Nicki Bluhm photo by Hayden Bilson
Nicki Bluhm Captures Collaborative Moments On ‘Avondale Drive’
Nicki Bluhm is releasing her new solo album, Avondale Drive, on June 3rd via Compass Records, and will also be taking part in a Musicians Corner performance that day outdoors with some other bands in Nashville to celebrate the release. The album is practically bursting with soulful collaborations that take the different songs in unique directions building on different genre traditions and often veering away from expectations. Some of the collaborators on the album include Oliver Wood, James Pennebaker, Jay Bellerose, Jen Condos, Karl Denson, and A.J. Croce.
That combination of personalities makes for a very energetic album built around some very confessional and direct lyrics from Bluhm. For her, many of these songs speak about things she needs to hear and take to heart, and one of them, “Sweet Surrender” is even a kind of mantra for her. But it was the process of being “together while apart” with other musicians while recording the album that made it a particularly meaningful experience for her, and it’s one which has captured a particular time in the lives of everyone involved. I spoke with Nicki Bluhm about the different sonic directions the album takes via collaboration, the vocal explorations it brought for her, and what she feels the album captures best.
Americana Highways: From what I’ve heard, this album has a really unique genesis. Is it true that much of it was recorded in your home with collaborators?
Nicki Bluhm: Like many musicians at the time, we set up a pretty legitimate home recording situation and had enough time to really experiment, flesh it out, and get good results. When we realized that so many other musicians were also set up to do the same thing, it worked really well to do it in this way at that time. People also had time and were wanting to be creative and connect, so we were able to get friends and musicians who would otherwise be far too busy to commit to a recording project. It was kind of one of the silver linings of being stuck at home.
AH: It’s amazing because when facing an unpredictable situation, you didn’t simplify the project, but rather added a bunch more moving parts. The “more the merrier” attitude I’m finding among a number of musicians I’ve been speaking to is astonishing me.
NB: I think there was a real thirst for community, and this was a safe way to collaborate and be together without being together.
AH: I guess it was a good stand-in for experiences you otherwise might have had chatting with other bands on the road.
NB: Yes, and you still got to talk with them, share ideas, and hear tracks. It was a way to be together while being apart.
AH: Did you find yourself helping out on other peoples’ albums, too?
NB: Totally. I’ve been in Nashville for five years now, but it was really during the pandemic that I started to feel really connected to people because we were all off the road. It created a level playing field and really promoted collaborations that otherwise might not have happened. I collaborated with Margo Price for her record, did some livestream stuff at The Brooklyn Bowl. There were many instances. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and helped fill that void of purposelessness that I think a lot of us were feeling. Recording at home also helped navigate that time.
AH: Did having a lot of collaborators influence the sound of the songs via their input? I ask that because I see a lot of amazing directions and traditions for each of these songs, as if each kind of exists in its own world.
NB: I think that’s a good way to put it. It does sound like each song is its own little world. You get someone like Karl Denson, who plays with The Stones and has had this incredible, diverse career playing funk and jazz, playing on the song “Feel.” He really influenced the party vibe. It only turned out that way because Karl brought such a cool groove to a song that’s untraditional in many ways.
Then James Pennebaker played the country ballads, and brings the best examples of heart-crushing, gorgeous, lamenting expressions of deepest sorry. Only he could do that. A.J. Croce is a co-write on “Love To Spare” and that riff is him. He wrote it. There was nobody else to play on it, and his voice is very conversational. There’s a lot of personality to the record because of all the collaborations.
We also didn’t give any collaborator any real directions, at all, which was part of the fun. We asked people to be on the record as themselves and do what they would do. It was just, “Do you!”
AH: It feels like having musical guests on a show. Did you, personally, have to adapt your vocals to go in these new directions, or did you just do what you wanted to do?
NB: I’ve always been told, my whole career, that when you record, you should record in the highest key that you can tolerate. With my last record I started to explore things, but I’ve never really dug into the lower part of my range that I prefer more than going for that high mark. In a live setting, that can make sense because you want to project and cut through the band, but in a recording setting, you have the luxury of not having to cut through the noise. If anything, this was more of an exploration of my range in the lower tones, which was also more comfortable. It was fun to be me on every song but explore the vibe of the songs and what they needed.
AH: I think the overall effect is a more intimate feel, like the audience is closer to the voice, possibly because it’s closer to spoken language.
NB: Totally. This was also the first time that I explored Peggy Lee-style talking part. I think the reason for that was because there was so much conversation in my mind while I was writing these songs, even if it was only conversation with myself. Talking felt really natural because that was so much of what I was doing. The talking in the songs was a first for me, and it felt really organic to do it for this record, in particular.
AH: Did becoming more aware of your internal thoughts drive the writing on the album?
NB: A song like “Sweet Surrender” is fully me observing my ruminating mind, recognizing how unhealthy it is, and writing a song to talk myself down. I’m asking myself, “What are you in control of? What are you not? What can you do today that makes feel in control? How do we get the mouse off the wheel in your mind?” I’ve always been pretty introspective, and I’ve been in therapy for many years. I’ve gone through a lot of self-inquiry which is a lifelong, never-ending thing.
My mom likes to point out to me that I can sometimes overdo that, and I think that’s true. I think there’s a balance to find between introspection and realizing that you’re just a person and can’t solve or fix everything. It’s a lot of acceptance needed. As the song says, it’s about learning to love yourself, since in the end, that’s all we’ve got. You might as well at least like the person who you have to hang out with. It can be a lot of work, particularly if you have a very loud inner critic, which I do.
AH: I could definitely relate to a lot of these songs, and I did find “Sweet Surrender” so familiar.
NB: That song really was about me saying, “I need to hear this song.” I have one tattoo, and it’s on the palm of my hand. It says, “Let go, and let God.” I need to look at that every day. This song is a mantra for me, and if it becomes a mantra for somebody else, that’s great. That’s what I need every day to remind me what I am in control of and what I’m not.
AH: Was it harder to decide when songs were finished or when the album was done because of recording at home and remotely?
NB: I think that’s where producers really help people. Jesse Noah Wilson produced this record and he’s pretty definitive. I trust him. Having a producer you can trust is really important to me because I’m a Virgo and tend towards perfectionism, but my favorite parts of all records are the little fuck-ups, the things that shouldn’t be there, and the character that cuts through. I think that there is an organic quality to just letting something lie and not over-manipulating it.
It’s funny because you think a song is done, you get it mastered, you turn it in, and when the song comes out, there’s a whole new level of wondering, “Is this done?” But it doesn’t matter. It’s done and it’s out. There comes a point where you just have to let it go, and more than once in the cycle of the record.
AH: Sometimes what helps artist get past that moment is thinking, “This is a version of the song. This is the version that is being released. It doesn’t encapsulate everything this song could be.”
NB: I love that. I totally relate to that. That’s another thing about recording that’s so important. Jerry Phillips from Sam Phillips Recording, where I did my last record, told me this. He said, “You’re not capturing perfectionism, you’re capturing a moment in time.” That really sticks with me, always. The recording is like the memory of the time, and if you go in and meddle with it too much, you lose that humanness.
AH: That must especially be true on this record, where you’re working with these great people. You’ve captured that.
NB: Yes, it’s so cool that Jay Bellarose was in his living room under a patio furniture umbrella playing his drums. I’m not sure if he’ll continue to be set up like that, or want to keep his drums in the living room, but it was a very cool time to get him to so generously play drums on my record. And his partner, Jen Condos, is playing bass. They are a power rhythm section, and they did it from their house, in their way. It’s pretty special.
AH: Do you have a particular philosophy about including your life in your songs? Is that something that you’ve always done?
NB: It’s something I need to do. It helps me process. It’s a catharsis. Writing helps me to understand my feelings. I was taught from a really early age, “Buck up! You’re good. Move on.” It was all this forced positivity. But life is not just good, it’s such a spectrum of emotions. I think as a kid, I was never really allowed to feel those emotions, so as an adult, I’m learning what my feelings are. I’m learning how to name them and address them.
Writing is a really important tool for me. It’s not ground-breaking shit, but it is helpful for me. I don’t really know how to write any other way. If it’s not helping me work through something, the purpose behind the song becomes less for me. That’s not to say it can’t be fun to go into a writing session, or have a project where there’s a topic to write around. That can be a puzzle or an exercise, but if I’m going to share a song with the world, or put out a record under my own name, it’s going to be about my experiences and my inner landscape.
AH: How does that relate to the experience of performing the songs after they’ve been written? Is that another kind of therapeutic experience?
NB: It depends on the recording and performing cycle. Sometimes by the time you perform, you’re really far away from where you were when the song was written and revisiting it can create a complex reaction. Sometimes it can pull you back into a time of sadness, and sometimes it allows you to see how far you’ve come and how much growth you’ve experienced. It’s just different for every stage, at every turn.
It’s interesting to me right now, as I relearn how to play this album for the stage. I’m feeling like, “Oh, this is fun! This is going to be exciting! I like these songs.” That’s encouraging, because you don’t always want to play all your songs all the time. Time, distance, and growth affect things. There are so many factors.
Thanks, Nicki Bluhm, for talking with us! Enjoy our earlier interview here: Key to the Highway: Nicki Bluhm
Our review is here: REVIEW: Nicki Bluhm “Avondale Drive”
Find lots more Nicki Bluhm information here: https://www.nickibluhm.com/