Danika Portz, that’s with a “k” and a “z.” Remember that name.
I first heard Danika sing at a wine bar in northwest Iowa. She is friends with the owner and while visiting family in the area, stopped up for a gig on a lovely summer night. It’s a tiny place, and entertainment has to perform outside, on the porch.
Now, it’s not often that I abandon my friends—and wine!—to hear a singer perform, but she did that.
To say that Danika has “vocal skills” doesn’t do her singing credit. Song after song, she uses all the tools in a songster’s bag—volume-and-hush, voicing, dynamics, tone, rhythm, and her own evocative songs.
Impressively, at times she “becomes” the music, even songs she didn’t write. A rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” for instance, was so dynamic, so emotional, it’s as if she was wearing that sad, rockin’ bluesy ballad like a second skin.
Danika stopped me in my tracks, and I listen to a lot of live music. Most I hear are competent performers, but this woman is just…wow, a vocal powerhouse.
Small-town girl, meet the city
So I started asking questions, and it turns out Danika is a small-town girl, raised in tiny Remsen, a quiet western Iowa town of 1600. But for the past seven years she has been pursuing her dream of being a professional musician in Nashville.
Nashville has the chops—musician talk for “legitimate authority”—to be home to some of the most talented songwriters and musicians in the country. Here you can hear country-tinged bluegrass and blues to folk and straight-up Rock ’n Roll.
In short, it is musical Mecca. But it also has the reputation for chewing up wannabes and those just plain unlucky. Success in the music business is both a 100 yard dash and an Iron Man triathlon, often at the same time.
Not only does she have regular gigs in this highly competitive city, but Danika tours when she can. In addition, she regularly performs overseas for the armed forces, thanks to the commitment of her two brothers in the Air Force, who opened her eyes to the need.
She has sung the national anthem on television to a packed baseball stadium on July 4th, and opened for big-time country acts like Martina McBride, Dan + Shay, David Cook, A Thousand Horses, Dylan Scott, and Michael Ray.
Her schedule is often packed full, and you know what? She’s making it. So let’s meet Danika Portz.
You grew up in Remsen, Iowa, population 1600. Now that you live in Nashville, what do you think you brought with you?
I’m so thankful for having been born and raised in small-town Iowa. I think being from such a small, hard working community taught me a lot of valuable lessons that I carry with me today.
What does that mean?
I’m not afraid of hard work and know that anything worth having usually isn’t handed to me on a silver platter. Having a midwestern work ethic has helped me immensely since moving to Nashville. I think that might be the number one reason people give up the dream here. I was willing to be uncomfortable—work five jobs different jobs, seven days a week. I was willing to grind to make it happen. I think I can attribute that to my upbringing in Remsen. I was surrounded by hard working people and that work ethic has led me to where I am today.
Your website’s welcome video presents you as a little girl growing up who can’t help but sing. Who moved you along?
My mom was always singing around the house while we were growing up (actually, she still does). I think the fact that she was so open about music lead me to have the same mentality about it. I still break into song at random (laughs).
My mom is the one who arranged my first “tour.” It was to all the area nursing homes. I was eight. My cousin, Laura and I sang Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen karaoke and when we needed a break, my brother and cousin, Ryan, would tell knock-knock jokes. The old people loved us and we were a hit. (But so was the pet goat someone brought in the day before, so….)
What did singing the national anthem for 40,000 people at major league baseball game mean to you?
It was awesome and went so fast! It was my first time on national TV so that was pretty cool. I actually didn’t tell many people about it beforehand. It was kind of a last-minute deal so after it was over, my phone was blowing up because the Milwaukee Brewers were playing the Minnesota Twins...and being from Iowa, a lot of my family are Twins fans who just happened to be watching the game when my face showed up on the screen!
That was kind of a cool moment when I got back to my phone and had a bunch of “DID I JUST SEE YOU ON TV SINGING FOR THE TWINS GAME?!?!” text messages.
You often perform for armed forces overseas—how did that come about?
You know, I had heard of Armed Forces Entertainment and thought it would be a really cool opportunity. So I applied online and heard back rather quickly that I would be a perfect fit for the troops deployed to Southwest Asia! So I immediately wrote back that I was 100 percent down to do that ... and then I had to google what in the world was considered Southwest Asia...(laughs)
Having two brothers in the military has made these trips even more meaningful. I’ve met people who have deployed with them—and even fellow Remsenites—on the other side of the world.
It’s definitely a highlight of my career as I’ve now headlined seven of them and am gearing up for my eighth tour there.
The people we meet and the chance to break up the monotony for them is the best part. I just to try to take them to “Nashville” for an hour and a half and make them forget they’re in the desert—it really makes a difference.
I get messages afterwards that really move me—so as long as they’ll ask me back, I will continue to make these tours a part of my career.
Musicians always offer their influences. How have yours changed over the years?
I grew up on the artists my parents liked: Dolly Parton, John Denver, The Eagles, Billy Joel, and Elton John. And then when I was able to start sitting in the front seat of the minivan, I had control of the radio and usually listened to Top 40 pop and country.
What’s a typical day like for you?
There is no typical day. From writing, recording, scheduling and logistics, tour routing…it is a mixed bag every day.
Most songwriters must compose for their own well-being. Where does inspiration come from?
Inspiration can come from anywhere: a conversation I overhear, a phrase that someone says in just a slightly different way that makes it feel new or different or triggers another thought in my brain.
Melodies come easier for me, though. Sometimes they’re like lightening and literally come out of thin air, and sometimes I’m in a writing room and just jamming on a chord progression. When they come in like lightning though, that’s my favorite. It’s like a gift that I was just handed...they don’t always work out but a lot of times they do turn into full songs.
At the end of the day, what do you get from music/performing?
Oh, it’s my happy place for sure! I just feel confident and so full of joy. I love being able to see that on the faces of the audience members too.
I love when people are having a good time with me. I’m not there to have a good time all to myself, so my shows are very involved. They’re a two-way conversation with the audience. I want to feel that connection.
How does ‘family’ figure in these days?
I wouldn’t be where I am now without my family. My love of music came from my mom who was in a country western band while she was in high school. I grew up with her singing around the house daily, and making us silly songs to help us remember how to spell our names or remember our address/phone number if we ever got lost. Good news: it worked. (laughs)
My dad bought me my first PA system when I started doing some fairs and festivals in high school. He might not have known a lot about sound but by golly, he was the best sound man…and my fog machine was super rad!
My sister Allison has since come on the road with me from time to time, which is super fun and super helpful. They’ve all just totally believed in me and have never made me question chasing this dream as a career.
Tell me about the challenges in your life from gigs/travel/business/relationships.
Oh gosh, I mean this lifestyle is a grind. And not for the faint of heart.
I always tell people who are thinking about making the move to Nashville that you have to love the process, because if you’re only in it for the end goal or the glory, you’ll be very unhappy. Even the most “glamorous” events or moments usually have a lot of “grit”involved. But if you love what you do, it’s worth it. And I do love what I do—there isn’t anything else that would ever even remotely compare for me.
A lot of my tours are packed little bursts—maybe a week or two versus going out every weekend for just a show or two.
What’s in store for the future, do you think?
I hope to continue doing what I’m doing and continue to write meaningful songs that connect with other people. I hope to continue touring and am planning to release new music in the near future!
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