This article appears in our September/October issue. Order it here.
Music fans can get suspicious when they hear that an artist has picked up exposure from the internet before having a big recording success. In some cases, those concerns may be justified, yet Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers had the talent and the chops all along to court a wider audience; they just used the web to grease the wheels a bit.
Those wheels happened to be on the San Francisco-based band’s touring van, where they would do cover songs en route from venue to venue with Bluhm singing while driving. They taped these “Van Sessions,” uploaded them to YouTube, and watched as their take on Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” became a viral sensation.
Building on that exposure, the band’s new self-titled album, their first credited to Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers following a couple of Bluhm solo releases, has the same sing-along feel as some of the classics they covered. “While I don’t think the covers necessarily shaped any of my songs on the new album, I do feel that they make me think of songwriting on a broader scope, studying the components of a song and trying to grasp what makes them appeal to such a spanning audience,” Bluhm says. “Was it the hook, the big blanketing message, the harmonies; there are so many components to a lot of these songs yet they seem so simple and easy. Ultimately, I think that’s what people are drawn to.”
The Gramblers consist of Bluhm on vocals, husband Tim Bluhm on keys, guitar, and vocals, Deren Ney on lead guitar, Dave Mulligan on rhythm guitar and vocals, Steve Adams on bass guitar and vocals, and Mike Curry on drums. Songwriting duties are shared among several group members. “This is the first album where all the Gramblers play all the parts,” Tim Bluhm says. “In the last few years we have collectively worked very hard. The dedication and the camaraderie are such a huge part of what is happening for us. All of us Gramblers are like-minded and we kind of do things our own way.”
Another thing the Gramblers do on the new album is effortlessly switch styles. Listeners are treated to swaggering blues, West Coast-flavored country, folk duets, old-school soul ballads, driving rock, and even a call-and-response R&B track that recalls Gladys Knight & The Pips. According to Tim Bluhm, his wife’s vocals allow the band to be so versatile. “Given the nature of this band, in which Nicki is really the focal point, I think the divergent styles serve to keep the listener interested,” he says. “Nicki’s voice is the yarn that knits all the songs together. I think sometimes people make records with an eye for the lowest common denominator. Formulas can make things easier to digest. I’m more interested in keeping things interesting.”
Nicki Bluhm’s vocal hints at Dusty Springfield-style soulfulness but also resembles at times more modern roots chanteuses like Jenny Lewis and Neko Case. Yet she never sounds like she’s imitating anyone, because she understands that it’s not the tone or the range that makes a great singer, it’s the ability to interpret and find the truth in each song. “I have had a wide variety of influences over the years,” she says. “I think what I love about all those artists is how honestly they deliver the songs. You feel and believe every word they are singing, it sounds so genuine. I always try and remember to think about the words I am singing and try to deliver them with that kind of sincerity.”
What makes Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers and their new album such a joy is how it captures the band’s undeniable camaraderie and authenticity, which puts them in step with the current back-to-basics movement in music. “It definitely seems like people are reconnecting with simple instrumentation and strong vocals and vocal harmonies, I know I am,” Nicki Bluhm says. “There was something lost for a while when it seemed like drum machines, synthesizers and Pro Tools had kind of taken the magic out of stuff. Maybe making it too perfect, polished or even rigid sounding. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful songs made during those times, but what I love about the old albums is that blanket of warmth they provide, it almost sounds pastel. You can hear the room and you can feel the vibe.”
Even when that room is the inside of a van. “I never thought singing and driving was a dangerous thing … doesn’t everyone do it?” Nicki jokes. “It’s a lot safer than driving and changing the radio station.”