LOWER BRULE, S.D. - Nicole's second CD, "Night Tree" (SOAR/Natural Visions records,) won Best Instrumental Recording at the 2003 Native American Music Awards (aka the NAMMY's,) held on Nov. 15 in Albuquerque, N.M. The classically trained flutist, Nicole LaRoche, is a member of one of Native American music's biggest success stories, Brul?, which is lead by her father, Brul? (aka Paul LaRoche). As a group, Brul? won the same category last year of their album "Star People," and also picked up the NAMMY for Group of the Year. "Night Tree" features the entire Brul? band as her backup players with her father producing. "It's basically Brul?," Nicole told Indian Country Today, "but the difference is that on a Brul? album I might be on four songs while on a Nicole CD I will be on all of them in a feature part."
Brul? is known as "The Native American Yanni," which is both a blessing and a cruse (depending on how much respect one has for Yanni,) but the Nicole CD is considerably more experimental and allows the group to explore new ideas. "With the Nicole CDs we're going to focus on different kinds of styles," Nicole said. "I'm really into the techno, not dark techno, but ambient stuff. Even with the rock-influenced part we're getting it more 'band-sounding.' We're looking at exploring all kinds of different outlets, but still with a general underlying of our own sound. We've kept it pretty safe so far, just to feed people slowly so it doesn't shock anyone. We also have a lot of older people in our audience and going way out on one end will just throw them for a loop. We do what works for everybody, and what works for us too."
"Night Tree" is being marketed as new age, but Nicole sees the label as simply a marketing tool. "New age is a general category for putting it in stores and it's a pretty broad category. I think because our music is instrumental, and because it has some of that Yanni-style to it, it would be considered new age, but there are a lot of other ways we can go with this too; sometimes there's more rock, sometimes we're more techno, and we have a lot of other styles. New age is just getting it in an area where people are going to look at it."
What is most distinctive about Nicole is that she plays a classical western flute in orthodox western keys, rather than the traditional flute that dominates Native American music today. She has studied the instrument since she was eight years old. "When we started performing we originally thought about having some Native flute," Nicole said. "We were doing a lot of the Native circuit and we always want to respect the culture when we go out; because we mix the contemporary with the traditional, we try to make sure there are respectful barriers. In our tribe, in the Lakota, the Native flute was still supposed to be for the men. I never really liked to go along with anyone's rules, so I thought I could make my flute sound like a Native flute, but that comes out more in live performances more than it does on the CD."
Nicole talked about how she collaborated with her father on the album. They have been working together for seven years. "The main difference is that on the Nicole albums he works on the background music. I'll come in with him with ideas, but he's the master who can get the music out and he has the studio, so he works with my ideas and pulls some things together, and I tell him what I like and don't like and we work together. We usually start out getting a rhythm going. He can come up with things; he can hear melodies in his head. I can hear them too, but he can put them out, and I can tell him what I'm looking for in words; I can say 'It's like walking through an enchanted forest,' and he will play something and it's exactly what I'm talking about. We usually start with a rhythm and start laying the melody over that, then putting the layers in."
When asked about her influences, Nicole noted that she like Enigma and Portishead, but really sees the experience of living in two cultures the major force in her music. "Our main influence is just our story of not knowing about our heritage or our culture for so many years and growing up in middleclass society and going into a regular school, and listening to all of the regular stuff and then finding out about our culture. It's kind of like the two worlds of us combining, so there are many influences."
Nicole said that Brul?'s audience, which has purchased more than a million copies of their albums, is a mix of everyone. "It's all kind of people, young, old, everybody. There are people who use it in massage therapy and we've had people come up from schools for mentally challenged people, they said that it really helps them to concentrate and get their emotions out sometimes, so a lot of people use it for different kinds of therapy and all kinds of people really like it. Because it has no words, people can make of it what they want to."
For more information about Nicole and Brul?, visit soundofamerica.com.