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 Nicki Blum and The Gramblers, an act that included her ex-husband Tim Bluhm with whom she also released two collaborative albums as a solo artist. Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past few months, you may recall that her recently released, Matt Ross-Spang-produced full-length effort To Rise You Gotta Fall marks the Bluhm’s first solo album in several years, and that the album’s material was influenced by and written one the course of one of the most difficult and life-altering transitions of her life — a period in which she got divorced, The Gramblers went on hiatus and she then followed that all with a seemingly spur of the moment move to Nashville. “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 spur of the moment decision, it was influenced by a series of writing sessions that had her frequenting the city. As Bluhm says the city was inspiring “because of all the songwriting going on here. When I could come to Nashville on writing trips, it was just percolating . . . it was intoxicating.” Around the same time, Bluhm met renowned producer, engineer and mixer Matt Ross-Spang, who was in town working on another album, and as the story goes, Ross-Spang and Bluhm quickly hit it off. “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 Rise You Gotta Fall sessions were primarily centered around the live tracking of a backing band of accomplished ringers that included Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitar), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano), Dave Smith (bass), Reba Russell (backing vocals), Susan Marshall (backing vocals), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and a number of 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 recalls 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.” Unsurprisingly, album title track, “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is an effortlessly self-assured track that’s indebted to Memphis and Muscle Shoals-era soul — and as a result the single reminded me quite a bit of Nicole Atkins‘ Goodnight Rhonda Lee and Natalie Prass, complete with a “you-are-there-in-that moment” immediacy and a fully-fleshed out narrator, who has the resiliency and determination that comes from living a complex, messy life, full of struggles, heartbreak, setbacks, small victories and crushing losses — while pointing out that life will always find a way to kick your ass and it will always push you towards wherever you need to be at that particular moment.
The album’s second and latest single, the tender ballad “Battlechain Rose” was co-written with Ryan Adams and as Bluhm told American Songwriter, the song was inspired by a restless night in which her mind wouldn’t stop turning with thoughts of the past, of what she could have and should have done differently, of her inability to move forward and of her despair of knowing that relationship has become a phantom limb of regret and heartache. “Battlechain Rose” is arguably one of To Rise You Gotta Fall’s standout tracks as the song’s arrangement is roomy enough for Bluhm’s effortlessly soulful vocals to simply and earnestly express the heartache at the core of the song — and by far, it has some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve heard in quite some time. In some way, the song sonically and thematically nods at Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and the oft-mentioned and sadly forgotten Sandra Rhodes solo album Where’s Your Love Been as the sense of loss and ache is both palpable and familiar.
Directed by Scott Sax, the recently released video for “Battlechain Rose” is an incredibly symbolic vision, unsurprisingly centered around the lingering ghosts of a relationship that has ended in an embittering and confusing fashion and its lonely aftermath.