Nicki Bluhm launches summer tour and solo record with Colorado concerts
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: Nicki Bluhm
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Monday, May 28, 8 p.m.
How much: $15
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
When lead singers from rock bands go solo, you can usually chalk it up to a business decision or artistic differences or a bid for individual stardom. For Nicki Bluhm, striking out on her own after six years with The Gramblers wasn’t about any of these — it was more a fallout of personal calamity.
Two years ago she split from her husband and bandmate, Tim Bluhm. The Gramblers soon broke up completely. After years on the road with Tim and the band, she was on her own and disillusioned.
But Bluhm has channeled the raw emotional aftermath of the divorce and band breakup into a powerful, personal new record, “To Rise You Gotta Fall.” It comes out June 1. Bluhm is launching it and her summer tour with four concerts across Colorado, including a Memorial Day headlining spot at Belly Up Aspen.
She describes the period of writing these songs as a haze. The enormity of loss, she said, was too great for her to begin grieving.
“These songs, in a way, were a precursor to my grief,” Bluhm said in a phone interview from home in Nashville. “They were conversations that I was not able to have. The way that my relationship ended was really painful and didn’t allow for a lot of communication. I was asking questions and having these conversations that I never got to have.”
The work became an outlet for her to express herself and also an escape from the thoughts spinning around her head.
“I was getting outside of the ruminating mind, which is such a cyclical trap for emotions and thoughts and feelings,” she explained. “Writing, for me, is a way to get out of that unhealthy ruminating that’s so easy to fall into. So it was cathartic for me to write these songs and get them out and now to sing them.”
She talks about her upcoming summer tour in terms of “service work,” of telling her story in song in the hopes of helping someone in the audience through their own breakups and private challenges.
“I feel like I’m giving back to music the way that it gave to me and got me through so many troubling times,” she said. “That’s what I’m doing on this record.”
The album pairs Bluhm’s raw emotions and resilient message with a warm, bluesy soul sound that expands on the rootsy Americana that was her calling card with The Gramblers. She, producer Matt Ross-Spang and a crew of stellar Memphis studio musicians bonded from the start of the sessions, she said. On the first day, they recorded “To Rise You Gotta Fall,” which became the album’s stirring title track, lead single and statement of purpose.
“It was organic, which is exactly what you want when you’re making a record,” she said.
They made the album at the historic Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis. Built in 1958, it hasn’t changed much since the days when it was the epicenter of early rock ‘n’ roll. That rich past nudged Bluhm and her band to record live to tape, and to steer clear of contemporary processes like overdubs and track layering and such — giving the songs a unpolished old-school sound.
“We’re not making perfection here, we’re capturing moments in time,” Jerry Philips, Sam’s son, told Bluhm early in the process.
That sounded perfect to Bluhm.
“It was a relief to not get out the microscope and over-analyze and just let it be — and to be in the moment,” she said.
She’s taking the record on the road with a backing band of Nashville-based musicians (Bluhm moved to the famed Music City from California after The Gramblers dissolved). This is her first time touring with a band since splitting from The Gramblers. She’s spent the last year playing live frequently, but in true solo spots that put her alone on stage opening for the likes of the Wood Brothers and Josh Ritter.
“It’s something I forced myself to do, just to prove to myself that I could play by myself if I needed to — that I could be independent,” she said. “There were a lot of lessons in that that were really valuable. But now I’m looking forward to having that sense of community and that bigger sound.”
Bluhm’s move to Nashville puts her within singing distance of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and former Woody Creeker John Oates, who had a curious impact on Bluhm’s career.
Early in The Gramblers’ run as a band, they began video-taping cover song performances in their tour van from a dashboard-mounted phone while driving between gigs. In 2012, their on-the-road take on Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” became a national phenomenon, featuring Bluhm driving and on vocals. It’s racked up more than 3.5 million views to date and got the band its first national TV performances and landed Bluhm collaborations with the likes of Karl Denson and Grace Potter. In 2013, Oates joined Bluhm and The Gramblers onstage at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in her native San Francisco to perform the song together.
Improbably, she’s developed a friendship with the rock legend.
“He is an amazing human and super kind,” she said. “I owe him a lot for getting my name on the map. It’s remarkable that he was such an instrumental part of my career in a really cool, random way that you could never have planned for. I will always hold him close to my heart.”
Bluhm is a regular in Colorado and here in the mountains, having played with The Gramblers at Belly Up and on Fanny Hill at the Snowmass Free Music Series and at the Hi-Fi Concert Series. Given her devout following in Aspen and across the state, it’s no surprise that Colorado audiences will be the first to hear Bluhm play her new songs with her new band.
“I think Colorado is a shining star on the United States map right now, as far as live music,” she said.
After she closed out her tour with Ritter in Denver in January, Bluhm headed to Telluride to see a friend for what she thought would be a couple relaxing nights. She ended up sticking around.
“A few days turned into a few weeks and the next thing I know, I’m there for a month,” she recalled with a laugh. “I feel very comfortable in Colorado. I love the mountains. I love to hike and ski. I love music. … Coloradans are going to be the first people to hear the record and I think it’s perfect because I’ve spent so much time there in the last year.”