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October 16, 2012

From the Schubas stage, the flip side of Nicki Bluhm

[img id="99503" align="left"/] This five foot eleven beauty has certainly got stage presence. With the height and looks of a model—she recently modeled for Gap’s 2012 “Shine” campaign—and a commanding voice laced with huskiness and soul, Nicki Bluhm keeps an audience entranced.

After experiencing the country-rock band Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers perform a sold-out show at Schubas Tavern on Saturday, it became clear why Nicki’s vocal talent and presence impressed musician/producer Tim Bluhm of San Francisco rock band The Mother Hips during a spontaneous performance at a New Year’s Eve party several years ago. Tim was so intrigued by Nicki’s untapped talent that he encouraged her to further explore it; she has now released three albums. The two San Franciscans are married and play in a band together.

When the crowd cheered for Nicki’s powerful vocals, Tim smiled. He does not conceal his pride in his wife, and the two sang “Stick With Me” to each other on stage while gazing at each other adoringly.

Before the concert, the Maroon spoke with Nicki about her love of vinyl and her viral YouTube ‘van sessions.’

Chicago Maroon: Which musical artists have influenced your style the most?

Nicki Bluhm: There are a few—when I was younger I heard a couple of bootlegs of early recordings from when Bonnie Raitt was just starting her career, and I really liked her relaxed approach to playing songs and having a good time. I like Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton quite a bit, too. Those are my top three.

CM: Why do you frequently perform songs by artists from the ’70s and even before? Did you grow up hearing this music?

NB: Some of it. My parents definitely exposed me to some of the music they enjoyed; but really my husband and I love listening to vinyl and the records that we have are from the ’60s and ’70s. Our covers do tend to be from that decade for sure; I guess it’s just what we like!

CM: Besides the encouragement of Tim and your experience at many of The Mother Hips’ shows, did you have any other musical mentors?

NB: My older brother David played guitar so I always looked up to him and always wanted to play guitar because of him. He and Tim were definitely my two music-loving and performing mentors.

CM: Why did you decide to release your 2011 album Driftwood on vinyl?

NB: I love vinyl. I think everything sounds better on vinyl. It’s just got that warmer, more intimate feel. I think you have to pay a little more attention to the music, and you have to flip the record from side to side—it’s more of an intentional experience. CDs become obsolete once they’re uploaded into iTunes, but vinyl is just vinyl—it stays that way. It feels more special and collectable to me.

CM: I love your song, “Unforgetaboutable” which you released on Duets with Tim in 2011. What is the story behind those lyrics [in the song, a couple falls in love after meeting at a county fair]?

NB: [Laughs.] Well, Tim wrote that. The song was meant to be personal, but not too personal. It’s loosely based around the story of the two of us, without exposing a whole lot of private stuff. That’s kind of Tim’s style—he likes to allude to the truth, but embellishes it with the sweet details of a fictional story. We spice it up and put some icing on top. He’s a great songwriter, having written some of my favorite songs.

CM: Which song are you proudest of right now?

NB: I enjoy a lot of our brand-new songs that are going to come out on our next album, hopefully early next year. One of my favorites is called “Till I’m Blue.” Tim and our friend Scott Law wrote this really neat song. It’s got a lot of harmonies and cool, catchy guitar rifts. I’ve really been digging it lately, and we’ve been playing it live.

CM: Do your YouTube van sessions reflect what your band rehearsals are like?

NB: Definitely. Most of the time we rehearse at my house—it’s kind of like our hub. It’s always really fun and good-natured. But everything you see in the van sessions is real. We all really do love to laugh and play music and be together, so it’s good—it’s a good time.

CM: Do you think that you have different audiences for your van sessions versus your recorded albums?

NB: It’s very transferable—a lot of the people who were clued into us through the van sessions are enjoying our originals and our live shows as much, if not more, than the cover videos through which they initially found out about us. It’s been a really great transfer of attention and energy.

CM: Your Chicago show is sold out. Did you realize you had such a large fan base in the Midwest?

NB: No, I didn’t! I wish we were playing at a bigger venue so more people could come, because I know there are a lot of people still looking for tickets. This was our first time ever coming to the Midwest, or the East, or the South, so this has all been an interesting first run—and so far it’s been great. We sold out two shows in New York, Charlotte, and a few other places, as well as Chicago. We’re looking forward to doing it again really soon—and maybe even playing at some bigger venues the next time around!

CM: You mentioned a new album in the works. Any plans for a van sessions CD?

NB: We did think about releasing some of the audio from the original van sessions, but the quality just isn’t good enough. I’m not sure we’d want to go into the studio and record a bunch of covers, either. We let that idea rest for now…but you never know!

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ van sessions (all 22 of them) are available at www.nickibluhm.com/video.

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