DANI ENGLE WAS holed up with her band Radio Lola at Snug Studio in Salisbury last year, drinking whiskey and laying down the tracks for the group's debut album, The Burden in Our Bones. Engle got a bright idea. She was about to cut the vocals for "Birthday Suit," the album's leadoff song, when she decided to shed her top.
"We looked over and she was naked," says drummer Sean Nowak, who co-founded the Charlotte band with Engle three and a half years ago.
The two look at each other and burst out laughing. It's an unseasonably warm and windy January afternoon, and Engle and Nowak are hanging out on the back patio at Company Store in NoDa. Engle, fully clothed today in a grey T-shirt and dark blue jeans, would like to 'splain.
"I was just topless and you couldn't really see anything," Engle protests, a breeze causing her strands of strawberry-colored hair to wisp into her face. "I mean, the title is 'Birthday Suit' — it wouldn't have been right to do it any other way."
Radio Lola's brash style might seem in contrast with Engle's other gigs — mother of two and singer in her church band — but she is no more a typical mother or believer than the non-denominational Watershed, her place of worship, is a typical church. Engle has a contentious relationship with organized religion, and that dissonance shows up in her haunting lyrics and sandpaper vocal delivery on steamy songs like "Birthday Suit," the joyously soulful "You and Me in the City" — which features some nasty, Rolling Stones-like acoustic and electric fretwork from the band's regular guitarist Chris Hendrickson and studio axeman Burke Long — and the meaty, punk-ish "Morning Coffee."
In "Floor 22," over chiming, R.E.M.-ish guitars, Engle moans the words, "With a face full of dirt, my heart pumping with hurt, and I'm still picking glass from my bloody shirt."
Although that song, like most of the eight tracks on The Burden in Our Bones, is about the agony of a broken relationship, it could be about anything from a romantic break-up to a spiritual or existential crisis.
"I don't like most churches and I'm very bitter about it," Engle says. "I didn't even want to participate [in the church band] at first. But Watershed is one of those kinds of communities where they just slowly and gently coax you. You're welcomed in, and when you're connected to something like that, you want to contribute."
Don't get it twisted: Radio Lola is not a Contemporary Christian Music band, not by a long shot. Its members include, Engle says, pointing to herself, "someone who's a Christian and [pointing to Nowak] someone who's an atheist. And we love each other. And we harp on each other about it."
"And it doesn't matter," Nowak adds. "We're together and we're playing music and we're all intelligent people — and we talk about it, we don't argue about it. We're like brother and sister."
"Music transcends all forms of belief — political, religious or otherwise," Engle says. "It brings people closer together. It's one of the most unifying artforms that you can experience."
It's also cathartic. "Birthday Suit," Engle tells me in an email exchange after our initial meeting, came about because "I always wanted to write a song about sex. There is just something so relatable to sex that a lot of people feel is so taboo. It's not! It's how babies are made."
The song, which Engle initially wrote with Hendrickson on acoustic guitar, is hardly pornographic — it's more "Let's Get It On" than "Work It."
"It's not all into the nitty-gritty of the action [but] more into the pursuit of sensuality, ferocity and connection," Engle says. "The last oh's of the song [are] supposed to represent orgasm. I mean, hell, it's about sex. Why wouldn't it end that way?"
BORN AND RAISED in Southern California, Engle, 33, was still in her teens when she gravitated to vintage Southern soul. She and her boyfriend would cruise around their neighborhood looking for a spot where they could park, open up the sunroof in his 2001 Subaru Impreza, and gaze up at the stars. "I vividly remember sitting in his car one night, and we weren't even making out or anything. We were just sitting there listening to Otis Redding's 'These Arms of Mine.' We would listen to Otis Redding for hours. And when we got married, that's the song we danced to."
Engle sang in the school choir, but was not the belter she is today. She was a wallflower in the back row. "I remember the first time I heard Aretha Franklin — it was 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T,' and we were covering it in choir. I thought, 'Oh my god, what would I give to be able to release myself like that?' It was so inspiring to me. But that was long before I had confidence enough in my own singing to do a solo."
"It's a good thing, 'cause she can't spell," Nowak interjects, and they both laugh.
He met Engle at Snug Harbor almost four years ago, after she already had found her confidence and fronted a couple of Charlotte bands — a classic rock act followed by a White Stripes-like guitar-and-drums getup. Nowak and Engle bonded over drinks and decided to form Radio Lola, which they named for the 1960s British pirate station Radio Caroline. They chose the name Lola instead of Caroline because, Engle says, "I'd always wanted to be named Lola. It sounds sensual and innocent at the same time."
The turning point in Engle's music career had come a few years earlier when she was 28 and caught a Brandi Carlile show at McGlohon Theatre. "I was sitting there surrounded by all that stained glass, and I remember watching her and hearing her sing, and going, 'Oh, I'm not a real artist. She's a real artist. She has this great voice and she's so lyrically brave.'
"That's when it came to me," Engle continues. "I wanted to do this. But I thought, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it with courage."
Engle started singing and writing songs at her piano at home. And she began to grow as a vocalist and songwriter. On the new album, she is brutally confessional, tackling abusive childhood relationships ("Run"), breakups ("Floor 22"), unrequited crushes ("Morning Coffee"), raw, unadulterated anger ("Take It Like a Man"), raw, unadulterated sex ("Birthday Suit"), and yes, even raw, unadulterated joy ("You and Me in the City").
Her two kids are pretty lackadaisical about all that raw, unadulterated songwriting. Engle realized she was not a typical mom recently when she plugged in an electric guitar at home and began wailing away on it. Her 11-year-old son Isaiah poked his head into the room. "He says, 'Mom, can you turn your guitar down please? I'm trying to concentrate.' I'm, like, 'This a role reversal. Aren't I the one who's supposed to be saying that to you?'"
Nowak remembers Isaiah and younger brother Noah, 9, coming to a daytime Radio Lola show at a local brewery. "They could have cared less," Nowak says. "I'm sitting there playing and looking over at them and smiling real big, and they're like [makes thumb movements on an imaginary phone], texting or whatever. They were totally bored."
Fellow members of Watershed, where Engle performs gentler, folkier gospel music along with Radio Lola's bass player, Kevin Snyder, are anything but bored when they stumble into one of the band's performances. "It's completely different music," Engle says. "Trust me, because a few people from Watershed have come to our shows and they're like, 'What?'"
She doesn't consider her two musical sides to be inconsistent, though. "Music, to me, is like going to church," Engle says. "When I go see a band that's incredible, it's always been some form of church for me. Like Brandi Carlisle — every single time I see her, I'm like, 'Oh my god,' I've just been to church."
If there's one thing that bothers Engle most about some religious beliefs, it's the idea of absolute truths.
"The idea that everyone should invest their belief in this one thing, and if you don't believe it, you're somehow outside of this community circle and you're cast out — I can't buy that. I don't want to cheapen the idea of music by aligning myself with something that can be so exclusive. It doesn't have to be that way. So I'm always teetering on the line between my personal beliefs in what God is to me and my belief in what humanity is supposed to be about. And bearing the tension of those two."
In the case of Radio Lola, the fruit of that tension is deeply honest and soulful music.
CL intern Jasmin Herrera contributed to this story.Listen to more songs from The Burden in My Bones: