Nicolette & the Nobodies Find Universal Spirit of Country Music: "I Don't Think It Matters Where You're From"

"I might be late to the game but hey, I'm here," says Guelph's Nicolette Hoang

Photo: Heather Saitz

BY Laura StanleyPublished Apr 11, 2024

On the cover of old-school country band Nicolette & the Nobodies' new LP, The Long Way (out April 12 via ArtHaus), band leader Nicolette Hoang is seated on a large wicker chair. Wearing a white dress and a cowboy hat and boots to match, Hoang looks serene and powerful. To borrow words most famously sung by country artist Kitty Wells — one of Hoang's biggest influences — she looks like a honky tonk angel.

For Hoang, the album cover is a tribute to her family. Her parents immigrated to Guelph from Vietnam during the war. At Hoang's childhood home in Guelph hung a painted portrait commissioned by her grandmother of Hoang's mother as a teenager, sitting on a wicker chair.

"I wanted [the record cover] to be a nod that says, 'I come from this,'" Hoang explains from her home in Hamilton. "I think a big thing about country music, the music that I'm drawn to, is that it's very direct as far as feelings and emotions go. It's usually talking to somebody directly and I feel like that makes it a very universal thing. I don't think it matters where you're from. I'm the daughter of two immigrants and I'm very proud of it."

Directness is the cornerstone of The Long Way. Backed by Class of 2024 alums the Nobodies (a rotating cast who, at the time of recording the album, included Danny Paillé, Emma Howarth-Withers and Ian Bain), Hoang uses her bellowing and emotive voice to express feelings of heartbreak and happiness with exactitude. On the tender "Wherever You Go," Hoang's devotion is never in doubt: "I love you, my darling / From here to the moon," she sings.

Finding this confidence has been a lifelong journey for Hoang. Growing up in a predominately white city, she didn't feel like she fit in with the other kids and, as someone who can't speak Vietnamese well, Hoang never quite fit in amongst her family either.

"I never felt Vietnamese enough for the people in my community, and I've obviously never felt white enough because I'm not," she says. "It made me think, 'Well, I don't belong anywhere, ever.' You just float trying to find out where you belong."

Although Hoang has always loved music, performing wasn't an immediate sanctuary. Hoang played classical piano as a child but wasn't passionate about it, and then in high school she became obsessed with jazz and thought she had found her sound. But, plagued by a fear of failure and pressure from her parents to find a more viable career path, Hoang gave up playing music in front of others.  

It wasn't until about 10 years ago when she moved back to Guelph after a brief period living in Toronto, that she found her community. Hoang fell in love with country music and, during a fateful karaoke night where she sang a country song, she was embraced by other local musicians (and future Nobodies) who wanted to play with her. At last, she felt a sense of belonging.

"When I was younger, music became not a place of joy and acceptance," she explains. "When I found it again through this community of musicians in Guelph, it was very welcoming and a safe, encouraging place. The folks I found when I first started playing shows supported me and gave me a place to participate. Without the pressure of excellence or survival, playing music led to writing, finding more of what I love, and people to share it with."

In 2019, Nicolette & the Nobodies self-released their first collection of songs, Devil's Run. Since scrubbed from the internet, these songs were some of the first that Hoang ever wrote. She feels that, stylistically, they don't reflect the band anymore, and describes trying to play them live now as "wearing shoes that are too small."

The Long Way, in contrast, is expansive. Produced by Aaron Goldstein (Daniel Romano, the Sadies), the record has a versatile mix of timeless-sounding country ballads and barn-burners that incorporate psych rock and gospel tones, making it suitable for both a solo crying session and a party with your best pals.

Like the album title suggests, maybe Hoang did take the long way to finding community and country music, but she's arrived and her presence is extraordinary. This is country music with a honeyed twang that makes your heart leap.

"I come by country music from a very personal love of it and I can't pretend that I'm from anywhere other than Guelph, Ontario," Hoang says. "I can't pretend that I grew up on country music, or with people who live a particular country lifestyle. It comes from me finding it and loving it. All of those challenges that I went through are what make me who I am. I might be late to the game but hey, I'm here."

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