The Arizona Republic (2012)
"Rock 'n' Robe"
by John Faherty
VIDEO BY MICHAEL CHOW
Judge by day, Love Me Nots' Nicole Laurenne rocks by night
Five days a week, the judge renders opinions on drunk drivers and shoplifters and wife abusers. She issues orders of protection and puts people in jail.
Then at night, or on weekends, or whenever she can, the rock star dresses in short skirts and go-go boots. She stands before a microphone, and she sings.
Nicole Laurin-Walker's two passions, law and music, could not be less similar.
As a Gilbert Municipal Court judge, a position she achieved at the age of 27, it is Laurin-Walker's job to remain a aloof, objective, to consider only the facts of the case.
As a 42-year-old singer and songwriter for the Love Me Nots, her job is intimate instead of aloof; subjective instead of objective; and all about the feelings.
In court, she loses herself. On stage, she finds herself again.
"As a judge, I am not allowed to be emotional, to pick sides, to blow a gasket," Laurin-Walker said. "You lose yourself. Performing lets it out. Lets me arrive again."
The judge grew up Lake Zurich, Ill. in the far reaches of suburban Chicago. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1990, and got her law degree from the University of Arizona in 1993.
While she studied for the bar exam, Laurin-Walker worked as a bailiff in the Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Schwartz. From her first day in that courtroom, she knew that she wanted to be a judge.
"I liked the judge's ability to take in all of the arguments and information and then retreat into his chambers, where he would collect his thoughts, do his research, weigh everything he had heard, bounce some things off of my untrained ear, and then quietly take the bench and pronounce things the way he saw it."
After passing the bar, Laurin-Walker worked as an assistant town prosecutor in Gilbert, then as a Deputy Maricopa County Attorney. She returned to Gilbert to work on appeals for the prosecutor's office until 1997, when she was hired as a judge.
"Being a lawyer, especially a criminal prosecutor, requires one to think and speak quickly, to be a bit confrontational at times," Laurin-Walker said. "Being a judge is a much more civilized, thoughtful, calm experience. It fits my nature better, I guess."
She has been on the bench ever since, and is no rush to step down. She says the caseload is large and challenging, the courthouse is brand new and she loves the people she works with.
There was only problem. "It's a bit confusing to reach your career goal at 27."
An hour before taking the stage on a gig last summer, the rock star sat on a couch in the basement of Cooperstown in downtown Phoenix. The Love Me Nots were supposed to have played at the Foundry, a new venue, but last-second plumbing problems necessitated the move to Cooperstown.
Polly May, a friend, is working a flat iron to straighten Laurin-Walker's jet-black hair. Next will be stage makeup, and Polly says she is trying for a look that will be "part Emily Strange, part Cleopatra." The two women laugh, but the concept isn't random; the band's intentional retro-rocker look pays homage to rock history, humor and, well, marketing.
It is something Laurin-Walker is willing to do.
"I don't know. I like hanging out with Polly. But this gets old," Laurin-Walker said as her friend finished with her face. "Especially when you have to do it yourself in creepy bathrooms and weird hotels. Plus, I was never very good at it."
In 2006,Laurin-Walker formed the Love Me Nots with her husband, Michael Walker, who is a guitarist, and an online advertising designer for azcentral.com.
She describes the band's sound as "a modern take on garage rock."
A piece of paper in her hand, she says, is not a set list. It is the contract for the night's performance.
She may be one few lead singers who reads -- and actually understands -- every contract.
"Not that any of this applies anymore," she says scanning the document. "The changed venue makes it all meaningless."
After her hair and makeup, she dresses in a short black dress, her waist cinched with a thick black belt. One shoulder is exposed.
Laurin-Walker looks in a full-length mirror and turns to Polly. Just one more thing. She points to her chest and says: "I want you to hide the breast cancer scar, right there."
In July of 2010,Laurin-Walker went in for a routine mammogram.
"I didn't even give it a second's thought. A mammogram is just what you do," she said. But Laurin-Walker's routine screening suddenly became not at all routine.
"I came out of it with a breast-cancer diagnosis."
The cancer had been caught as early as possible, however, and after surgery and reconstruction, Laurin-Walker is healthy. But the experience changed her, both as the mother of twin teenage daughters and as a musician.
She took five months off for recovery, and then the band started playing again. But something was different. They practiced more. They rewrote songs. The band's old drummer returned.
The music just seemed a little more important.
"This whole thing can end at any time," Laurin-Walker said. "So do what you can, while you can do it."
In 2011, the band released its fourth album, "The Demon and the Devotee." The Love Me Nots also toured Europe twice, and actually made some money.
"Not much, but it was the first time more came in than went out," she said.
The Love Me Nots are particularly popular in Europe. In December of 2009, the French version of Rolling Stone magazine printed a pages-long spread on the band, writing:
"Departing from the niche of Sixties' garage retro, The Love Me Nots, two girls and two boys from Arizona, have progressively evolved into a powerful, melodic, seductive rock outfit ... The garage doors are now open."
In courtroom 6 of the Gilbert Municipal Court building, there are nine men, each having a bad day.
They are wearing shackles and striped uniforms. They have spent the night in jail, and look tired and grumpy.
They are all in Laurin-Walker's courtroom for misdemeanor criminal offenses, like driving under the influence, shoplifting, or assault.
The judge walks quietly to her seat at the bench and asks everybody to be seated.
Her first case involves a man already serving 60 days for shoplifting. He is in court this morning to face an additional charge, that of running out of a convenience store with a couple of bottles of beer.
Laurin-Walker gives him a 60-day sentence, but allows it to run concurrent with the one he is already serving.
A mother and father walk in and find their son sitting with the other defendants. The mother smiles, the father glares, the young man looks down.
He pleads guilty to driving on a suspended license. He gets five days.
Another shoplifting case. Two parole violations. Domestic abuse. It goes on all morning long.
"This is where it is all happening, in these lower courts, and yes, it is grinding," Laurin-Walker said. "We get the DUIs and the shoplifting and the domestic violence, with the victims in the back and the kids crying."
These are the days when the judge outshines the rock star.
"I can't be me," she says. "I have to leave me out of it. I am a judge."
The Love Me Nots are announced, and they waste no time.
They begin with "Dark City," then "Voice in my Head," then "End of the Line." There is minimal chatter between songs, just one hard, fast cut after another.
Standing on the stage, her left hand on the microphone, her right on her vintage Farfisa organ, Laurin-Walker holds forth in a different way. The quiet and deliberation of the courtroom is gone. The rock star plays the organ manically, and sings even moreso. She is clearly confident, clearly having fun.
Last April, Arizona Republic's critic, Ed Masley named her Laurin-Walker the best front person in the state:
"Some performers just have it," Masley wrote. "The first time you see them, you're part of the cult. You stop ordering drinks. You stop texting and talking to friends and hitting on strangers, and you watch.
Because whatever you were doing can't compete with that.
"The Love Me Nots' Nicole Laurenne is such a performer, rocking her vintage Farfisa organ and mike stand with the presence of a rock star, in total command of the stage and yet connecting with each member of the audience.
"She's sexy, too, which never hurts. But it's an old-school brand of sexy, more like Debbie Harry fronting Blondie in her prime than sexy as Rihanna fans have come to understand it."
Laurin-Walker's stage name has been Nicole Laurenne. She wanted it to be close enough to feel like hers, but different enough to help keep the judge and the rock star separate. Though friends and coworkers have always known, she is just now dropping the alter-ego and letting the two lives merge.
"Why not?" she says. "People know. It feels like the right time. It feels like me."
Says the judge. Says the rock star.