A San Franciscan now calling Tennessee home, Nicki Bluhm possesses a modern, clear-eyed perspective that grabs the heart and keeps you holding on to every word.
Bluhm’s music career began in the Cow Hollow area of San Francisco, where she recorded two solo albums and co-founded Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. The band wrote and performed their own music and recorded covers nostalgic to their childhoods, including the Hall and Oates classic “I Can’t Go For That.” After gaining widespread attention for their “Van Sessions” on YouTube, they toured internationally and recorded two albums as a band.
The band’s meteoric ascent into the public eye had its obvious blessings, but it came with challenges as well, particularly for Bluhm’s creative process. Says Bluhm, “It’s been confusing learning how to move away from defining success in an algorithmic way; how many clicks and likes and views you can get. These past few years have been a process of trying to articulate my authentic voice, which has taken a lot of self-reflection, vulnerability, and to be honest, therapy.” In 2017 Bluhm made the decision to leave California to forge a career as a solo artist in Nashville. Her ensuing solo album, To Rise You Gotta Fall (2018), plumbed the depths of hard goodbyes and hopeful beginnings. Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Calexico) and recorded in the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Services in Memphis, the album exhibited a natural blending of Tennessee sound and Bluhm’s West Coast roots, which she jokes as being her ‘CaliMemphis’ sound.
In 2020, Bluhm embarked on creating her new album with Los Angeles producer Jesse Noah Wilson. Releasing in June of 2022, Avondale Drive is a masterful exploration of what it means to be fully yourself, rather than a vessel for the expectations of others. “This album is a lot about building trust back in myself. Finding my own inner compass and aligning it to my authentic self,” she says. “When you go through a lot of trauma, divorce, estrangement… you learn that you don’t have to repeat the patterns of the past or continue to identify with the old story.”
Recorded in Bluhm’s home in East Nashville, and featuring the talents of luminaries like Oliver Wood, James Pennebaker, Jay Bellerose, Jen Condos, Erik Slick, Erin Rae, Karl Denson, A.J. Croce and more, Avondale Drive combines nostalgic country-rock with distinctly modern, sharp lyricism—an apt contrast for the process of studying one’s past in order to make a better future. Opening the album is “Learn to Love Myself,” about the self-reflection that comes when you don’t have a person around to distract you from your own flaws. “A friend and I joked about how when you revert to living alone you realize that a lot of your frustrations weren’t really about the other person, they were merely projections of our own insecurities.” The song’s 60s country-pop naiveté is perfectly tongue-in-cheek as Bluhm sings: “I guess I’ve perfected the art of placing the blame / it’s just so easy cursing your name.” A rousing chorus of “If I don’t have you / I guess I’ll have to learn to love myself” has all the perfect happy-sad contradiction of Leslie Gore insisting on crying at her own party.
Bluhm’s deft self-awareness is all the more apparent in “Love to Spare” which Bluhm co-wrote with songwriter A.J. Croce. “We came up with the line ‘I’ve got love to share but none to spare’ out of the sheer confusion of middle-aged dating and the idea that it’s OK to share love without giving it away.” The song’s easygoing manner and the friendly back-and-forth between Bluhm and Croce convey the comfort and sometimes humor in knowing your personal boundaries.
The heat is kicked up a notch for “Feel,” a juxtaposition of sentiments and time signatures. When Bluhm developed the song with producer Jesse Noah Wilson, Wilson said: “it was like two different songs…I thought they sounded cool as two totally different things working together.” That tension between the blues and funk, between frustration and knowing that ‘this too shall pass,’ is followed by the satisfying exhale of “Sweet Surrender” which aptly defines a crucial lesson in the human experience – ‘It takes a lifetime to learn who we are and you gotta earn every scar.”
“Writing songs is often a way for me to talk myself down when my ruminating mind won’t stop,” Bluhm says, “I have to remind myself that it’s important to sit with hard feelings, to know what I’m in control of and more importantly of what I’m not. To learn how to be comfortable within the discomfort. The songs I tend to write are typically what become the mantras I need to hear most.” Eric Slick plays the drums on this track, and the Wurlitzer piano adds to the song’s sepia-toned, lean-back-and-let-go sensibility.
Bluhm’s folk influences shine in “Juniper Woodsmoke,” where she looks back at her 10-year marriage to musician Tim Bluhm. The song begins as a 6/8 ballad as Bluhm recalls good memories. “Who says it’s a failure?” she sings, shifting into a sentimental waltz signature. A gorgeous fiddle solo played by James Pennebaker evokes a heartfelt goodbye. “Though we may never ever settle the score,” Bluhm sings, “It don’t matter / ‘Cause it won’t be what it was before.”
The second half of the album shifts more to the present day, bringing in texture and fresh energy. “Friends (How To Do It),” a duet with Oliver Wood (The Wood Brothers), is an amusing shake of the head at the follies of dating in the modern world, while “Mother’s Daughter” is a rallying cry for survivors of harassment and sexual assault. “How long till you believe her?” Bluhm wonders. “She is a woman / She is her mother’s daughter / only getting stronger.” “Fool’s Gold” is a stylistic nod to the theatrical sonic landscape of Ennio Morricone as it laments the many false promises and ulterior motives women navigate through in the male-dominated recording industry.
The final two tracks of Avondale Drive are reminiscent of the beginnings and endings in Bluhm’s previous album, but there is a distinctly new, mature perspective. “Leaving Me (Is the Loving Thing to Do)” is a heart-wrenching ballad about the moment of realization that a relationship is over. “Speaking the truth and hearing the truth isn’t easy, but it’s better than prolonging the inevitable,” Bluhm says. “At the end of a relationship, sometimes the truth is the only scrap of kindness we have left to offer.” Finally, Bluhm looks ahead with high hopes in “Wheels Rolling,” a windows-down, hit-the-gas banger. “This song really goes back to the overarching theme of trusting yourself, trusting the universe and trusting it’ll all work out as it should. Calling off the war with what IS.”
Following appearances and collaborations with artists such as Phil Lesh, Dawes, The Band of Heathens, Little Feat, and The Infamous Stringdusters, Bluhm’s creative confidence is well-won, and her authentic voice and songwriting is all the more apparent on Avondale Drive.
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