Nicki Bluhm is a Lafayette, CA-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter, who’s perhaps best known for a six year stint as the frontwoman of The Gramblers, a band that featured her now ex-husband Tim Bluhm (with whom she also released two collaborative albums), and for recent high-profile collaborations with the likes of Phil Lesh, Infamous Stringdusters, Ryan Adams and others. Slated for a June 1, 2018 release, the Matt Ross-Spang-produced To Rise You Gotta Fall is Bluhm’s first solo album in several years, and the album’s material was written over a difficult and life-altering period in which she got divorced and followed that up with a spur of the moment move to Nashville — and a result, the album is reportedly a deeply personal chronicle of her state of mind during and after such a momentous transition. “These songs are quite personal,” Bluhm says in press notes “They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without.”
Interestingly, while Bluhm’s relocation to Nashville was a spot of a moment decision, it actually came from the result of a number of writing sessions that had her in the city. As Bluhm notes, the city was inspiring “because of all the songwriting going on here. When I would come to Nashville on writing trips, it was just percolating . . . it was intoxicating.” Around the same time, Bluhm met with renowned producer, engineer and mixer Matt Ross-Spang, who was in town mixing a record, and as the story goes Ross-Spang and Bluhm hit it off immediately. “I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did,” Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. “My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn’t want to even have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we’d record in Memphis.”
Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording, the sessions were centered around the live tracking of a backing band that featured an accomplished bunch of pros assembled by Ross-Spang that included featuring Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitars), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano) and Dave Smith (bass), with Reba Russell and Susan Marshall (background singers), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and various special guests. “We really just recorded live and we didn’t do that many takes of each song,” Bluhm says. “The final versions we ended up with were all one take. It was really refreshing to go analog. It minimized over thinking and second-guessing; forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. . . Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends time curating his sessions and who he decides to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, ‘not perfection but captured moments in time.’”
“I had lost my partner in so many ways,” Bluhm continues in press notes, “my musical partner, my life partner, my creative partner, and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to start my own engine. It was really intimidating and scary,” she says “but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn’t even know I had in me. I was on auto-pilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving forward. When the album finally comes out it’s going to be like setting a caged bird free.”
Album title track “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is an incredibly self-assured and effortless track that manages to to be clearly indebted to classic Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul, as well as Goodnight Rhonda Lee-era Nicole Atkins and Natalie Prass, as the single reveals a careful attention to craft pared with a “you-are-there-in-thatmoment” immediacy; but underneath that is a fully fleshed out, living and breathing narrator, who has the resiliency and determination that comes from living a full and incredibly messy life, full of struggles, heartbreak, setbacks, small victories and crushing losses — all while pointing out that life will always find a way to kick your ass, and that you’ll always be pushed forward towards wherever you need to be at that point in time.
Directed by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Scott Sax, the recently released video follows Bluhm as she’s piecing her new life together — mainly through acquiring items on Craigslist and stopping at local thrift shops around Nashville. And throughout Bluhm takes comfort in small things — a cheeseburger and fries from a local burger joint, the friends, who show her love and support, a friend’s cat, a good luck tchotchke that she places on the dash of her car, and with every minor decision, theres’s growing sense of freedom balanced with uncertainty.