Nicole Laurenne wears two very distinct hats. By day, the 43-year-old Phoenix resident, whose real name is Nicole Laurin-Walker, is a judge in the Gilbert Municipal Court and a mom to 15-year-old twins. By night, she sings and plays keyboards and organ with her husband, Michael Walker, in two of the Valley’s most popular rock bands — The Love Me Nots and Zero Zero. The Love Me Nots sell out shows in France, where they’re signed to French record label Bad Reputation, and the couple also writes music for a licensing agency on the side. Laurenne, also a breast cancer survivor after a 2010 diagnosis, talked about how she finds a balance in her very busy life, as well as talks about five reasons why she loves living in the Valley, below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I grew up in Chicago, I went to college in Michigan, and I came to Arizona for law school at University of Arizona because they offered me a really nice scholarship. It’s cheap to live here, the weather’s nice, you meet a guy, pass the bar, and you just stay. I moved up to Phoenix for my first job.
You became a judge when you were only 27. What was your career like up until that point?
I was in Phoenix clerking for a judge at Maricopa County Superior Court while I studied for the bar exam. It was a great experience, but there was a hiring freeze throughout the entire county, so everyone was having trouble getting the government lawyer jobs they wanted. I got a job offer as a prosecutor in the tiny town of Gilbert, out in the middle of nowhere, and I thought, “What the heck? It doesn’t pay much, but it’s a place to start.” So I became a prosecutor back when there was only one judge for the whole town — and only two prosecutors.
How common is it for a 27-year-old to become a judge?
Pretty uncommon. I was already working in Gilbert as a prosecutor when the job came open, appearing in court before the same judge day in and day out, and when they needed another judge, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. You stick with your entry level job, and you work your butt off, and some interesting things can happen down the line.
Why not live in Gilbert rather than downtown Phoenix?
I’ve lived downtown for a long time, and it feels like home to me. My kids are close to other family members in our neighborhood. There’s also a certain psychological freedom in not having to see your defendants accidentally at the grocery store or at school events. Especially with what I do in my other line of work with my bands, it’s nice to have that physical separation. It clears my head at the end of the day.
You purposely didn’t talk publicly about your career as a judge up until recently.
I didn’t want to offend anybody on either side of the business. I didn’t want to make musicians feel uncomfortable in the presence of a criminal court judge, or make our town council think I didn’t take my judicial duties seriously. Everybody who I ever worked with has always known about my music — in fact, there were lots of lawyers involved in some of my past bands. It just wasn’t publicized. Now that it’s gone public, it’s been so nice for me, actually — the feedback I’ve received from people has just been heartwarming. People write to me from all kinds of different perspectives and tell me that I’ve helped them feel free to do what they want to do and to be themselves. It’s pretty cool. It hasn’t changed anything in the courtroom at all for me — I’m still doing all the same things I did before in both roles.
Have there been any negative effects to being open about both your roles?
Not yet, knock on wood.
When did you first become interested in being a judge?
I always had a better time with the liberal arts side of school than the math and science side. I come from a whole family of scientists and mathematicians and doctors, but I don’t fit into that mindset very well. While I was at the University of Michigan, I took a psychology class and got interested in deviant behavior and criminal psychology, so I went to law school after that to follow that interest. It’s not a big money-making proposition to work for the government, but every day, when I was clerking for that judge back in the very beginning of my career, you just didn’t know what you were going to see. One day, someone’s throwing up in court, and one day, someone’s threatening someone, and one day, someone’s crying with relief. It’s just this bizarre forum where you see a lot of life playing itself out, and, on the other hand, it’s also very routine and comfortable and structured. I think it’s almost the perfect profession for me to be in.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in court?
I hate to say it, but we’ve had our fair share of people who hear voices and talk to people who aren’t there. Mental illness is all around us every day in the courtroom, and you never really get used to it. I still think that there isn’t anywhere in the world that really has a good grasp on dealing with mental illness. That’s the final frontier of social work and criminal justice research at this point. I’d love to see more done in that arena. On a lighter note, it always entertains us when a DUI defendant comes to court in a Pabst Blue Ribbon T-shirt. That kind of thing happens a lot, too.
How would you characterize yourself as a judge?
I feel like I’m very open-minded. Anybody can walk into my life, and I don’t pre-judge them. People are rarely what they portray to the world.
Do you have any techniques on how to strengthen your intuition to be a good judge?
One thing all judges struggle with is that we can never completely know the people who come before us. They come in off the street, and we instantly have to figure out if they’re lying to us, what their backgrounds are, what they are all about. I think the only thing that helps intuition is plain old experience — the only thing you have to go off of is common sense.
Is there anything about female judges that makes them stand out?
No. I’ve always been someone who never thought men and women were all that different on the inside. I know judges of every gender, color and age, and in my experience, none of that really tells you what kind of a judge that person is going to be.
What are your professional goals now?
I really like teaching. I do a lot of teaching through the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court. They bring me on board to teach other judges. I’d like to be able to help with the public image of our profession. Most of the judges I know take their jobs very seriously and put a lot into it. They stay awake at night hoping they did the right thing, they look into people’s eyes and really try to figure out how to resolve the problems that come before them. I don’t think people think of judges that way. I wrote a kids book a few years ago about the U.S. government called, What’s America?, and it’s been fun to see how that opens up kids’ eyes. When we tour or vacation, I always try to visit the local courthouses and just watch from the back row for a little while. It gives you perspective to see what goes on in people’s lives in any given community. Everyone should try it.
Have you ever made a ruling you regret?
I was on the bench just a couple months. We had a case where a woman was cited for a barking dog in Gilbert, which was charged as a crime under the Gilbert Municipal code. She had already served some amazingly long jail sentence for some other jurisdiction, and the prosecutor told me they didn’t want any more penalties, for this last case she had to resolve before she got out of jail. I said that was fine, “I’ll give you 30 days credit for the jail time you’ve served, and we’ll call it even.” Everyone went away satisfied with the outcome. I don’t recall the publication, but later that week, a headline read, “Judge gives woman 30 days in jail for barking dog.” I was mortified. That was bad enough, but I actually got fan mail from people who loved that there was a judge sticking it to those annoying barking dog owners. I was even more mortified. It was a good lesson for a new judge — even if the intent of the ruling is good, it can look all wrong on paper, and that’s what gets publicly recorded for posterity. Now, before I pronounce any decision, I am careful to word it the way I want it to go down in the books under my name.
What’s your first memory of being interested in being a musician?
We had a tiny toy piano, and my family would go on road trips and put the piano in the back of the van. That was before seatbelt laws. I loved playing on it and singing showtunes and driving my family nuts with it.
What is your musical training like?
I started classical piano lessons in 4th grade, pretty late by serious classical music standards. I started competing around the state of Illinois, and it quickly became several hours a day of practicing and traveling all over for competitions. My mom always wanted to make sure I didn’t take my music too seriously, though. She made sure my piano teacher always gave me some fun pop stuff along with the classical pieces.
Before The Love Me Nots, were you in any bands?
Yes. Before The Love Me Nots, I was in a band called Blue Fur, which was made up of several local attorneys. We played around the state for about 7 years, playing every show we could, usually for free, both originals and cover songs, and released two albums. I played keyboards and sang. Michael, who is The Love Me Nots’ guitar player and now my husband, heard that band online, came to see us, and brought me on as singer for this new project he wanted to start. We started up The Love Me Nots in 2006.
What are the benefits and challenges to working with your romantic partner?
It’s really been good for us. I don’t really see any downside. We are a 24/7 kind of couple, doing everything together as much as possible. We wake up and play music all day long on the weekends — whether it’s writing or recording or touring — and during the rest of the week, we play local shows, but live our normal lives taking care of the girls and going to work and doing laundry like everyone else. It flows very naturally from one thing to another.
Why did you feel the need to start Zero Zero last fall?
The Love Me Nots wanted to take a little break — we had been touring like crazy for the last 7 years and went to France three or four times just last year alone. Our label in France wanted a new record, and we didn’t feel like we were inspired enough yet to put something great out. We decided to take a step back and breathe. Even when I went through breast cancer a few years ago, I was writing all the way through my surgeries and recorded an album in Detroit while I was still recovering. So this past year has been the first time we’ve actually paused. We’ve now started writing a new Love Me Nots record — we already have four demos ready. And after taking a break, we’re more excited than ever to get back to it.
Did you ever picture Zero Zero as just being an evolution of The Love Me Nots?
Zero Zero blends lots of keyboard/synth-y sounds with some garage rock ideas and adds a dance beat. It’s a whole different vibe. One of the things The Love Me Nots found was that we kept getting put into a certain niche and appealing to a certain kind of fan. We are huge fans of garage rock, but there’s this whole other side to us our musical selves love to mess around with that doesn’t appeal to that crowd, and we want to be able to put it out there. But it’s still Michael, and it’s still me, and we can’t help sounding like The Love Me Nots a little bit.
What have been the challenges to rebranding and going a different direction?
The challenges haven’t been too big yet, because The Love Me Nots are still on hiatus. Once we fire back up and get the next Love Me Nots album out and get to touring again, we’ll see. Both bands are like our children — we don’t love one more than the other, and they do different things and have very different paths. We’ll be working with our label, 80/20 Records, with both bands hopefully, which will also make it easier to maintain both tracks over time.
Do you see yourself doing both bands at the same time, or will you alternate?
I think we’ll be able to do both at the same time. We’re very lucky to have an amazing, dedicated crew and fans who are just always there for us no matter what city we go to or what style of music we’re tackling. We’ve been taking Zero Zero to L.A. this year often, and people are coming out and supporting it. Anything is possible if you want to do it badly enough. We’ll figure it out, like we always do.
How are The Love Me Nots fans responding to Zero Zero?
The typical Love Me Nots fan seems to love the guitar sound and the songwriting, but the electro elements and beats throw them a little — but most music fans are multifaceted, too, like us. I don’t think anyone fits into a niche perfectly, and a lot of them just love cranking, hot, loud, thumping music. A lot of the same radio stations are playing both of our bands, even on the same playlists.
How are your vocals differentiated in both bands?
With The Love Me Nots, there’s a screamier element to it, more guttural, hair-shaking. With Zero Zero, it’s a little more melodic and more electronic-sounding. I’m singing through a pedal and singing a little more softly. The Magic Wands, Phantogram, the Sneaker Pimps and Sleigh Bells influence my vocals on Zero Zero a lot. I always loved an ethereal, whispery vocal over a heavy beat.
Do you have any vocal training?
No. My daughter took some lessons recently, and I listened in on every little tip, learning to do vocal exercises and work on breath support. I’m not confident about my vocals at all and never have been, because I don’t have that training. Everything I know about my voice has pretty much only come from suggestions from fans, reviewers, producers, and bandmates. I try to listen hard to what people are saying and adjust what I do.
Something that stands out to me about your bands is your strong sense of fashion and image. Why are those factors so important?
Michael is an artist by trades. He worked at The Arizona Republic and Zia Records as a graphic designer. For him, the blend of sound and visual is really important, and even though most people might not realize it, music today is a very visual experience. Even when we were first starting The Love Me Nots, we were drawing dresses on cocktail napkins and trying to figure out how to make the show a whole physical experience and not just sound.
Where is your favorite place to shop for clothes for your band?
I like to go up and down Melrose in L.A. Whenever we’re on tour there, I love to take a couple hours and hit up all the crazy vintage and consignment stores, where you will never find yellow neon over-the-knee boots for $7 anywhere else. We are also hardcore eBay browsers, and I love Buffalo Exchange and Goodwill stores here in the Valley. I like finding stuff that no one else is wearing.
When are The Love Me Nots expected to come back into action?
We’re talking about a Yucca Tap Room show this summer. Our The Love Me Nots drummer lives in Brooklyn, so when he’s in town, we have to be as productive as we can, so we’re also going to spend that time rehearsing the new record.
What is your relationship like with your French label, Bad Reputation?
They handle all of our overseas stuff. They’re really hard-working people who literally signed us after hearing us once in Paris. They’re sweet people who cook for us and travel with us and take care of everything. The market in Europe is very discerning. When you play a show in Europe, they know every note, they sing every note along with you, and there’s no room for error. You want to bring new material to that type of crowd and not just keep going back with the same set. So that’s why we all agree we need a new record before our next European tour.
What is the biggest catalyst to making you so big in Europe, and why do you think you’re so big there?
Bad Reputation signing us has had a lot to do with it. The plane lands, and we don’t even have time to put our bags down, and the hotel lobby is full of journalists waiting for interviews. The label is really good at making sure people know about The Love Me Nots and getting us into great venues and exposing us in ways we never would have the guts to do on our own. I’m sure that’s 99.9 percent of it. It’s also a different market there. They don’t seem to care how old you are, what gender you are, or what you’re wearing — they just love music that’s loud and brutal and huge-sounding. Every time we play there, the other bands on the bills blow our minds and raise the bar for us.
Do you ever see yourself living in France?
Yeah. If the opportunity knocks, we would never say no to it. You have to go where life takes you. Everything could end in a minute, and you have to live big, as much for yourself as for your kids so they can learn from it, too, to get busy and work hard and not just follow your dreams but chase them down and make it happen, so you have no regrets later on.
Why did Zero Zero decide to sign with local label 80/20 Records?
Our labelmates PALMS are one of our favorite bands in town. They signed with 80/20 first, and we were intrigued by that. It’s so much work running your own label, and we’ve spent so much time and money supporting The Love Me Nots, so it’s kind of nice with Zero Zero to say, “OK, let’s look at this with an open mind. There are guys right here in town who know what they’re doing, they share our view of the current music industry, they’re inspiring, not to us but to everyone, and we genuinely like each other.” To most people’s eye, they aren’t a “label” really in the old sense of the word; they are a new model for the digital music industry, which is what we wanted for Zero Zero. The 80/20 payout is kind of cool, too, I’m not going to lie, and it’s great to be able to get together in person over coffee with the whole band there for once. All of our Paris label dealings are done over e-mail, with a bit of a language and culture barrier, and time difference and all of that. 80/20 is literally standing there at all of our shows. They are exactly the support we needed right now for this project.
What inspired the names Zero Zero and The Love Me Nots?
Zero Zero started as a side project that was just going to be a fun EP to throw together. We were flipping through a coffee table book about LA punk clubs back in the 80’s, and one of them was called Zero Zero. It fit — we were starting over from zero, more or less, with something that felt completely different but still had a lot of retro influences peeking out. The Love Me Nots came from knots in my hair after one of our shows, when Michael said, “It looks like you have love me knots in your hair today.”
What are your stress management tips?
Michael is my stress management. When we first met, I can honestly say I was probably one of the most stressed-out people in this town. I wasn’t good at juggling everything, I was never satisfied with anything I was trying to accomplish, and yet I wasn’t willing to let anything go, either. I didn’t sleep much, I wouldn’t eat right, I worried all the time about everything. And then I met Michael. People who know him would probably be surprised to hear that he’s a very calm, well-adjusted person. He likes quiet, he likes closing the door and shutting out the world around us, he likes to hang out and make me laugh and put his feet up and barbecue on the weekends. He knows how to relax and keep things in balance. When you learn how to do that, it changes everything. Your bands are happier, your kids are happier, your house is happier. You stop worrying yourself to death. Everything comes together when you’re happy driving to work and not stressing about a million things, and I can trace my newfound ability to one thing — that’s him.
What are the biggest lessons you learned from having breast cancer?
I was in a little bit of a unique position because my dad had had breast cancer and even had a mastectomy himself. My cousin had a double mastectomy too, so I knew cancer was in my family and that I was a likely candidate for it someday. When my dad went through it, I did a lot of reading, and I heard about this woman who did a preventative mastectomy when she found out she had the breast cancer gene. When I got my diagnosis, which incredibly they caught at stage 0, and tested positive for the breast cancer gene, I thought, “I’m done having kids, I’m in a great marriage, I know who I am, we have great doctors here in the Valley. I’m just going to get rid of everything in me that could be affected by this gene.” We started taking out parts and rebuilding the ones I needed. 6 months and 3 surgeries later, I was back. I didn’t have to do chemo or radiation, my doctor came up with a perfect hormone replacement for me, and it’s been basically a seamless recovery for me. So here’s the lesson: don’t be afraid. The way they can manage diseases now is amazing, if you get on it quickly and tackle it head-on.