Americanagrams: Nicki Bluhm
Nicki Bluhm did not plan any of this. Not the viral explosion of her “Van Session” videos. Not The Gap ad campaign. Not even the music career.
The San Francisco-based singer, songwriter and front woman for The Gramblers thought she would be a teacher or work with horses until Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips heard her sing. Now she has a new album, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers (released August 27 on Little Sur Records), new fans from a stripped-down cover of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That,” recorded by iPhone in the band’s van that caught fire on YouTube, and a big assist from Madison Avenue in the form of a 2012 international ad campaign for The Gap that put her face on billboards and in magazines around the world.
We talked to Bluhm before her recent Americana Music Fest set at The Mercy Lounge with the Gramblers, consisting of now-husband and band director Tim Bluhm on keyboards, guitars and vocals, Deren Ney on lead guitar, Dave Mulligan on rhythm guitar and vocals, Steve Adams on bass and Mike Curry on drums.
I read that you grew up riding and taking care of horses. Does that background influence you as a musician?
As a kid and even as a young adult, I spent all my time out at the barn. You listen to music a lot when you’re grooming horses and getting ready. The full range of songs and genres entered into the barn, but I think country music is sort of a no-brainer to listen to when you’re out in nature, riding, being with the animals. And that kind of music is certainly one of my influences.
Can you share the story of how you and your husband met and how it led to your career in music?
I had been a fan of Tim Bluhm and The Mother Hips. I was at a New Year’s Eve show they played and there was an after-party. I just showed up and there was a round-robin, pass-the-guitar-around kind of thing. The guitar landed in my lap and I knew a few songs, and I’d had just the right amount of beer that gave me that liquid courage. So I played a song and Tim kind of pulled me outside after I was finished. He said, “I did not know you sang.” And I was just kind of like, “I don’t really, you know … I was just drunk enough to do it in front of you.” (Laughs) He told me I should come up to San Francisco and record. Empty promises were kind of what I expected, especially from the musician types, you know? But he actually called about a week later and really did follow through. He invited me up to the studio, we recorded a couple songs that first night and after that it was just, “Game on.”
Do you find many people at your shows now make the connection to Tim’s band or do they tend to be two different audiences?
I think there’s definitely overlap. The Mother Hips community was just really nice to me right away and embraced me. That could have gone either way, but I got really lucky and everybody’s been so supportive and sweep. And now we’re finding too that people find out about The Gramblers and then discover The Mother Hips, so we’re starting to give back to the Hips a little bit, which is nice.
You two must be together all the time when you’re touring and performing. Does that make things harder, easier or both?
Both. Definitely both. When you’re touring as much as we are it’s hard to kind of find that non-bandmate relationship. So you go through periods of time where you’re really not husband-and-wife, you’re bandmates. You’re both exhausted, malnourished, at your wit’s end and you try not to associate that much because you just kind of have to be in your own space. But it’s great too, because if he was gone all the time and I was stuck at home, I would be insanely envious. So you know, with the good comes the bad.
The Van Sessions seem like one of those simple things you do for fun and then it just explodes. Is that the case? Has that ended up expanding your audience?
It was really just the product of being kind of bored without a radio, driving around a lot and we’re musicians, that’s what we like to do. It was a nice exercise for us to do. It was great that people responded to it in a positive way. The 17th band session we did was the Hall & Oates and that snowballed and really expanded our audience. Which is really what kicked us in the butt to tour a lot more. So our schedule became a lot more rigorous after that.
What was it like to see yourself on a huge billboard?
It was cool. I didn’t get to see it at home in San Francisco because we were touring in Europe. But I did see it at The Gap on the Champs-Élysées, which is like the big shopping strip in Paris. That was very cool. But it was funny because nobody knew it was me. So I walked into The Gap and there I was, my face was giant, but they didn’t make the connection. So it was kind of this quiet triumph.
A lot of big things have happened for your career that were not necessarily planned out that way. What do you make of that? Are you a “random chance” or a “meant to be” kind of person?
I think a little bit of both. I think being open, being spontaneous, being flexible, being able to accept offers when they come, trusting in the moment — I try to do that as much as I can.
I get the feeling you really love the Bay Area, and the song “Always Come Back” on the new album seems to reflect that. Is it hard to always be leaving a place you love to go on tour?
Yes, very much so. And it is hard to leave. You know, it’s hard to leave friends and family too. But luckily, our band is so tightly knit and supportive, so it’s not so bad. We get to do it with people we love. So, it’s kind of like portable family. But it is definitely hard to leave, especially when it gets to be fall and winter, the holidays start to come and you want to nest … that’s when it gets a little bit harder.
There’s a real diverse mix of sounds and styles on the new album, was that something you set out to do or did it just evolve that way?
I think you can be more intentional and try to make a country record or a jazz record or a pop record, but there’s just so many kinds of music we love and so many influences we have. A good song is a good song, so why deny it because it doesn’t fit stylistically with another. And I think there’s definitely a common thread through all the songs with the harmonies, my vocals and other things that tie it all together despite the span of different song styles.
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