The Core: Nicki Bluhm on New Album ‘To Rise You Gotta Fall’
photo by Lauren Massie
After divorcing her husband and musical partner Tim Bluhm and putting her Gramblers on ice, Bay Area singer Nicki Bluhm starts anew with her solo release, To Rise You Gotta Fall.
THE ARC OF DISSOLVE
Everybody has different ways of coping with transition and change—I write. When I started writing, I wasn’t aware that it was going to be for this record—it was something I had to do, spiritually and emotionally. I started writing the first song about two years ago at the beginning of a big shift, energetically, in my life—becoming aware that a relationship, a marriage, was on the brink and failing, and just wanting to put my energy into fixing that. So it began with trying to come to terms and understand what was happening in my life and in my relationship.
With everything that I put out, being authentic is the most important thing for me, so these sentiments are true to the period of time when they were written. There was a lot of catharsis in it for me and the songs continued to follow my path up through that shift; things obviously looked different when I wrote the last song right before we went into the studio. It shows the arc of dissolve.
I started going to Nashville just over a year ago. The Gramblers are my brothers; I have nothing but love for them and I’m certainly not closing any doors. But I really believe that it’s important for everybody to try new things—to be experimental, brave, courageous, play with other people and not get stuck on any one thing. The fear of having a new experience was the same fear of staying in the same place, so I decided to try something new. It was a spontaneous move. I’ve lived in California my whole life and, when Tim and I divorced, I wanted a fresh start. The Bay Area is small and I needed to spread my wings a little bit—I needed room to start over and to look inward and rediscover who I am. Being married for 10 years during a really important, formative decade of my life left me feeling pretty lost.
The move forced me to go to a place where I didn’t have any of that comfort—and I still don’t—though I feel a lot better being in Nashville now that I have a band. I physically moved to Nashville, but the journey has been predominantly an inward one—and continues to be—and it will be that way for the rest of my life. This experience has brought me a lot more self-awareness. That’s not easy work to do, but it’s really important work. Nashville’s also a lot more affordable than the Bay Area, which was very appealing to me, and I happened to be there in the spring, which was a really beautiful time. I just pulled the trigger, and a month later, I was moving into my house. Sometimes, if you overthink things, they can hold you back. The best things come from saying, “Yes.”
THE WORST PERSON IN THE PLACE
In California, I was writing with friends or partners—people I knew and trusted—or on my own. Nashville is this whole different beast. Suddenly, you were almost going to work. It actually lent to the creativity because I used both sides of my brain. Sometimes I can be a little bit more type A, unfortunately, which is not that conducive to letting go and making music. These songwriting sessions were cool because you went in with an intention.
When you get a good co-writer, who matches with you chemically and your chemistry is on, then it’s this really cool union because you’re exploring this inner world with somebody else. I found that it was nice to bounce ideas off of people. It feels like a therapy session. You’re talking about real life. It starts with a conversation and it’s this patient, organic experience. I was fortunate enough to get multiple people who I loved working with and I ended up making lifelong friends.
For me, that was the allure of Nashville—the writing element. I also knew that I wanted to surround myself with people who were ambitious, motivated and inspired me—people who were motivated to be a student of their craft. You can’t suck in Nashville; it doesn’t fly. And to me, that was inspiring. You always want to be the worst person in the place.
FACETIMING WITH RYAN
Ryan [Adams] and I had known of each other through social media. I was on the road with the Stringdusters when our friendship started to blossom. He had some solo gigs planned, asked me if I knew a bluegrass band and I recommended them. We did two co-writes on my record: “Battlechain Rose” and “Something Really Mean.” Working with Ryan was really spontaneous. We were FaceTiming and he was like, “What are you working on?” and I showed him “Battlechain Rose.” If you can hook him, that means he’s interested, and it’s just cool to watch him roll with it.
The album was recorded in Memphis, at Sam Phillips Recording Services with producer Matt Ross-Spang, who is now a dear friend of mine. I was talking with a few people who fell through, but finding Matt was fate. We met up while I was on a songwriting trip to Nashville to see if we jived. Matt has this understated confidence. I trusted him right away. I can’t explain it; he has a good energy about him, and he puts his head down and works. You meet a lot of people in the industry who start recording at 4 p.m. and work until the morning, which is what I was used to. His professionalism was a breath of fresh air. I’m somebody who likes to sleep, so all the puzzle pieces aligned and he got the right people in the room.
The only baggage that I wanted to carry into making this record was the words that I was saying. When you know people so well and you’ve been with them for so long, you know how they’re gonna respond, or else you project. I wanted a clean slate—a safe place—because the songs were so vulnerable. I didn’t want anyone I was working with to know my story; I wanted them to hear the songs without knowing their backstory. It was a great move because I was able to let go without judgment or anxiety. It was the freest I had felt in a long time.
I tend to listen to the same records, which I don’t think is the best thing—music for me is very comforting. Sonically, Matt was a huge contributor to the way that the sounds blossomed, so it was really great having him in that leadership role.
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.