Spotlight: Nicki Bluhm
Nicki Bluhm is a rock-and-roll natural. She’s disarmingly sincere in an age of market-fueled, machine-driven divas—a pure voice singing broadly appealing tunes with a stellar, meat-and-potatoes-satisfying, road-sharpened band at her back.
“I have no training and I didn’t go to music school,” says Bluhm. “I came into making music totally cold. I’m hanging on tight to the reins, hoping I can keep a good handle on everything.” She laughs at the metaphor.
Bluhm decided to embrace her musical calling in 2007 and, egged on by husband/producer Tim Bluhm (The Mother Hips), she’s been steadily evolving since—sculpting a song-centric, rootsy and immediate sound that harks back to the 1970s but does so with modern twists.
“Once I got a taste of it, I fell in love,” says Bluhm. “Now, to think of my life without music is almost as intense and shocking as it was when I first started doing this. I’m glad my life took this path. I’m on tour with my best friends and my husband. What’s not to like about that?”
Years of increasingly heavy touring, including gigs with bands like Gov’t Mule and crowd-sparking appearances at major festivals like Bonnaroo, Newport Folk and The Hangout, have developed Bluhm and her group The Gramblers into a true band. Yet, her recently released third album Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers is the first studio effort to reflect the San Francisco-based group’s shared mission.
“This is the first record that we didn’t use many outside musicians on,” says Bluhm. “It’s a Gramblers record and reflective of how we are now and what our live shows are like. It’s a labor of love and we all feel incredibly lucky to be in a position in our lives to pour 100 percent of our desire, faith and inspiration into this. It’s not often where you have eight people—including our crew—willing to work their asses off and make no money to play the lottery to do what we love.”
The album showcases Bluhm’s charmingly untutored style as well as the musicianship and songwriting talents of The Gramblers—Deren Ney (guitar), Dave Mulligan (guitar, harmonies), ALO’s Steve Adams (bass, harmonies), Mike Curry (drums) and Tim Bluhm (the band’s musical director, frequent keyboardist and harmony foil). Leadoff single “Little Too Late” has the saucy infectiousness of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” and B-side “Ravenous” could be a lost Stevie Nicks gem. Yet none of this is mimicry; The Gramblers simply truck in the same style of sturdy, populist-wooing fare.
“Comparisons get drawn because you physically resemble somebody or you dress like somebody, but I get compared to people I wish I sounded like,” chuckles Bluhm. “I don’t sound anything like Linda Ronstadt. I don’t have her way of belting or Bonnie Raitt’s rasp, but it’s an easy comparison to draw because aesthetically, I remind people of them. They’re definitely influences and I adore them but I don’t sound like them—even though I wish I did! At some point, you have to find your own style, like it or not, and I am what I am.”
Bluhm says the band studies great performers—past and present. “To witness a master like Paul McCartney [at Outside Lands] is a magical thing,” she says. “It’s not trying too hard, it’s not too showy and it’s personable. We’re all building our own history and learning how to best convey that as musicians. I hope I gleaned some tricks from [McCartney], or at least some of his charm rubbed off on me.” She laughs heartily again.
This past August, Bluhm made a guest appearance at the post-Outside Lands SuperJam with Dumpstaphunk and John Oates, who first took notice of The Gramblers after a video of the band covering Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” in their tour van went viral. (The video, which currently has more than two million YouTube views, was part of the “Van Sessions,” which also yielded popular takes of George Michael’s “Faith” and Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That.”) And she’s also collaborated with other Bay Area luminaries like Phil Lesh and Boz Scaggs.
But as the band’s new self-titled release indicates, this is thoroughly a group effort.
“I couldn’t do this without them,” Bluhm insists. “I started out as a solo artist and that lasted about two weeks. I hated it and it was so scary. To do it with my boys, well, there’s no going back. We have a shared sense of mission and great group camaraderie. It’s all about the music and there’s a vibe with this group of people that couldn’t happen alone. Our goal is to make music that will last and stand the test of time.”