana Wheeler-Nicholson performs at the Sahara Lounge Tuesday, Jan. 29.
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