w/Swick & Jones
8:30 p.m. Friday, August 29
1100 S. Calhoun St., Fort Wayne
Tix: $6 d.o.s.
Children under 12 free with adult
Vintage Rock & Soul
Some artists – even great artists – take years and even decades to uncover their essence. Others seem to spring fully formed as soon as they open their mouths.
It didn’t take long for the rock ‘n’ roots-belting force of nature known as Nikki Hill to figure out which camp she fell into. Hill, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, had no sooner found her sound when she found that a growing number of others agreed. Two well-received releases and several national and international performances later, Hill continues a whirlwind ride that shows no signs of slowing down. And she’s fine with that.
You can catch Nikki Hill and her band (which she has dubbed the Pirate Crew) in person when they perform at the Botanical Conservatory on August 29. We caught up with the singer shortly after she returned from a European jaunt.
The surprising thing about Hill’s success is that it wasn’t a result of a lifelong drive to make music. “I wasn’t a kid who dreamed of being a singer or a musician. The inspiration wasn’t the same,” she says.
But her lifetime love of listening to music contributed at least as much to her career as her talent has. She recalls some of the factors that shaped her. “Like any kid of the ‘90s, my interest seemed to revolve around MTV and the radio at that point. I was very much a part of that generation. Having two older sisters as well, either I was forced to or by default listened to whatever they listened to.”
Hill notes, however, that she was drawn to old-school rock and soul early on.
“There’s always a catalyst, someone who introduces you to something different – allows you to have that chance to hear something different. A lot of times, driving around with my parents, we’d listen to a lot of the oldies stations. That’s where I got to first hear a lot of the 50s and 60s rock n’ roll and R&B and soul, and 70s funk.”
Even when she was a child, Hill made connections between different types of music – namely, the sacred and the secular.
“I grew up singing in gospel choir as a kid, and it definitely taught me a lot. I attribute that, plus the influences I got later on, to the way I sing today. I always really loved the older gospel music. I loved the music that came before the instruments and the production and before the gigantic arrangements.”
Hill eagerly sought out some of the classics.
“I really loved the stripped-down vocal groups like the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds. And singing in the choirs let me do stuff like that. It just had the best energy and a great raw feeling. I’ve always thought that always tied into rock n’ roll. It was completely parallel to me. Listening to the radio with my dad and hearing something like Little Richard, it was the same thing, you know? Singers like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis or Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, other people who originally came from the church, I think that sound kind of resonates in the music no matter what you’re singing.”
Her proximity to a large college environment gave her plenty of opportunities to seek out new music.
“As I got older and into adolescence, I started looking for something different,” Hill remembers. “I met a young lady in middle school who, you know, smoked cigarettes and dyed her hair. I found it really intriguing. We’d drive around and listen to really loud music. When you’re a teenager, that’s the coolest thing, you know? We started going to shows together, really would go to almost any show.”
She says punk rock attracted her for a time.
“I liked the energy, the youth, the attitude ... the kind of ‘do it yourself’ aspect of it.”
Eventually, she discovered music that fused punk’s energy with the styles she always appreciated.
“Being near Chapel Hill and the big college there was great. There was actually a lot of really good roots music happening at that time, and I was lucky to be able to see a lot of those acts, especially local acts. It was all right there.”
She remembers being drawn to the earthier music that drew from classic forms but added an influx of new energy.
“The cool thing about so many of those artists, like Southern Culture on the Skids, Dexter Romweber and Flat Duo Jets, was that a lot of their influences were roots artists from the 50s and 60s. You hear what they brought with them from 50s rock n’ roll or 60s soul. ‘Roots music’ is such an open term that you’re able to put your own spin on it.”
By the time Hill had moved from avid listener to active participant, she already had a good idea of where her own style was headed. But it was the encouragement and backing from seasoned musician (and now husband and bandmate) Matt Hill that helped set her on her way.
“I was doubtful in the beginning: ‘Really, you think I can do this the way you’ve been doing it?’ I just wasn’t sure of it at all, but he gave me a huge push,” Hill says.
“But also, I’m pretty bullheaded. Despite being doubtful at the start, stage confidence wasn’t something that I had a problem with. You just have to get up there and do it. Thankfully not having stage fright gave me a boost: ‘I’m gonna get up there and give it a shot.’ And the more I got up there, the better the responses got.”
The ball began to roll from there.
“Then it was time to write and record some tunes, because there was already some demand,” she says. “I was lucky to have that assurance from the beginning that people wanted me to release something and wanted to see the live show. That’s a big confidence boost.”
Hill’s career picked up steam at an impressive clip. She released an eponymously titled EP in 2012, just as her performance calendar exploded.
“It all kind of happened at once. When I recorded the EP, it was definitely in response to encouragement from people. One of the first big pushes was actually people shooting videos of shows and putting them on YouTube. Pretty soon, the name came up and people started looking for records. And there wasn’t a record yet. Messages were coming in, saying, ‘Where’s your record?’ and ‘Come play at this festival,’ and ‘Are you open for gigs?’ At that point, I’d only done a handful of gigs. It all came really, really suddenly. Pretty much as soon as I recorded the EP, I started touring full time.”
Hill embraces the challenge of being a full-time musician, and her clear-eyed view of the situation sets her up well for success.
“I’d say the road has been the absolute best training I could have gotten. Granted, you’re learning things on the spot at times. But there’s no other way around it. You’ve got to go through all the weird stuff and all the good stuff, and learn how to handle it,” she says. “It did happen very suddenly. You have to understand that you’re still an artist, but it’s also a business.”
What was her initial studio experience like?
“I had a good time, but I was completely green to it,” she says. “Recording the EP took a handful of hours in one day, so it wasn’t really a full-on experience. It was like, ‘Come on in with these great, seasoned musicians and cut this,’ and everybody made it so easy, you know?” She notes that recording her debut full-length, Here’s Nikki Hill, “was a bit like that as well. I enjoyed it. It’s quite a bit different from performing live, but there’s something very cool about making a permanent record of your songs. I also like being able to record a song one way and then later going back and listen to how we perform it live, seeing how it was different when we recorded it initially. We didn’t even get to play through the songs on the album live before we recorded them.”
Hill’s lively blend of vintage rock n’ roll, R&B and soul is no facile, crowd-pleasing act. This is the sound she’s always loved.
“It’s the music I love. If I wasn’t making this kind of music, I’d be searching for it and listening to it,” she says. “It doesn’t feel right to get stuck in one ‘roots’ subcategory. If you want to just play all rock n’ roll one night, you should be able to play that, or soul, or blues, or country. There are a lot of artists who feel that way. And I’m definitely not bothered by people saying my sound has a vintage edge. I mean, thank you, you know? It’s representing the sound that we love and the people we admire musically.”
And, when asked about what she’s been listening to lately, Hill responds with enthusiasm: “I am obsessively listening to the Staples Singers right now. There was a point where I was just listening to Freedom Highway on repeat. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Bon Scott-era AC/DC. Right now I’m really appreciating his vocals. And Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry has been a great artist for road trip listening. Steady beat, steady dub... a totally different thing than what we do. It feels good when you’re driving.”
Speaking of driving, the singer and her band will be doing plenty of it in the months to come.
“We’re stateside through September, then on to Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and France,” she says. “We’ll be over there until late November. Once we get back, we’ll take a little bit of time and then go back into the studio and record. And after that, start all over again!”