After spending the last six years as lead singer and front person of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, as well as recent high-profile collaborations and performances with the likes of Phil Lesh, Ryan Adams, and The Infamous Stringdusters, Nicki Bluhm is stepping out on her own with her new album, TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALL. Recorded in Memphis at legendary Sam Phillips Recording, Bluhm brought in producer Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell), and the end result heralds Nicki’s arrival as a songwriter and vocalist of great depth and immediacy.
TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALL is a chronicle of Bluhm’s state of mind following both a divorce and a separation from the only band she had ever known. Said Bluhm, “These songs are quite personal. They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without.”
Fundamental life changes and the need to challenge herself inspired the West Coast native to make a spur-of-the moment, cross-country move to Nashville in 2017. “Nashville was inspiring because of the all the songwriting going on here,” Bluhm says. “When I would come to Nashville on writing trips it was just percolating…it was intoxicating. So I very hastily, in a matter of days, decided to move. I just had this gut feeling.”
Ross-Spang happened to be mixing a record in Nashville at the time and they met and hit it off immediately.
“I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did,” Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. “My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn’t want to have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we’d record in Memphis.”
TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALL is imbued with a Southern sensibility and echoes the musical heritage of that city. From the plaques on the walls for Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley to the analog tape machines, Sam Phillips Recording is largely unchanged since it was built in 1958. Bluhm made a decision to challenge herself—to leave all her old working relationships and routines behind for a fresh start.
The songs on the album were written over a span of roughly two years, each one capturing a different phase of a dissolving marriage of a decade.
“I began writing the songs for this record when I was in a failing marriage to a man who was not only my husband but also my musical partner, mentor, and bandmate. The earliest song written for the album is ‘How Do I Love You’ and was essentially a plea to understand how to make the communication better in a marriage I was desperate to save. ‘Battlechain Rose’ is a coming to terms with the reality of deception and betrayal while ‘To Rise You Gotta Fall’ is a more hopeful message born out of a lot of therapy, contemplation, time, self-help and healing.”
Some fortuitous co-writes, including a song written with Ryan Adams, helped Bluhm distill her emotions into lyrics. “Getting to write with Ryan was really a joy; it was interesting to get a peek into his process. It happened in such a spontaneous way it could never have been planned, and I think it allowed this free, open dialog that was almost conversational.” One of the songs that include Adams’ influence is the biting “Something Really Mean.”
“I was going to write this really scathing review of a woman I hate and I wrote the whole song and I just didn’t have the last line—the kicker—so I sent it to Ryan and in parentheses I put, ‘something really mean that would hurt her’ hoping he would be able to give me that last line. He wrote back something like, ‘Scrap everything except the line in parentheses’ and so that’s where the song began. That was the most insightful writing advice I’d ever received from anyone because it taught me to ‘use your stream of consciousness, don’t overthink—say what you mean, say what’s real.’
“I wrote ‘The Last to Know’ with Simon Gugala and it was one of my first co-writes in Nashville. I had the idea in my head that I wanted to write a song called, ‘Why Was I the Last to Know’—the question I was begging to ask but not yet able to. When I sat down with him for the first time I mentioned the idea but warned him the backstory might be TMI (too much information). He just laughed and said, ‘There’s no such thing as TMI in Nashville’. When we finished the song, it felt like I’d been in a therapy session — like I had dropped this weight off my chest — and that’s when I really realized the power of writing and how cathartic it could be. It’s been studied and proven that extreme emotions, like anger, turn into sadness when left unexpressed, which then turns into depression. So they need to be released. In that way, this album seriously saved my life…or at least saved me from a life of depression. Everyone needs to realize how important it is to express feelings, especially women, and that it just makes you ill if you can’t.”
The geography of the sessions played into the recording in other ways. “Matt [Ross-Spang] and I were talking about doing a cover song that somehow is associated with Memphis. He sent me a giant list and I landed on Dan Penn’s ‘I Hate You’; I listened to it and it just blew me away. I wasn’t that familiar with Dan but I met him and his wife, Linda, shortly after cutting his song. I said, ‘Dan, it’s so nice to meet you, such a small world. I just put your song ‘ Hate You’ on my record.’ And Linda said, ‘I love that song, but it’s not I hate you that he says, it’s I’m TRYING to hate you. I should know ‘cause it’s about me!’ She was so Southern, so sweet and excited—a very memorable Nashville moment for me.”
Once settled in Sam Phillips Recording, the sessions revolved around tracking live with an ace band assembled by Ross-Spang.
“We really just recorded live and didn’t do that many takes of each song; the final versions we ended up with were all one take,” Bluhm says. The first song they recorded was the title track. “Ken [Coomer — Uncle Tupelo, Wilco] just started playing the groove and the band slowly started to drift in. Ken is such a present musician; he’s listening to the words and reading the room and the feel.” The musicians included Will Sexton (electric guitar), Matt Ross-Spang (guitars), Coomer (drums and percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (Wurlitzer), Dave Smith (bass), and Reba Russell and Susan Marshall (vocals), with Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and various special guests. What you hear is the sense of discovery in each song.
“It was really refreshing to record in analog. It minimized overthinking and second-guessing; it forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. Sam Shoup did all the string arrangements and when he first walked in the room I thought he was a housepainter, he was the most understated, unlikely suspect. That was the thing about Memphis that was cool—not a lot of egos, just people making music for music’s sake. Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends time curating his sessions and deciding whom to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, ‘not perfection but captured moments in time’.
“I had lost my partner and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to rev my own engine,” she said. “It was really intimidating and scary but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn’t even know I had in me. I was on autopilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving. When the album finally comes out it’s going to be like setting a caged bird free.”
Nicki Bluhm, newly inspired songwriter and solo artist, is enjoying Nashville, her new band, and the challenge of establishing herself on her own.
“I’m really ready to play live in this new formation and as kind of this new, (hopefully) wiser person. I feel like I’ve been through the carwash! The whole thing has definitely been a learning experience, and I’m hoping that once the record is out, I’ll start to feel a lightness and really experience the final stages of healing. I’m rediscovering my authentic self and that feels really good. This is where I need to be right now, and I know the impermanence of life. I’m not going to lie and say it’s totally comfortable or that I’m completely at peace but I’m trying to live in the moment and trust the universe to take me where I am meant to go.”