Moxipop the great pleasure of speaking to San Francisco’s own Nicki Bluhm of Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. A group comprised of musicians who have played in The Mother Hips, Nicki and Tim and many other groups, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers have garnered quite some notoriety and are one of the upper-tiered acts playing at this years Outside Lands. Bluhm had much to say about the current state of her musical career and offered a great deal of insight to her musicianship. Below is Moxipop’s conversation with the singer-songwriter, as well as my undying gratitude for her involvement in the interview series.
Mxp: Your voice is easily one of the most distinct aspects of your music. Are there any vocalists that informed your style of singing or otherwise inspire you in your work?
BIuhm: I grew up listening to a lot of what was on the radio and MTV in the 80’s and 90’s so there are certainly some pop influences. Whitney Houston was a big one for me. As I drifted away from radio and started collecting vinyl as a young adult I found artists from another time that really spoke to me. Joni Mitchell was a big one, not only for her unique vocals but also for her stellar songwriting. When I heard Linda Ronstadt’s album “Don’t Cry Now” I felt a sort of kindred spirit with her and what she was doing at that time. That was a pretty influential album for me and still is.
Mxp: The Van Sessions that you and the band have done are viral hits. Was there a specific impetus for doing that collection of videos? Was there a favorite cover you did?
Bluhm: Since we are from San Francisco we began touring in the west. The drives are long and there were a lot of them. We didn’t have a radio in the van at the time so it was a fun way for us to kill time and make the drives more fun. Our bass player, Steve Adams, always brings his ukulele on tour so he just started strumming “Tonight You Belong to Me” in the front seat as I was driving and I started singing along. We decided to record it so our friends and family back home could see how we spent our days “in the office”. It wasn’t until the 17th Van Session that they began to pick up steam with the Hall and Oates song “I Can’t Go For That”. My favorite is probably “Can You Get to That”. It was a song our friend Jeff Jones chose, none of us really knew it but we all fell in love with the song and still have fun playing it live at times.
Mxp: You’ve performed with artists and bands all across the gamut – Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, Grace Potter, Galactic – is there a specific genre or artist you feel you’re more attuned to working with or was it easy to work with a myriad of different of styles?
Bluhm: Growing up in the Bay Area with two older brothers definitely made me appreciate the Grateful Dead from a very early age. Getting to play with Bob and Phil was a huge honor and a surreal experience. It is always a flattering to be asked to sit in with other musicians you respect. Another highlight for me was having Boz Scaggs sit in with us both at Bimbo’s and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. He is such a gentleman and wildly talented. I will never forget those shows or rehearsing with him at our house!
Mxp: Your husband Tim has been your musical collaborator for quite some time now. What is it specifically that he brings to the table in terms of creating such cohesive music between the two of you and the band?
Bluhm: A big part of why this band is together is because of Tim’s band The Mother Hips. Everyone in NBG are fans of the Hips so we started by having an appreciation for that style of music. Tim is one of my favorite songwriters and has been for years. I have admired him as a songwriter, performer and musician for many years so I put a lot of trust in his opinions, taste and style. He has been very instrumental for me as a songwriter; helping me shape, craft and further develop my songs. We work very well together in that regard.
We decided to record it so our friends and family back home could see how we spent our days “in the office”
Mxp: What’s most important to you in terms of a live performance? Is there a certain emotion or mood you want to evoke from the crowd?
Bluhm: The most important thing about a live show is that it sounds great. The biggest compliment is when you walk off stage and someone says “Wow! That sounded like a record.” We have worked with some great sound engineers (Chris Modl, Charles Twilling, Evan Drath) who help us achieve good live sound. There are a lot of layers in our music, especially vocally so making sure that all components of the music are well represented is something we strive for. Having a healthy exchange of energy between the band and the audience is something that can also be very special. It’s hard to describe but you know it when it’s happening. The overwhelming feeling is joy and a mutual appreciation for why we are all gathering together; to celebrate music, life and each other.
Mxp: The band’s 2013 eponymous album is a fantastic blend of Americana sounds, Bay Area influences and rootsy song craft. As a singer-songwriter, is there a sense of having to create songs that explicitly told a story or is it more of an organic experience?
Bluhm: There were four of us who contributed songs to our last album; Tim Bluhm, Deren Ney, Dave Mulligan and myself. We all have our own styles of writing and fortunately I think they work well together as a collective. Tim is probably the most likely to tell a story in his songs. He is inspired by books and history and has a great ability transfer you to another place and time within a three-minute song. It’s actually pretty remarkable. I tend to write a bit more big picture where the listener can interpret the lyrics any way they see fit. My writing style is changing though and I can feel myself digging a bit deeper as I grow wiser and older.
Mxp: As a San Francisco native what’s it like playing the now globally renowned Outside Lands? Are there any artists playing you’re looking forward to seeing?
Bluhm: It is always incredible to watch Tom Petty’s set. The first time I ever saw him perform was at Outside Lands a few years ago. I was shocked to discover that I knew every single song and I’ve never owned a Tom Petty album! (I do now ☺) It made me realize what a force he is and how influential he was to my generation. I also really love watching other women perform and do their thing so I’d like to check out Jenny Lewis. We are recording in August so I’ll only have one day at Outside Lands so I’ll have to pack that day in with lots of music!
Mpx: Any final words for the folks coming out to your shows?
Bluhm: If you appreciate the laid back style, rich harmonies and driving melodies of the 70’s you’ll probably like Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. We put a new twist on a decade of music we love and respect. Can’t wait to see everyone’s faces at Outside Lands. We are proud to call San Francisco our home!
Born and raised on classic rock and oldies, Jake Tully consumed music voraciously growing up in Central California. He has his wonderful grandparents to thank for his love of music, as well as the amazing luck to have seen hundreds of concerts in his lifetime. He considers himself an eclectic consumer of all media, and further reading can be found at his blog.