Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Andrew Quist
It doesn’t take but a few minutes listening to Nicki Bluhm to realize you’re in the presence of a real talent possessed of one of the most winning, emotionally textured voices to come along in some time, a singer that crawls inside the material with obvious passion and purpose. It’s nigh impossible to not think of ground breaking ladies like Linda Ronstadt, Tracy Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, and the quality, rootsy, oh-so-easy-to-dig music she and her band, The Gramblers, make only reinforces this impression. Rock, soul, pop, country and blues are grist for their mill, which recalls the egalitarian spirit of 1970s radio, where having a broad range and good ears for hooks and harmonies were virtues and not just a challenge to drones that try to compartmentalize music these days.
|Nicki Bluhm by Andrew Quist|
Bluhm’s diversity shines through very brightly on her sophomore album, Driftwood (released February 1 on Little Knickers), an addictively listenable, mature work that moves Nicki several steps along from her 2008 debut Toby’s Song (JamBase review). Starting with the cinematically rich hit single waiting to happen “Carousel,” the album moves seamlessly into classic country (“Stick With Me,” “Women’s Prison”), soaring pop (“Jetplane”), jelly rollin’ barroom fare (“Barbary Blues”), Karen Carpenter territory (“Figure You Out”), Janis Joplin-esque heat (“Kill You To Call”) and more, all of it delivered with sweet singing, artful arrangements and inviting production (courtesy of hubby Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips and Bay Area studio secret weapon Dave Simon-Baker). The album also features well placed guest turns from Jackie Greene, Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone and members of ALO.
Driftwood is an album one leaves on repeat because one spin simply won’t do. It’s the kind of record one sings along to, perhaps a little too loudly for polite company, and pushes into the hands of friends because it’s so bloody satisfying. Driftwood puts the lie to folks that say they don’t make them like they used to; this is classic stuff delivered in a classic manner. And at the heart of it is a young lady who belts ‘em out with a wholly winning combination of sweetness and edge, the words ripping free from some place deep within her, a voice laying bare the soul that powers it.
JamBase: The first impression I had of you, right from the time I slipped on your debut, was here was an artist shooting for a more classic model of things than many of your peers.
Nicki Bluhm: That’s most certainly what I’m going for. A lot of the classic, timeless records I picked up from my parents and Tim – early Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt - all the music in this vein has this timelessness to it that you don’t really come by often in music today. And my goal is to make music that will last and stand the test of time. One thing about music that’s so amazing is how it lives on forever. It’s really important when you make music to do it honestly. It’s like a tattoo - it never goes away.
JamBase: Prior to the 20th century this wasn’t the case but after wax cylinders, vinyl and so on, it’s now possible for music to live on forever.
Nicki Bluhm: I was just listening to this Townes Van Zandt record from 1969 as I drove to L.A., and that was 10 years before I was born and I just love it. I think of him in his grave and how many people are listening to the records of dead people and how cool that is, how cool that legacy is.
It’s kind of cool that you get to make music with your partner. There’s something special to your relationship beyond being a married couple that emerges in the music you create together.
I’d agree with that. I really wouldn’t be doing any of this if I hadn’t met Tim and he hadn’t encouraged me. We do have a loving personal relationship but we also have a professional relationship as well. I’m really lucky to be close to someone I’ve admired for a really long time – creatively and musically. It’s been inspirational and intimidating at the same, which creates an interesting experience. Here I am writing songs in the living room and in the next room is one of my favorite songwriters. It can be intimidating but then he pops his head out of the office and says, “Hey, try that again! What was that?” It’s really encouraging, more than your mom or your friends saying that. It’s a very good double-edged sword [laughs].
I can imagine it’s sometimes nerve-wracking to have someone I consider one of the great songwriters of our time as your sounding board. Tim is as good as it gets. But on the plus side, you two get to collaborate on music, especially with Tim producing your albums.
|Tim & Nicki Bluhm by Andrew Quist|
Luckily, we have really similar tastes and we can communicate well what we want to hear in a song with very few words. I can just say a mood or reference someone or a record and he just understands what I’m saying. It’s a neat, intuitive thing we have, and I think Greg [Loiacono, Mother Hips] and Tim have that, too. It’s an unspoken understanding that can be expressed minimally and he captures it.
You show off a lot more colors on Driftwood than Toby’s Song. The music in your head is clearly evolving.
The first record was very raw and more a collection of songs. I’d never had any experience recording or even writing music before – “Toby’s Song” was the first song I’d ever written. Going back to the intimidation factor, I went into to record those songs and trusted Tim and did as I was told. That was fine but on the second record I sort of understood how the recording process worked and to really come prepared on how I wanted things arranged. I feel like the songs were a lot more well-crafted on the second record, and I was a lot more involved in shaping what I wanted. That said, a lot of other input contributed to the development of the record – obviously Tim and Dave Simon-Baker, but with a largely holistic approach from a number of people, with Tim and Dave being the ringleaders.
Another difference between Driftwood and your debut is your band, The Gramblers, get showcased on the new material.
One of the goals for this record was to have some common thread throughout the record as opposed to being just a collection of songs, and the musicians involved became that through line. Even though the songs are often very different styles, the players are so good that they imbue the vibe of the record, and that’s where the consistency lies.
Your lead guitarist Deren Ney is a friendly ghost floating throughout Driftwood. That guy’s playing is always so tasty.
|Deren Ney by Andrew Quist|
He’s really special, and he spends a lot of time on his own working on his parts. He definitely cares a lot. And he walks that fine line any guitar player does of playing enough and not too much, and he’s very tasteful and seems to know the boundaries and is always incredibly appropriate. He lends a lot to the band, not just playing guitar but writing songs – he wrote “Carousel” and “Barbary Blues” – and he’s an incredibly thoughtful person. Not only does he write songs and let me sing them but he writes songs with me in mind. He truly tries to write songs with my thinking and style in mind.
I don’t think he’ll be the only one to do that. It’s partially why I think Linda Ronstadt comes up as a primary touchstone for you. She didn’t write a lot of her songs but many tunes were written for her to sing or brought to her to do a version. She was loved by the likes of Neil Young and Lowell George because of her way with a song, and I think you have a lot of the same mojo.
There’s something to singing someone else’s song that’s just comfortable; I almost prefer it. It’s a little less vulnerable, and there’s a carelessness I have when I sing someone else’s song. I can interpret it the way I want to without feeling it’s about this particular experience, person or event that happened to me personally.
There’s something fun about putting on the garb of another songwriter without all the baggage.
I love listening to Linda Ronstadt records. Her voice is incredible and she’s someone I’ve studied. She’s so powerful and amazing. More than wanting to sing her songs or hit the same high-marks she did, I see her as the ultimate female vocalist. And I love the early Bonnie Raitt stuff, where she sounds so effortless and natural. And I like singing some of the songs she wrote and some of the old blues songs she covered.
Both Ronstadt and Raitt are cool examples to study because they managed to have this great combination of being feminine and vulnerable and being really strong and in charge in an industry that’s still harder for women to crack than men.
|Nicki Bluhm by Andrew Quist|
That’s something that definitely draws me to them, the fact that they can be strong, powerful women yet they’re still ladies. You can hear their vulnerability and their strength. There’s a realness in the way they sound that’s really appealing to me.
I feel incredibly lucky because I have this amazing group of friends and musicians that always seem to be available to play with me. I can’t express how much support I’ve felt from the San Francisco Bay Area community of musicians. The bottom line is I’ve felt very well taken care of by the musicians in the Bay Area. I couldn’t sing without a band, and they’ve been incredible. The collection of musicians that have allowed this to happen for me makes it feel easy. I have a long road ahead of me – that’s for certain – but I’m off to an incredibly good start because of this amazing support from all these wonderful musicians and friends.
I think musicians are drawn to the vibe in your music, which consistently feels honest and quite human.
There are a lot of emotions caught up in songs, and I think it’s important to allow room for people to relate to different aspects. I think a lot of people find solace in music. Music and songs have gotten me through a lot of tough times. I just hope my music does that for some people.
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