Nikki Hill, a belter and blues shouter of the highest order, lands at the White Water Tavern Saturday, July 23. When we checked in with her, she and her band were making their way to New Mexico from a festival in Montreal.
People seem to love comparing you to other vocalists, which is probably a way of adoring you. Who do you think you sound like (besides, you know, Nikki Hill)?
I don’t think the person in the comparison can really make a statement on that, because when I hear these comparisons, I don’t hear any of those people inside me, you know? Being compared to these kings and queens is still a little odd for me, honestly. Sure, I WANT to sound like Otis Redding, but I don’t, you know? In the meantime, I have to keep working on my own sound, so hopefully people will say I sound like Nikki Hill one of these days.
The backdrop to your tunes definitely has a blues roadhouse, sort of juke joint feel to it, but you've mentioned punk as an influence, too. Care to name a few who influenced you as a young woman?
The blues is the root of it all, so it’s hard to avoid that. I think we get the juke joint comparison because the way we play is pure and it’s honest and it’s raw, and that’s the way I know and what feels comfortable now, my band falls right into it with me. I think that’s the feel that made me fall in love with music in the first place. I like attitude and feel and energy, so it’s right there in roots music. I never expected to be a musician at all, honestly, especially not a singer! I thought if I ever joined a band I would be a bass or guitar player or something, but I loved music and despite it not being a career, music and musicians definitely influenced me. I try to keep that mindset because it keeps me from falling into any of the other crap, and just letting the music always lead, because that’s what matters. I really enjoy those that stood out in their time; Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Staple Singers using blues as the base of their gospel sound, The Duchess who played guitar with Bo Diddley, and then the artists influenced by these artists like Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, The Rolling Stones, and so on. I went to a lot of punk shows growing up and just enjoyed being able to dance and pump my fist and let loose and just lose it in the energy more than anything else. I also grew up listening to 90s R&B and hip hop, and seeing strong women like Lauryn Hill and found her songs inspiring. I would also, and still do, seek out black rock n’ roll bands like Fishbone or Bad Brains, trying to find where I fit into all the musical tastes I loved, and I saw how these bands weren’t afraid to incorporate all their musical influences and still make it their own. All of these things stick with me in some way.
So.....your t-shirt collection. I don't know that I've seen anybody wear shirts declaring "Rock N Roll" or "Born to Boogie" who was so worthy of those slogans. Have these always been a part of your style?
I love vintage shirts. Too much really. I have plenty that I don’t really even wear anymore because they are so thin and getting holes and everything. The "Born to Boogie" shirt I found online. A great modern company was making these killer shirts inspired by the vintage 70s tees and band shirts. I never ever thought anyone would care about what I wear, especially a t-shirt! But a few photos popped up from shows, and people just really dug them and thought they were very fitting to my tunes and style, to the point that they thought they were my own creations. I was trying to wear my vintage dresses and all onstage at first, because they are so beautiful and unique, but I started moving and sweating, and they started ripping, and I said ‘oh no, not happening,' and so I started wearing my t-shirts. I just found a couple of great ones recently. One says ‘Wild women don’t get the blues’, and another that says ‘Heaven doesn’t want me and hell is afraid I’ll take over’ and it says ‘SHIT HAPPENS’ in huge letters on the back. Too funny! Its’s just hard to resist a good 70s tee. And now, I have great friends and even fans that are finding these shirts and picking them up for me or letting me know, so it’s become a fun collection.
You used to sing backup and play washboard in a honky-tonk band. Do you ever break out the washboard now?
Oh, my sweet friend David Quick giving me that opportunity. Who knows why he had me come up and sing in his group? But I grew up singing in church, and in the school groups and all, so harmonies are something that I was able to do. And it was a blast. The washboard was just a random thing. Trust me, I was not good! But, we were just having fun, and how nice of him to let me just step up and throw that in. I even took it a step further and used this strange glass washboard that I found at an antique mall. And wore metal finger picks to make it extra obnoxious. Wow, what was I thinking? It’s been a long time since I’ve done that!
It's the weekend, and I can tell you right now I'm going to foist "Struttin'" on some friends in from outta town before we go out tonight. What inspired it?
Yes!!!! Play "Struttin'" for everyone! It gets me excited too. I love doing that song live. You know what’s funny is that song developed from a bit of pressure. I agreed to record an EP in 2013 with Deke Dickerson, a roots/rockabilly guitar player based in LA, and The Bo-Keys a soul combo out of Memphis, that includes some legendary players including the drummer Howard Grimes. I had just started touring full time, and was booked for 4 different Europeans tours between March and June, and my husband and I were preparing to move out of our place and just hit the road hard. It was intense, but it really kicked off so many things for us. I agreed to do this EP in the middle of two of those tours, with a week off to record, move, get ready to go to Europe again, it was a trip! For the EP, we had planned to record two covers and then Deke and I would both record an original song. So, while I was in Spain a week before going to Memphis to do the recording, I started hashing out this melody for my original song. I just had no time to do it, and felt bad that I hadn’t had much time to spend on it, but I had committed, and I don’t back out of a challenge. I also thought about the style of Howard Grimes that I’d heard on Al Green and Ann Peebles recordings, and started thinking of a groove that would compliment his style. I was really really nervous, in an excited way, about recording with someone that laid the backbeat for so many amazing songs. So, "Struttin’" came about that way. I wrote the lyrics while I drove to Memphis, and finished them while Deke was finishing recording his song in the studio. It was intense! But, I think it came out really well. So well, in fact, that then I started performing it with my band, and we put our feel on it. It became a favorite, and I love that it was inspired by a musician that I admire and that has played on songs that are among my favorites. It’s hard not to move to it!
Tickets for Nikki Hill's show at the White Water Tavern are available at Last Chance Records, 9:30 p.m., $11.50.