Something That Scares You: Nicki Bluhm On Going Solo, The Gramblers Future & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Nels Cline, Eric Krasno, Todd Nance, John Popper, Andrew “Red” Johnson, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco and many more. (A full archive of more than 50 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)
2017 was a year of transition and change for Nicki Bluhm, the California songbird who for nearly a decade now has captured attention on our scene as an acclaimed singer-songwriter and leader of Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers.
Of late, we’ve seen her seemingly everywhere, including as a guest of Gov’t Mule, as an occasional member of Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, as a collaborator with Amy Helm and many others — everywhere, it seems, except with the Gramblers, which have no dates booked for the foreseeable future.
2018 will see Bluhm back on the road, but as a solo performer, at least for the time being. She has a new album on the way that will take her career in a different direction, though, as she notes in our recent interview, that doesn’t mean the end of the Gramblers or anything else she’s been a part of. Here’s Nicki:
JAMBASE: So you have a new album in the works. Let’s start there.
NICKI BLUHM: Well, I enlisted a producer whom I really admire and respect, Matt Ross-Spang. I discovered him through John Baccigaluppi, who is very involved with Tape Op Magazine and also a friend. John wanted to bring Matt to California and was the one who connected the dots for us to work together. But it was so appealing for me, the idea of recording in a brand new place and somewhere that was out of my wheelhouse, and somewhere just fresh and new.
When I met with Matt, I was on a writing trip to Nashville, and he was telling me about his work at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis. It was a place Sam Phillips created after Sun Records, and Matt has been a huge part of reviving it and kind of bringing it back to being a full recording studio. So meeting Matt and the thought of recording in Memphis and at this historic location — I loved the newness and how different it was from California. So that’s kind of how it began.
At the time, I was looking for someone who would be a strong producer and help me select musicians to play on it, and Matt has been the right person. He’s the guy. The songs on it … I don’t want to talk too much about it because it is still in the works and a lot is T.B.D., but it’s reflective of a transitional time in my life.
JAMBASE: Do you enjoy writing with other people?
NB: It depends. I’m sort of starting to learn to. I began writing probably 10 or 11 years ago and did it solely on my own, and I got advice from people who were close to me, like band mates. When I started writing for this record, though, I wanted to branch out and collaborate with people who maybe weren’t so close to my internal world so I could get a broader perspective.
If I have the song structure and the meat of it, co-writing is really great. I’m learning as I go, though, because it’s a really vulnerable thing, especially when I write about personal things. You really show your vulnerability to people when you do this. Sometimes the sessions are great, and sometimes you really don’t get the end result you want. But what I find interesting is the human connection. If you are in a good writing session, it can be very therapeutic. A couple of the songs on this record, when I finished writing them it was like being in a therapy session, and feeling less isolated, less alone, and finding that commonality of humanity.
JAMBASE: Who is an example of a writing partner that you achieved this with?
NB: You know, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a lot of people here in Nashville. I don’t want to go into the details of my writing partners because this is all still in such an infant stage. As more is revealed about the plan for the record, there’s more to come on that. But I will say I was able to write with some people I really admire, or had known about, and also meet people for the first time and make some connections that I think will last a lifetime. So, more to come.
JAMBASE: All right, all right, bit of mystery. That’s cool. Do you expect this out in 2018?
NB: You know, again, I’m a little bit hesitant to talk too much about it. There’s still so much unknown and still to be decided. I think that will all start to come into view next year.
JAMBASE: How come this isn’t a Gramblers album?
NB: I felt … well, the songs I ended up writing were extremely personal and reflect a time in my life that, you know, I was going through a lot. At the time, I was in the band with The Gramblers and we were touring heavily and on the road a lot, and I was going through a lot personally and just felt like I needed to record these songs with a totally clean slate. It was an emotional choice of wanting to kind of not bring any known dynamics to the recording session. I really needed it to be a clean slate — energetically and emotionally.
JAMBASE: Are The Gramblers over?
NB: No. I wouldn’t say that at all. It’s definitely a time of transition and change but I would never close the door on that project. Sometimes things need a chance to breathe. I think that’s a natural cycle of life and relationships.
JAMBASE: Coming back to recent projects, you did a run of shows with Phil and The Terrapin Family Band and you’ve been playing with Phil off and on for a bit now. You seem to be enjoying this.
NB: Absolutely. Getting that call is always an honor. Getting to play with Phil is very special, and you know, it’s amazing to share a stage with a legendary musician and performer and someone I respect so greatly, and the fact that he is interested in having me on his stage. The band is really great and I love that Phil is taking a chance on all of us. He is really committed to the new generation and I find that really admirable.
JAMBASE: You met Phil a while back, right?
NB: Yeah, I think I met him through Jackie Greene and that was years ago. The first time I stood on a stage with him was maybe at The Fillmore, and I remember thinking my brother was going to freak out — he is a huge Dead fan and it’s because of his interest that I grew up listening to that music. So that was probably nine or 10 years ago and from there it was a slow build. Relationships take time, especially when you’re looking for an authentic connection with someone. Phil has become someone that I’m lucky to have in my life, not only as a musical influence but as a friend. That’s a huge honor, again, because he’s such a family person. Family is so important to him, and [Phil’s son] Grahame and I have become good friends, and it’s a great feeling to be part of all this.
JAMBASE: So you grew up with Dead music?
NB: Yeah. My brother’s 10 years older than I am, and he kind of constantly had it on. I think growing up with it means that even if I hear it now, instantly, it has a calming effect. There’s something about that music and nostalgia and connectedness that I have to my own family — it’s like a really visceral thing, and it’s great. I always say sounds and scents are the most memory-igniting things we have as humans. It’s fun for me to get to play those songs with Phil and also have personal history with them.
JAMBASE: Do you have favorite Dead material?
NB: I mean, a lot, yeah. I think probably the first record my brother hipped me to was American Beauty, but I am actually partial to Workingman’s Dead. I love that country influence. “Easy Wind” is definitely one of my favorites — the rawness of it, Pigpen’s vocal.
I hadn’t spent much time with Terrapin Station and when we went to do that at Lockn’, I really dug into that record. Of course I knew “Samson & Delilah” and “Dancing In The Street,” but to steep myself in it was a cool experience and getting to perform that was pretty surreal. That’s definitely one that will stay with me.
JAMBASE: What kind of preparation and rehearsal went into that Lockn’ set?
NB: My preparation was just really listening to it. There are some oddities on that record and it’s just something I needed to steep myself in. Leading up to Lockn’ I was in Nashville and the band was in California, so for me the rehearsals were very slim, just onsite and just once before the gig. But the band is so solid. Honestly, because there are so many versions of those songs — and what makes that music so beautiful — you can’t really prep. I have studied the records, but Bob [Weir], I’m sure he didn’t go back and revisit his original recording — he’s playing these songs the way they’ve morphed over time.
Having a sense of flexibility onstage is something that I really came to realize was necessary. Letting go of what you think it should be, and allowing in what it is. That’s a really great lesson for life. We have this tendency to want to control everything, and there’s a lot we can’t control, and that’s what’s so beautiful about the Dead — that acceptance of letting go of control.
JAMBASE: So what do the next six months or so look like for you in terms of shows?
NB: So, the next run I have is opening shows for Josh Ritter starting in Texas and going up the West Coast and ending in Colorado. I will do opening sets as a solo performer. It’s something 10 years ago that I had started to do, very early in my career, and I was so uncomfortable and intimidated being onstage alone that I quickly got a guitar player and then a band. Now, 10 years later after a lot of experience and change, I’m finding myself back in this place of vulnerability, and instead of running from it, I’m really wanting to embrace it and face it and share these songs with audiences. It’s something that I wanted to do and prove to myself I could do alone.
JAMBASE: What do you think changed about you to get you to arrive back at this place? Just time?
NB: Yeah. Time. I think so. Sometimes life just goes in a way that leads you to these places and you don’t really know why. Trying to be my authentic self is my goal right now.
JAMBASE: Among recent collaborations you were also part of Amy Helm’s Skylark: A Night of Songbirds. That seemed really special.
NB: That was amazing and very special. Amy was amazing. Being in a band of 10 women was so incredible — if I could do that every day of my life, I would. We were saying, this is the sorority all of us always wished we were in: a warm, welcoming, supportive, encouraging environment. I think that energy really reflected on stage. We only did a few shows, so I hope that happens again.
JAMBASE: Some of the other associations you’ve had in the last few years, and I’m thinking of things like what you did with Ryan Adams and the Infamous Stringdusters … are there any of those you’re looking to return to? Any that stand out as something you’d really like to do again?
NB: I’m just really excited to do my own thing, to be honest. Obviously playing with Ryan Adams and the Infamous Stringdusters was fantastic — one of my favorite side projects. But that also gives me motivation to share what I have. It was so incredible. Learning Ryan’s catalog was incredible, and he speaks from such a depth. It inspired me. I feel really ready. I’m scared, but you’re supposed to do something that scares you every day, right? Be courageous? You have to practice courage. I have to practice doing my own thing. I don’t know what it’s going to look like or if it’s going to be any good, but I have to try. I have to put myself out there, and you know, take it from there.
JAMBASE: What are you doing today that scares you?
NB: [laughs] This interview.
JAMBASE: Come on, I’ve been gentle!
NB: No, no. Just playing guitar I think. It’s a lifelong thing for me. I love to sing. I could get up and sing in rooms full of thousands of people, but guitar is different. It’s putting time into that craft — sitting down on my porch and doing some actual practice. I ultimately think the thing I do every day that scares me is practice self-awareness — continue to discover who I am. That’s not always a pretty thing, getting real with yourself.
JAMBASE: A fair point. Practicing guitar makes me think of something I’ve always wanted to ask you, which is if you have any musical influences you think your fans would be surprised by. Are you a secret metalhead for example?
NB: [laughs] I grew up with Metallica and AC/DC, and I will get down with Back In Black any time, but I’m not a closet metalhead or anything. You know, I think the artist who speaks to me and so many people from a place of self-awareness is Joni Mitchell. Her ability to really articulate the humanness — the human qualities, the self-devotion, the questioning, the contrasts, she’s really masterful at that. I don’t know others who can write like that and do that, for me, the way she does.
JAMBASE: We always close this column with a sit-in story — you with other group or someone with one of your bands. What comes to mind, recently, that you felt was cool and collaborative?
NB: A cool and collaborative sit-in-story. Hmm. The sit-in I absolutely loved was Lockn’. Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule were playing and Ann Wilson was singing with them, I think it was “Cry Baby.” It was absolutely insane. They end their set, and the applause is huge, and then the stage — Lockn’ has a rotating stage — starts to turn and I’m standing there between Bob and Phil, and Bob just looks over at Grahame and goes [Ed note: In a flawless imitation of Weir’s speaking voice] “Well, someone tell me when to start.”
Grahame looks at him with a grin and goes, “Start!” It’s “Estimated Prophet,” and that intro is just fucking rad. It’s so macho and heavy and sounded so good. The stage turns, and it’s like however many people are at Lockn’’ — thousands of people — and I remember getting full body chills. I can’t believe I’m standing here with these guys, and Bob’s reaction is just too cool. He’s so seasoned. This is so in his blood. “Somebody tell me when to start.” [laughs]
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