- Noah Abrams
For more than a decade, Nicki Bluhm's personal and professional lives were intertwined with that of ex-husband Tim Bluhm, frontman for California roots-rock band Mother Hips. Nicki joined the band first as a guest vocalist before building her solo career as Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, but Tim remained front and center as a co-writer, producer and musical director.
The couple parted ways in 2016, though, and now Nicki Bluhm strikes out on her own with To Rise You Gotta Fall. Released June 1 on Compass Records, it's far more than a breakup album. Instead, it's a record full of rage, grief, sadness and rebirth—a document of a very public relationship's dissolution and a woman standing tall as she confidently moves on. "It's so nice to release a record out into the world and let it do its thing," Bluhm says. "You have to own what you said, what you sang and what you did, and in my case, that's pretty vulnerable stuff."
The album sounds beautiful, though, recorded in Memphis at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording studio. Bluhm teamed up with producer Matt Ross-Spang to add Southern soul to the cathartic songs she spent two years writing after a spur-of-the-moment relocation to Nashville. The pain on tracks like "How Do I Love You" and "Battlechain Rose" is suffused with sumptuous B3 organ and Stax-esque horns, while hot guitar licks add fire to "Staring at the Sun" and "To Rise You Gotta Fall."
All that Memphis soul makes ample room for Bluhm's voice, however, which has always been at its finest in raw, authentic moments. She credits her new backing band—John McNally on lead guitar and vocals; Cameron Carrus on bass; Lemmy Hayes on drums; Jeff Adamczyk on keys and vocals; Kellen Wenrich on guitar, fiddle and vocals—for giving her more space to sing than any collaborators before. "They're really good at dynamics," Bluhm says. "The song can get really big, but they carve out space for the vocals. Every voice has nuances, and sometimes those can get steamrolled by a loud band." Laughing, she adds, "When you can hear yourself as a singer, it's way more fun."
What's most impressive about Bluhm at this stage in her life—two years out from her separation and divorce, but only a couple weeks out from the release of her new album and the kickoff of her first national tour with a new band—is that ongoing sense of joie de vivre. It's overwhelmingly evident nearly everywhere she creates music; an infectious video of her belting out Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go for That" while driving a tour van has garnered more than 3.5 million views on YouTube, and everyone from Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to Ryan Adams and the Infamous Stringdusters has asked Nicki to tour, record and perform with them.
"Music has brought me so much comfort in life," she says. "But it's also a reminder that we all experience grief, sadness and anger. Each of those has its own phases and stages, and to ignore that or just write about happy, good things, to me is not authentic. [To Rise You Gotta Fall] is authentic as a statement to myself. Some people will like it; some people won't. But it's my truth and it's what I had to do."
She strikes a particularly strident tone as she expands on the subject. "I've said this before and I'll say it again, but I didn't have a choice when it came to writing songs so close to my heart. The changes in my life were so big that it was really unavoidable. Of course it's scary. It's not comfortable. You open yourself up to judgment and criticism, and it's even harder because it is so personal. But I'm proud of being courageous enough to put myself out there.
"I know I'm not the only person going through hard, traumatic transitions. For me, this record is almost like a contribution to humanity. If I can bring comfort to someone and let them know they're not alone in this, that's my goal. We're all humans. We all go through pain."