“Our music definitely hearkens another era,” singer Nicki Bluhm has said and she certainly proves that with her new album with her band The Gramblers. Called Loved Wild Lost, her voice is as cool as a Tennessee mountain spring. But it is the way she turns a phrase that ultimately wins you over. Describing the new record as “a sincere and sophisticated collection of songs steeped in tradition, but of its own time,” songs such as “Only Always,” “Queen Of The Rodeo” and “Heart Gets Tough” swims in the traditional feel of Americana while summoning up tonal images of a young Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
But nostalgia is not the only sound Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers can conjure up. With a pinch of modernity and a slice from the Nashville pie, Loved Wild Lost is whisked with the southern California charm that infiltrates all of The Gramblers music; like a “sweet cup of tea medicating me right,” as Bluhm sings on the opening track, “Only Always.”
In a music world populated by neon lyrics, it’s a nice breeze of freshness that swirls through the music of someone who only really started her music career a few years ago when she met future husband, Mother Hips guitar/keys player Tim Bluhm. Recording her first album, Toby’s Song, as a solo artist, everyone eventually came together to form a family unit they dubbed The Gramblers and they have been recording and touring ever since.
We caught up with Nicki when the band was preparing to play in Indianapolis last week to talk about the subtle changes in their sound for the new record, the advantage of having your husband on tour and how their passing time singing in the van led to a popular series on YouTube.
So you’re out on tour
Yeah, we’re on tour. We’ve been out for almost two weeks and we’ve got another week to go.
Then what happens?
Then the summer starts and our festival season starts. We do a lot of flying (laughs). We’re going to do DelFest and Mountain Jam and a bunch of other festivals this summer. We’ll be in the United States and then Tim and I will go to Europe in the Fall. The Gramblers may go to Europe too but we’re still trying to figure that out. But we’re sort of doing this thing, doing these residencies every Tuesday in Chicago and every Thursday in Nashville in the month of April, and then everywhere in-between. And then in the Fall is when we’ll come and do a proper tour [in the States].
Your new album is quoted as having more complex arrangements than your past recordings so what exactly was involved to make the songs more complex?
There are more complexities but there’s also a lot of simplification that happened on the record too. The complexities probably come mostly from working with Magik*Magik Orchestra. We had a string section contribute to a couple of the songs on the record and that just added some really pretty texturing. That might be more of the complex components of the record.
Did you intentionally go into it like that?
We knew we wanted strings. We had worked with Magik*Magik Orchestra previously on other recordings and live stuff and Minna Choi, she does all the arrangements and conducts and she’s really an incredible musician and person. We knew that we wanted them to play on the record and we knew we wanted to have strings on the record. So that was a very intentional move.
You have a little bit of everything going on with this record in terms of the sound. You can hear San Francisco and New Orleans and Nashville and Memphis. Is that how you wanted it from the beginning or were you going for a particular vibe and it just kind of spiraled out that way?
It’s so interesting to hear you say that. I think it’s just really in the ear of the beholder. We’re from California and I think that certainly we’re influenced by other areas and we travel a lot. That’s what we do for our job is travel so it’s certainly not surprising that the influence from other places would be there. But I would say overall it’s pretty reflective of California, at least to me, to my ears.
What is the biggest difference between your songs and Tim’s songs?
Tim’s been writing for a much longer time than I have. He’s been writing music for probably twenty-five years. He was an English major so he’s got a leg up on me, that’s for sure (laughs). He tends to write a lot about topical things. He’ll write a lot about history or places and conceptual things and I sort of tend to write more off-the-cuff, stream of consciousness or more responses to my life rather than choosing something I want to write about. But his influence on me is strong and he got me really interested in trying to do more topical writing, about certain events or pieces of literature, different things that touch me. He’s a really cool person to work with and he helps me with my songs a lot. I really trust him as a songwriter so I’m really fortunate to have him as a mentor.
What’s the main advantage of having your husband on tour with you?
I think that it’s his experience. I’ve learned a lot from the experiences he had. He’s been touring for over twenty years and he’s been in this business for a long time so I would say that’s been a real help just to have somebody that has kind of been there, done that and he’s sort of steered me in the right direction when it comes to touring or business stuff. He’s a really good resource to have. And he’s a really great musician and he’s such a natural musician. What he does it’s very from his soul and that’s inspiring.
When did you start writing songs?
I first started writing after I met Tim. He is the Musical Director in the band and he plays keys and guitar and vocals; he’s also my husband. When I met him is when I started writing. That was about 2007. The first song I wrote was the title track to my first record called “Toby’s Song.” It was about my dog.
Which song would you say on the new record was the surprise song – the one that almost didn’t make it onto the record or was the last one to come in?
We didn’t really have a situation like that. We did our pre-production work in Pescadero, California, and that’s where we showed each other all of our songs and worked on the arrangements. The amount of songs that we brought were the amount of songs we used. So we actually didn’t have to cut anything, which is good and bad, just cause you don’t have like a bonus track or something like that. But we figured we’d be writing more so it wasn’t that big of a deal to use them all on the record and that’s what we ended up doing.
“Waiting On Love” is the first single
That’s one of Deren Ney’s [guitar player in The Gramblers] and we chose that as the single cause it’s really upbeat and that was the one we chose to kind of go forward with for the radio stuff. It’s really fun to sing and we’re going to be having a video coming out pretty soon to that song so that’s exciting. I think it’s the universality of the beginnings of love where you feel really good and then slowly, relationships can deteriorate. It’s keeping the faith that love will be there but it’s not always easy and I think that is something that everybody can relate to as well.
You open Loved Wild Lost with a lovely song called “Only Always.” What can you tell us about that track?
Thanks, that’s one that I wrote. I think it was just a lot of different events in my life kind of woven together to make a blanket of life experiences. It’s kind of that stream of consciousness thing, you know. Tim always tells me, “Let the song speak for itself. Don’t go into too much description.” (laughs) But yeah, that definitely was a lot of different experiences, not just that I had but I saw other people having. It’s kind of a love story and there’s some specifics in there but I think that it’s pretty universal in just that feeling of falling in love and wanting to be with that person as much as you can.
When did you decide to become a band and not just continue as a solo artist?
Well, I kind of started in music really unintentionally so the whole thing was organic the way that it happened. When I met Tim, we made “Toby’s Song” and I didn’t have a band at all. We just made the record, he and I made it together. When we wanted to release it, we had to get a band together to play it live and that’s when the band started. It was really just, who can I get, who do I know. Then we played as a band and it was really fun and to be a solo artist is really hard and intimidating to stand up there alone. So I really loved having a band as soon as that first show. I really haven’t gone back ever since.
You guys have built your following through old-fashioned, getting out there and touring. When did you first notice that it was working?
I think it’s going to be an ongoing thing because you have really good nights and then you have nights that aren’t so good. That’s sort of the nature of being a musician. But I would say when we came out with Driftwood . It felt different. Those songs seemed to touch people in a really good way and it gives a lot of cool moments in our live show, a lot of big kind of rock moments that people could relate to. So I would say Driftwood was when we first were all like, okay, we can actually do this. I think that’s when I quit substitute teaching cause we had so many shows booked that I just couldn’t teach anymore. But again, it was really, really organic and it’s a process and still a process. It’s hard, you go out to towns and sometimes it’s just kind of an off-night and then you go to other places and you have a really, really great night and it feels awesome. I think that’s just kind of going to be a forever question – a good question but I don’t have a perfect answer (laughs)
You’ve played with people like Jackie Greene. Why do you think people gravitate so much to him and his music?
I love Jackie. I met Jackie because Tim was playing some shows with Jackie and I actually met Jackie through Tim in that way. He’s such a wonderful musician and he’s such a great multi-instrumentalist. I love watching Jackie play piano. I think he’s really talented and he’s got that same natural thing that I was saying about Tim. They just really feel the music. Jackie has like the spirit of an old blues man inside of him and when he lets it kind of come out it’s really fun to watch. But I don’t know why people love him. Probably the same reason I do. He’s just real and really talented and he’s a really nice person too, which not everybody knows but I can tell you he’s very kind and amazing.
Why do you think your Van Sessions took off like they did?
I think that it was something that was really easy to connect with because it was really stripped down and there was clearly no bells and whistles. It was just pure and honest and real and I think people relate to that kind of thing, especially in a world where there is so much over-production. I think that people just appreciate the simplicity and honesty of it. And the nostalgia.
What do you love about getting out there and creating music in front of all those people?
Having new music is really inspiring to me. When you tour a record – I think we toured our last record almost two years, a year and a half – it starts to get a little long so getting to play some new songs really is great. We’ve had a few rehearsals in the last couple weeks that have been the most productive rehearsals we’ve ever had. We’re starting to feel like a band, you know, forming together and figuring out how to work our live set, incorporating the new songs into the live set. It keeps it interesting and challenging cause you’ve got to keep things new.