Interview: Nicki Bluhm on writing about her life and her country soul

Credit: Hayden Bilson

Californian country rock mixed with Nashville country soul and a work ethic inspired by Phil Lesh.

Nicki Bluhm wears her retro influences on her sleeve, but that doesn’t mean she can’t bring a 21st Century insight to her songs which are often based on her own life experiences. Her solo career morphed into Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers before she restarted her solo career after moving to Nashville from her native California. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Nicki Bluhm over Zoom as she escaped the heat of Nashville in California to discuss her new album, ‘Avondale Drive’, which despite being a pandemic record, has a number of well know guests and musicians including A J Croce, Oliver Wood, Erin Rae, and the rhythm section of Jay Bellerose and Jennifer Condos. She also confirms that the album emphasises the classic country soul influence that has always been part of her music. Also, in case there was ever any doubt, she shares the pleasure she gets from working with Phil Lesh and Little Feat, her love of Dan Penn’s songwriting, and how she is inspired and influenced by that generation of musicians.

How are you?

I’m OK. I’m on the West Coast with a cooling sea breeze which is a lot better than being in Nashville where it is at least 100 degrees. I played a festival out here and stayed on to see family and friends and I’m in my friend’s garden with a beautiful view.

How did you deal with the pandemic?

I made a record, haha, so I guess it was a bit of a silver lining. We were all stuck at home, we were all stuck in our isolated locations, and Jesse Noah Wilson and I were living together and we decided we would just start to track until we can actually get in the studio so that we can get some ideas and songs out. We started recording from home on this little unit that Jesse had set up, and then we thought this is starting to sound pretty cool. We noticed our friends were all recording from home and we started sending tracks out with emails like, can you stick some drums on this or whatever, and that is really how we made the record. We found we could collaborate while still being isolated so we got through the pandemic pretty OK.

How did you track, what sort of arrangements were you thinking of?

A lot of it started with acoustic guitar and vocals, and then we would send tracks to like Jay Bellerose, the amazing drummer out of Los Angeles, and he had set up his whole living room like a drum studio. So he had like a big outdoor patio umbrella in his living room and his drum kits set up, and right below it he has this incredible mic collection, and his partner Jennifer Condos is an amazing bass player and she was tracking him. So people were just set up to work from home because we were all going crazy, and it ended up being this really cool thing where people recorded in their home studio, and the sound is really unique because it was recorded in all of our homes. We were able to do it all remotely, and we only did three days in a proper studio where I sang and we did overdubs, but otherwise, it was this patchwork of collaboration.

Where did the songs come from on ‘Avondale Drive’, and what was their inspiration?

My songs and my writing are always the themes of my life because I write really close to the chest. I use writing as a sort of catharsis to help me navigate through my own issues and goals. A lot of the time it means I’m stuck with this feeling of discomfort and I need to work through it and I write a song like ‘Sweet Surrender’. The songs were written over about a two to three-year period, so the earliest song written for the record was probably ‘Friends (How To Do It)’ about my beginning to move to Nashville and the rough waters of dating after a twelve-year monogamous relationship. I moved into writing during the pandemic with like ‘Wheels Rolling’, and some of those songs were written as we were recording in real-time. So it is not so much a theme other than a theme of my life.

You are known for West Coast country rock with The Gamblers and moved to Nashville for 2018’s ‘To Rise You Gotta Fall’, but there are clearly soul and R&B influences on ‘Avondale Drive’. How did that come about?

Yeah, I’ve always been influenced by soul and R&B and I think that is a natural sound for me to gravitate towards. There is stuff on older records that lends itself to that kind of sound as well, and I would definitely say I’m leading a little bit more towards country soul than country rock at this point for whatever reason, it just feels good.

Country soul seems to be the thing at the moment, quite a few people are picking up on it and looking back to the golden age.

They are great sounds to blend together, I certainly don’t think it is new or unique but it feels very good, haha.

You had a number of guests on the record, how did that come about?

A J Croce and I wrote ‘Love To Spare’ together and so it was natural for me to ask him to play on the record and sing. I just love Oliver Wood’s voice and his rhythm guitar playing, and he is an old friend of mine. He lives in Nashville as well, so it was like, hey do you want to track this, do you want to sing on it, let’s do it. So it was all very organic, and Karl Denson is also a very good friend of mine, and I sing on his records and now he has played on mine which is really great. Then there were musicians in Nashville like Eric Slick who is the drummer in Dr Dog putting it out there he wanted to play on records, and he is such a fantastic drummer it was impossible not to take advantage of that. Erin Rae has just got this angelic voice, and it was a no-brainer to ask her to sing on the country ballad. It was pure organic.

What works best for your music, Nashville or the West Coast?

I think I need both, I need the combination. As I’ve got older I’ve realised you can have many homes, you don’t just have to pick one. So my life and my home, and my animals, all that is in Nashville and I see myself staying there and I really love it there. It is a place that is equally inspiring as it is intimidating, having that kind of, you know, that reputation. Everyone in Nashville is really working their butts off to write great songs and to be great, and there is this competitive edge to it that I think is really cool. It is also really nice to get away from it, and when I come to California I’m reminded I’m a singer, but in Nashville, everybody is a singer, everyone is a musician. I think it is good to change your perspective and be in multiple places. I really love going to Telluride, I love spending time in the Pacific North West, and that is a gift that touring has given me by showing me the country and where I want to spend more of my time. That has been a gift unto itself.

Are you planning to tour again?

Yes, but I’m looking to have more of a balance because I have spent so many years in the back of a van just grinding it out, and I’m really grateful for that period of time because it has been very important and I will always tour. I will find more of a balance, doing things that sound good and are fun, rather than just being in a van slogging it out. I love to play shows, I love to play out, but I will be a little bit more selective with what I do and how I approach it. It does make me feel more connected.

Who is in your touring band?

For local gigs I’ve managed to put together this really crack band with Jamie Dick on drums, Kai Welch on keys and he also sings, Jesse Wilson who produced the record on guitar, and Ted Pecchio on bass. So that has been the Nashville band when I can get them,  I’m in a duo and I do a bunch of solo stuff as well. I’m going out with Todd Snider to support him on tour, and then I’m going out with Little Feat in the summer and the winter, Jesse and I will be doing a duo and we will play a bunch of new songs. I’m kind of showing up in different idioms and different formats and it is really fun for me to play with different people and really try to mix it up. Out here in California, I’ve just played with a band called Cosmic Twang, and they are killers, Ross James, and Scott Law are just shredders. They are a country rock band with psychedelics, and they just let me come and play my songs with them. It is great to play with different people and just mix it up after a long period with the same group.

You’ve worked with legends like Phil Lesh and you’ve mentioned Little Feat,  what have you learnt from such musicians?

It is awesome and amazing, and I just respect them, and I’m so grateful to the generation of musicians who I look up to because they are so welcoming and supportive of younger artists and they try to help expose them. Phil in particular, he can play with anybody he wants to, and he does this really amazing job of playing with people he sees something special in, regardless of their popularity. He is an incredibly kind, and giving person, and Little Feat are just the same, they are awesome and it is an honour just to be in their presence on stage and simply watch them play. Every time I stand next to Phil on stage I have to hold back tears, it is pretty cool to be that close to his sound.

What have you learnt from being close to Phil Lesh?

Work ethic, he has an incredible work ethic. When he opened his music venue and restaurant in 2012, or whenever it was, he played every night for like two years, and it is incredible to watch his stamina and dedication to the craft. I’m like, if Phil can do it, I can do it and it kind of kicked my ass to keep staying out playing shows. So yeah, he has an incredible work ethic.

What has Bill Payne given you?

He is like perpetually youthful, he has so much fun playing music, and Phil does as well. I think that is something I’ve leant from them both, that they are doing it for their own reasons, they are doing it because they love the music. Bill has the energy of a twenty year-old, he is as excited about the music as we all are. He is definitely an intoxicating person to be around, and he sings so well and his playing is just so good. He does it for the right reasons.

Do you think americana is a fair description for your music or is it potentially limiting?

I don’t know, the whole talk about genre feels so frustrating because you are trying to put things in a box and music doesn’t feel like it fits in boxes. Sometimes I joke that music should be more like movies, this song has got romantic comedy, this song has drama. I don’t know, I’m not a big fan of trying to define music, I don’t enjoy the labels of that so much. I think americana is kind of a wide umbrella and it is easy for people to say that. I’d rather people just listen to the music and form their own opinions

Who are the biggest influences on your music, and who made you want to be a songwriter?

I started singing as an interpreter, singing other people’s songs and I think that is a craft unto itself. Linda Ronstadt is an incredible example of performing other people’s songs in a way that feels like they are hers. That is a skill that I admire as much as writing it self. I think the first writer who struck me as a writer is Joni Mitchell, she is just incredible and she has the ability to be in your head experiencing your own thoughts. So she has always been a beacon of truth, truth-telling, but there are so many great songwriters, there’s John Prine and it doesn’t get much better than that. There are a lot of people who know how to craft a song, and it is a lifelong thing being able to write a song so just keep at it.

How do you approach your own songwriting, are you structured about it or do you simply wait for the muse to strike?

It depends on each song. Sometimes I come up with a melody but you don’t have your guitar because you are on a walk so you make a voice memo of the melody or a title you want to start with. Sometimes you sit down as a co-write and you intentionally sit down to write, and sometimes you wait for the muse. I think it is good to have a combination because if you always wait for the muse it might never come, haha. You do need some commitment to the craft. Steve Poltz is a great songwriter and I’ve learnt so much from him, he always told me that songwriting was like lifting weights, you have to lift the weights every day and there is a lot of truth to that because you have to commit to the craft. If you want to write well you need to read, so reading is a part of trying to write well. It is important to commit to the process, and try and do it even if it sucks. You just need to keep going back to it and again, you need to keep a balance.

This is your second solo record after the Gramblers, what is next?

Technically it is my fourth solo record, I made two independent records before the Gramblers, ‘Toby’s Song’ and ‘Driftwood’. I have some ideas cooking around, it is a little premature to say anything but I always keep writing. There are some fun ideas in the hopper, and some unique and different projects I’m working on.

Have you ever come across Dan Penn when you have been in Nashville?

Yes, I have, it is so funny I put a Dan Penn song on my last record, a song called ‘I Hate You’. It is an incredible song, and my manager didn’t want me to record it because he thought it was too bitter, and I was like, no way this is such a great song, and my producer at the time, Matt Ross-Spang, he chose that song and I just fell in love with it. Shortly after I tracked it, I was talking about putting it on the record with my manager and I went to a show by my friend A J Croce, this was back in 2017, and Penn was there because he had produced A J’s record. I ran into him, and he always wears overalls, and he has like the cutest little wife, and I was introduced to him by A J’s late wife and she said to Dan this is Nicki Bluhm and she put one of your songs on her record, ‘I Hate You’, and Dan’s wife just goes I love that song. She then explained that you think Dan he is saying I hate you, but he is really saying I’m trying to hate you and I know because it is about me. I was like I love you guys so much, and he is just amazing, what a legend, what a living legend. I then got to put the song on my record, I managed to convince my manager.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’ve been turned on to some Nashville artists that I’m really excited about, have you heard of Tristen who has just put out ‘Aquatic Flowers’ which is amazing and I love that record. Another absolutely favourite band of mine is Mapache from California, and they are kind of like the Everly Brothers with great songs and they are fantastic. If it isn’t brand new I tend to go back to the classics. I love the Steve Miller Band, and you can kind of hear that on ‘Wheels Rolling’ on my record which was definitely inspired by the Steve Miller Band. I love classic rock, and there is so much great music out there it is hard to list your tops.

Any plans to come to the UK?

I hope so, I want to so bad because I love coming over, so fingers crossed that the stars align and I can get out there.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

Just buy the record and I hope to see you soon, haha. I’m thinking of all my fans and I really appreciate being supported. For the vinyl heads out there we have blue translucent vinyl, and green for the indie retail shops, and I always like to encourage people to buy vinyl because it sounds better.

Nicki Bluhm’s ‘Avondale Drive’ is out now on Compass Records.

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About Martin Johnson 402 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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