Nashville Singer-Songwriter Nicki Bluhm on the Cathartic Power of Music

For singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm, originally of the popular San Francisco-based band Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, it has been quite a year, to say the least. She has set out on her own as a solo artist; released a new solo album on June 1; endured a divorce; moved to Nashville—and is now out on a full-fledged cross-country tour.

At the beginning, as Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Bluhm’s music career flowered alongside that of her now ex-husband, Tim Bluhm, who was one of the first people to encourage her to make music. It’s a story that makes her album, titled “To Rise You’ve Gotta Fall,” all the more resonant. Now based comfortably in Nashville, Bluhm has written and performed with contemporary greats like Ryan Adams and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, plunging ahead on her journey. We caught up with her for a phone interview, discussing the cathartic power of music in challenging times and life as a musician.

I love the message of the title track of the new album, “To Rise You’ve Gotta Fall,” with lyrical wordplay like “You’ve gotta have pain on your way to pleasure” and “What doesn’t kill you makes your story longer.” How do those moments come to you?
For that particular song, I had just left my home in San Francisco where I lived with my now ex-husband. I moved from a three-bedroom home into a tiny studio in Sausalito, California. When you move from a place where you’ve lived for years, oftentimes you acquire memories that are attached to things, and that move for me was really that first purge of things I’d lived with. That apartment was my first recovery nest, and it represented my first glimpse of hope after a really dark period of time. I had this little sliver of a view, my cat was with me and the sun was shining. It was the first time I’d written anything hopeful in a long time.

At first, I didn’t really set out to create an album. But the writing process started a couple of years ago, and the songs on the record span over a period of time that reflect on the dissolution of a marriage and this big change in my life. The writing took place over this period of intense transition. I didn’t set out to do a specific thing with it, but it has been a real process of catharsis for me: getting these thoughts out of the ruminating mind and into song. It was something that I had to do for my own healing and mental health.

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When you’re working with these large, challenging ideas of transition, of change, of working through difficult moments and embracing hope, how do those ideas coalesce into these really succinct moments you capture in the songs?
I’m flattered to hear you say that—it’s something I’m always striving for. I try to listen to people who have really strong spiritual practices in their lives, and one of my favorite people to listen to is Tara Brach. She talks a lot about life’s simplicities, and how we tend to make things more complicated than they actually are. I like to zoom out and get a bird’s eye perspective, or look at myself like I’m a character in a movie and think, ‘Would I like that person? What would I say to her?’ Life is a lot simpler than we think, and we can get so caught up in our heads that things become so complicated. Writing forces you to cut the fat and to get down to the heart of the matter. That has really helped me in my process of healing, and simplifying this whirlwind of thoughts in my head. It’s helpful for me, and hopefully for other people.

What have you learned through this experience?
I’m still getting through it. It’s a lot of one step forward two steps back, and things pop up unexpectedly. The stages of experiencing something traumatic are long and take time. There’s a real evolutionary shift that comes with tapping into your emotions and letting yourself feel what you’re feeling. When you bury or suppress, you’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again. This experience has brought up a lot of self-reflection, looking inward at old patterns. That self-exploration is never over.

Backing up a bit, how did you originally get into music?
I got my first guitar when I was 17, and at that point I realized I could accompany myself and sing a song. But I was very self-conscious about it; I would only do it in the confines of my room, or if I was drunk at a party. That’s how Tim [Bluhm] heard me sing. He fell into my life at the right time and said, “You should do something with music.” There are very few people in the world I would have believed or trusted. At that time, his belief in me was very powerful. Then he was doing a soundcheck for a show and said, “Come sing on stage with me.” The confidence he had in me allowed me to do that.

Being a musician was never the path that I thought I would take. It’s so winding, and there’s no assurance of what will come next. It can be terrifying; the way that it works goes against every instinct that I have.

The music industry is notoriously cutthroat. How have you navigated that?
I listened to one of Oprah’s podcasts (I know), but she talks really openly about how comparison will kill you. You can only be you. I try really hard to stay in my own lane, but social media makes it really hard. I feel like it’s actually made me more anti-social. It’s just so easy to spend time on it, and we’re starting to see how the toxicity outweighs the positive. But the way this industry is, it’s necessary. You want to let people know what you’re doing and what you’re up to, but it certainly doesn’t help with the mental mind state. It really lends itself to the unhealthy comparison.

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You’ve worked with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and Ryan Adams. What is it like to work with artists like that?
Well first of all, Phil is one of the kindest people I have ever met. I remember the first time I was on stage with him, which was surreal. I remember thinking that my brother, who is a huge Dead Head, would be freaking out. And then it turned into a friendship when he opened his venue, the Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, and he got some musician friends to play at the opening.

Watching him and his work ethic while opening that venue and playing night after night—I realized how committed to and steeped in music he is. I’m also a big Grateful Dead fan; I love “Easy Wind,” which is a song that will always have a space in my heart. I love “Morning Dew.” “Box of Rain” is a masterpiece.

All the same goes for Ryan as well. He’s written some of my absolute favorite songs. We did some shows with him, and learning his catalogue was pure joy. The music is so, so beautiful. With him, writing is very spontaneous and could never be planned. I really fell into it, and it could never be planned or repeated. He’s a very interesting person to watch work. “Let it Ride” is one of my favorite songs. And I love the whole “Easy Tiger” album. He’s a really special writer.

You’re now based in Nashville. What led to the move—and why Nashville?
Really, songwriting brought me here. When Tim and I divorced, not only did I lose the romantic relationship but also a musical relationship. We did a lot of co-writing together, and he was very much a mentor to me. When that dynamic was no longer available, I realized there was a whole world of songwriting, and I came to Nashville for the chance to experience that collaborative work. People do it all day every day here. I also realized that songwriting could be so rewarding in a collaborative way; it’s almost an addictive thing. When you’re finished, you feel like you’re on top of a mountain; you’ve created something from thin air. It’s really motivating and inspiring.

I live in East Nashville, in a neighborhood that I love. My neighbor has turned out to be my dearest friend and co-writer. It just takes some time to find your tribe. I hang up my bird feeder, listen to them sing, and drink ice tea on my front porch. I love it. I’ve lived my whole life in California, and my whole family and many friends are there. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but right I’m definitely staying in the moment.

Photography by Noah Abrams 

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