Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers: Into the ‘Wild’

I wrote this article for Relix magazine.  I like Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers quite a bit  and Loved Wild Lost is a terrific album.

“Ultimately, I’m doing this for myself,” Nicki Bluhm explains shortly before the release of her second album with The Gramblers, Loved Wild Lost, “because I love what I’m doing. I’m grateful that we have an audience and being liked is important, but you have to like yourself, and playing the music you like is essential, even if it’s not hitting people over the head.”

This quiet confidence took Bluhm a while to achieve. She was a closet singer for many years before she took center stage with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, a collective that also features her husband Tim Bluhm, childhood friend Deren Ney, ALO bassist Steve Adams, guitarist Dave Mulligan and drummer Mike Curry. Growing up, Nicki often belted out songs in the shower, doing her best to emulate the likes of Whitney Houston. In high school, in the East Bay’s Lafayette, Calif., she would occasionally call her old friend Ney, whom she’d known since first grade, and ask him to play some guitar for her to sing over.

“She nudged me to play a few times, but it was always a secretive thing,” Ney reclls. “She was shy about it because she loved singing but didn’t have that thing to perform. She wanted to know what it was like to sit and sing over an acoustic, and I thought she was fantastic from the start.”

Ney was already well known in Lafayette as the hippie kid with a guitar and a deep well of songs.

“Deren was like a jukebox,” says Nicki, who is tall, thin, and has a retro, ‘70s aura that feels in line with The Gramblers’ music. “He could play anything I got in my head and I would get drunk and want to sing with him.”

After college, Nicki became a teacher and worked for a while on a ranch in Southern California taking care of eight horses. She moved back to the Bay Area and got a job as a naturalist for the City of San Francisco School District, teaching outdoor education. “We worked with a lot of underprivileged schools throughout the district and taught kids about nature and the watershed and native plants,” she says. “I was always outside and I loved it.”

By then, she had become friends with her now-husband Tim. (She jokes that every boyfriend she’s ever had was a fan of his band, The Mother Hips.) At a record release after-party, she jumped up and sang harmony with him on songs she knew intimately well, and had already worked out her parts by singing along to recordings countless times. Tim was amazed.

“I heard something really pleasing and unique right away,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking that she would want to pursue it as a career, and I didn’t know if she had the other skills necessary to do so, but I knew her voice had this really cool, unique thing that people would want to hear. I was certain about that immediately. There’s just something that comes out of Nicki when she sings. It’s her personality and just a physical quality in her voice that’s really nice to hear and that pulls people in.”

Tim’s immediate encouragement was huge for Nicki. It was, in fact, perhaps the first time that she began to accept that maybe she had something special; maybe her singing was destined to be heard by people other than friends, housemates and lucky late-night partygoers.

“His encouragement was a powerful moment for me,” she says. “It was finally someone I respected and trusted telling me I was good. It’s not your mom saying, ‘Oh, honey, you have a great voice.’ Tim is, 100 percent, the reason I’m doing this.”

Still, her transition from private to public singing wasn’t simple. It was, she says in a word, “awkward.”

“I showed up at my first open mic night. My guitar didn’t have a pickup, and I didn’t even know what one was when the guy handed me a cord to plug in,” she recalls. “I was really intimidated and forgot every word to every song I’ve ever known.” Soon after, Tim took her to buy a guitar with a pickup and as she began to gain confidence, he invited her to open some shows he was doing with Jackie Greene in 2006. She found the experience excruciating.

“I didn’t like my guitar playing, and I wanted more texture,” she recalls. “I wanted a lead instrument and thought about the guitar players I knew, and Deren was the obvious guy to call.”

At the time, her old friend Ney was living in Los Angeles, working temp jobs and trying to be a screenwriter.

“After seeing some of my favorite bands struggle to survive— including The Mother Hips—I decided I loved music too much to ruin it by trying to make it a career, so I was chasing screen- writing, another fool’s errand,” Ney recalls with a laugh. “I had not been playing and actually had to borrow an amp for those first shows.” Ney has been by her side ever since, developing into a secret weapon of sorts, playing snappy, pungent guitar lines that accentuate and drive the music without overwhelming the songs. He’s also developed into the band’s third songwriter, after Tim and Nicki.

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ career took a serious turn for the better when they stumbled into making a series of viral YouTube videos. Dubbed the “Van Sessions,” the clips simply featured the group playing and singing some of their favorite covers while driving from gig to gig. They captured them on an iPhone. It began when bassist Adams brought a ukulele on tour. Their version of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” was the video that took off, logging over a million views and essentially launching their career.

The Van Sessions, “I Can’t Go For That”

“As stoked as I am about the ‘Van Sessions’ and all they’ve done for us, I definitely hope it’s a chapter in our career and I don’t have to talk about it for the rest of our lives,” says Nicki. “It was a really cool thing that happened. I’m grateful and they’re very fun, and I think people chose to watch and share them because they’re nostalgic. We chose songs that meant a lot to us and that our parents played when we were kids, and it’s reached a lot of age groups and brought families together, which is really cool. And I think people responded because they thought it was real—real instruments, real people singing, captured in lo-fi. But we’ve always been forward-thinking and want to promote our original music, which really is what’s keeping us going.”

Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers logged thousands of miles between the recording and release of their self-titled 2013 album and their new Loved Wild Lost. “We toured for pretty much two years solid,” says Nicki. “All those hours together traveling and on- stage definitely had a big impact on the music we wrote and on our relationships. As a band, you go through stages and you learn. You just grow. You become more confident and smarter when you have a few hundred shows under your belt.”

That deeper sense of self and confidence is evident throughout Loved Wild Lost. It is the first album that the group recorded from a position of some strength, and the first that is really a full-band album, with all six members contributing to the writing and arrangements.

“We are more methodical and much more organized in the execution of this album than we have been in the past,” she adds. “We spent 10 days doing pre-production at our friend’s little ranch in Atascadero, Calif.—just playing music together and working stuff out in a very relaxed, mellow atmosphere with horses, cats and dogs, and a great friend cooking us homemade Mexican meals.”

One major impact of this pre-production time was that everyone in the band had an opportunity to craft their parts, rather than listening to basic tracks and ironing things out in the studio as on past efforts.

“We all had to kind of look each other in the eye and present our parts, and that tends to lead to being more exacting and thoughtful,” Ney recalls. “And when we entered the studio, we knew what we were gonna do. It had never been like that before. We always cobbled it together. This was a lot more intentional.”

Loved Wild Lost is actually Bluhm’s fifth recording; the first two were issued under her name only and she also released a duet record with her husband. “We’re all together all the time and it just felt right to call it Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers,” she says. “It was such an organic process to get there.”

Still, while this is the second album billed collectively to Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Ney says it felt a lot like The Gramblers’ first real band recording: “We’ve all been some- what involved in all of her records, but this time, we were all coming in as equals, as members of the band.”

A large part of that process was working with an outside producer for the first time. Nicki’s husband, guitarist, keyboardist and musical director Tim produced her first three efforts. This time, they brought in Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse, Josh Ritter).

“It was hard for me to give up control at first,” Tim admits. “But I relaxed and began loving it as soon as I saw how Brian operated and what he brought us. I didn’t ever have to be the bad guy and it was really nice for me to just be a member of the band. It’s hard to be both bandmate and producer.”

He pauses to reflect for a moment before adding, “There are actually parallels to being in a band with someone you’re married to, which presents similar challenges.”

“Tim got to just be a musician and that led to things opening up and all of us contributing more,” Ney says. “As we put the songs together, it was our job to throw out what we thought would be good. We were sort of creating it together. We had to play our parts in front of everybody and take ownership. Everybody had the freedom to create what they wanted, but we had to do it in a way that fit together and made the songs better. There was freedom, but there wasn’t unchecked freedom.”

Everyone agrees that by the time the band entered Panoramic House Studios in Stinson Beach, Calif., they had the songs down and could execute the recording with great efficiency. The result is an album that’s laid-back but urgent, and probably a little more subtle and country/roots-tinged than previous efforts, which had a bit more R&B swagger. Nicki says that the more under- stated approach was especially intentional and was an almost-contrary reaction to all of the live performances, where there can be a push to go big.

“You want to get a reaction from the crowd, so you play these big songs to get people stoked and keep the energy up,” she says. “It’s pretty common to overplay in that excitement and I think what we’ve tried to do with this record is really be selective with the parts. We kind of approached the recording musically that way, too: ‘Let’s be as sparse as possible. There’s no need for all of us to play all the time.’ We were more discerning and thoughtful about what we’re playing. Let’s trim the fat. Don’t play the notes you don’t need.’ And I’m really excited for that to carry over to our live show.”

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