Nicki Bluhm’s rise to fame coincided with the late 2000s musician gold rush to San Francisco – she’s California to the core. But, after life changes sent her east to Tennessee, the singer/songwriter had new stories to tell, which turned into a brand new album.
Bluhm found her biggest success with her band, The Gramblers, that released two widely-praised albums: 2013’s “Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers” and 2015’s “Loved Wild Lost.” Their stripped-down, tour van version of Hall and Oates “I Can’t Go for That” has millions of You Tube views.
Bluhm’s husband at the time, Mother Hips’ guitarist Tim, played a huge role in her musical output. The pair released 2011’s “Duets,” and both of The Gramblers albums were released on his Little Sur Records.
The pair’s marriage came to an end in 2015, forcing Nicki to look in different directions to further her musical career. She joined the Infamous Stringdusters for a bit, and played numerous shows as part of Phil Lesh and Friends. The still-sizzling Bay Area music scene provided continued face time for Bluhm and her various projects.
By 2017, Bluhm needed a change of scenery and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. A regular at songwriting workshops and always searching for like-minded local musicians to create anything new and different, Bluhm immersed herself in the numerous opportunities her new locale offered.
After heading south, it didn’t take Bluhm long to hit the studio. She recorded 2018’s “To Rise You Gotta Fall“ down the road in Memphis. She freely admits this is a break up record covering the split from her longtime partner and mentor.
On the other side of the breakup and looking forward, Bluhm is back with 2022’s “Avondale Drive.” Slideandbanjo.com spoke with Bluhm about her latest album and the winding road she’s traveled the last several years.
Slide&Banjo: I’m curious. How did a Bay Area native end up in the south?
Bluhm: I had some big life changes personally. That led to the severing of my relationship with my now ex-husband and mentor, Tim Bluhm. When I started that transitional period, not only was Tim my husband at the time – he was my main writing partner. When the relationship went south, I still enjoyed the process of co-writing. I wanted to work with people who would mentor me again. Support me and bolster me. My management at the time suggested I come out to Nashville to find people to co-write with.
I wasn’t aware there was a national co-write thing. It’s organized and professional. I came out a couple of times and fell in love with Nashville. I fell in love with the co-writing process. It was spring. Nashville is magical in the spring. Everything is blooming. Everything is green and I was totally taken. I was staying with my friend Langhorne Slim and I loved that neighborhood.
So, on a whim when I was here writing, I found a place. I got that place and flew back to California the same day. I told my parents I was moving to Nashville. It was pretty spontaneous. I’ve been here five years and fallen in love with Tennessee.
S&B: What was it like going from a hot spot like San Francisco across the country to essentially start over?
Bluhm: It was a special time for me in San Francisco when I first started. From 2008-2017, that was my sweet spot. I had a great run with The Gramblers. I put out a couple of solo records. Also had a couple of band records. I was fortunate enough to tour across the country and internationally. There has been a lot of musical influx to Nashville. I’ve had insecurities about being a California transplant out here.
S&B: What’s interesting is when you hear the term “San Francisco area music scene,” you think long-form improvisational and psychedelic music. That’s not always the case. There are parts of California that have the same country flavor as Nashville.
Bluhm: I’ve always loved country. I was in a country band back in Bakersfield called Brokedown in Bakersfield. We covered all kinds of country songs. Country music has always been there. It’s in my blood and I love it.
When I did my last record in Memphis, I felt I brought part of my country sound. I would joke, I created a Cali-Memphis sound. I wanted to continue that on the new album with producer Jessie Noah Wilson, a Californian who also lives in Tennessee. There’s a lot of overlap if you compare the California and Tennessee sounds. I love the combination of the two influences.
S&B: Obviously a factor in any release the last couple of years is Covid. How did that impact the album getting recorded.
Bluhm: We started recording this in 2020. We were all at home. We were stuck in one place which, interestingly, was the first time I felt truly grounded in Nashville. When I first moved here, I was very excited. I knew a lot of people and loved the neighborhood. Then I realized, duh, everyone is always on tour. I didn’t see these people so much. We were like ships in the night.
With Covid, when everyone was forced to be at home; relationships developed because people were looking for some type of connection. Whether co-writing with Zoom, or electronically sending music back and forth, Jesse and I started to mess around and put together and impromptu recording studio in East Nashville.
S&B: You aren’t the first musician that went the home studio route. What were you able to create once this was set up?
Bluhm: We made what we thought were demos to complete later. We realized this is cool. Let’s keep going. Our friends in Nashville were doing the same things with home studios. They were idle and wanting something to do. So, we asked our friends (who were great musicians) to play on the record. That was a perfect example of the time. We could have never gotten that type of commitment and attention from these incredible musicians who are usually busy on the road. That was a perfect storm. Being able to get together and collaborate during a time when there was such little connection personally. It gave us a chance to connect musically which felt really good.
S&B: From Karl Denson to Oliver Wood, you have some big names associated with the album. How did you decide who would play on the record, and how did you guide their contributions from afar?
Bluhm: We chose people we trust implicitly to play. We said “Hey, Here’s a track. We’re not giving you any direction because we want you to be you.” In the case of Karl Denson, on the song “Feel,” we let him have free rein. The same with Jen Condos and Jay Bellerose. Richard Millsap had free rein.
We wanted to give the creative allowance to people. That was done remotely. Once we had a vaccine we went in the studio. I sang live with AJ Croce. Oliver and I sang live together on “Friends (How to do it).” I did all the vocals in two days in the studio with Jesse and I.
S&B: With such little studio time, you must have been overly focused on what you specifically needed to get done?
Bluhm: The tracks were pretty complete when we took them to the studio. We only spent three days there. That was spent on singing and overdubs. We got really organized and used our limited time to polish these up in the studio.
That’s the magic of Jesse Noah Wilson who produced the record. Steve Christenson mixed the record. He went in and mixed it where it feels like we were all in the same room.
S&B: Getting into the meat of the record…this album has a feel like you’re still working towards keeping the past in the past and moving forward.
Bluhm: This is not a broken-hearted record. I think it leans more towards acceptance and self-study. For me, the last record was, for lack of a better term, my divorce record. There’s plenty of broken heart in that one. It’s natural there’s some residual left on this one. The heart break songs on this one are about acceptance and forgiveness. That stuff takes time to process.
When you’re with someone for a decade, there’s a lot of traumas. I use songwriting to deal with these things. I’d like to think this record is more playful. There’s humor in it. There’s also more process, understanding, compassion and forgiveness.
S&B: Let’s discuss a couple of songs on the album. I thought the first three had a different sounding era for each of them. The opener, ”Learn to Love Myself” has a 50s or 60s Ronette’s vibe to it.
Bluhm: Jessie had gotten me a Shangri-La’s record. He’s really into them. I love Peggy Lee. There’s a song, ”Is That All There Is.” She has great talking parts in that song. That influenced the conversational piece of this song. The talking to the mirror. There was definitely a 60s vibe for sure.
S&B: With ”Love to Spare,” it seems like you moved ahead to the 70s. This one had a Carly Simon or Linda Ronstadt feel to it.
Bluhm: That’s a cowrite with AJ Croce. He’s a dear friend of mine. I don’t think we were shooting for a sound from a specific era or decade. He came in with the guitar riff for the song. We wrote the lyrics and the melody really quickly. We wrote the words in 30 minutes while getting hamburgers. That’s usually how AJ writes. He doesn’t like to labor or overthink things.
S&B: Next up is ”Free,” which finds you tinkering with the modulation in your vocals.
Bluhm: Exactly. The vocal effects were good on that one. The lyrics are simple…there’s a repetition. The distorted vocals add to the impact of the message. There’s a Lucinda Williams song called “Joy.” She repeats the same thing over and over. I remember hearing it the first time, thinking okay, okay, I get it. By the time I got to the end of the song, I was like “Holy Shit. Now I get it. I totally get it.”
Sometimes the repetitive message has to be heard over and over for it really to sink in. As basic and simple as it is, there’s something about the big vocal on top of a simple mantra that makes it impactful.
S&B: The song ”Friends” seems to be a good example of you focusing on the future. This song touches on the unanswered and overly debated topic of should people be friends before pursuing anything romantic.
Bluhm: After being married for ten years and with the same person for 12 years, I found myself in my later 30s back in the dating pool. I had no idea what I was doing. I was never much of a dater. Even in my 20s. I always had these monogamous relationships.
Dating has changed so much. There are these apps you use. Which is more screen time. More instant rejection. It was horrible. I vowed to stop doing that. This song was born out of what started as a friendship and the guy being very confusing with his behavior. We were friends. Then he would do something indicating something more than friends. Then he pulled back. It was written out of the sheer confusion of dating.
The conclusion I came to is not only can people be friends first; they must be in order to develop a romantic relationship.
S&B: Thanks so much for the time and insight into the new album, Nicki. It looks like things are settling down after a crazy ride. Continued success.
Bluhm: Yes. Thank you. I’m happy to be in Nashville. I’ve developed an incredible community of people, musicians and friends. I’m putting a band together for a few shows for the album release. They’re all people I adore.
After five years, I’m delighted to be able to put a band together of people I love. I’m excited to play music with them. I feel supported by the community and lucky to be among great company. Nashville makes you step up your game because they’re really good.