Nikki Hill brings her soul-kissed riffage to Greensboro
If some key part of rock ’n’ roll is about rambling, then Nikki Hill and her band are tapped into the essence of the music. Hill, who grew up in Durham and now lives in New Orleans, probably spends about nine months out of the year on the road, playing all over the country and all over the world. When you ask Hill about where she lives and how that might shape her music, she chuckles and says that it’s probably more meaningful to talk about her intense travel schedule and the effect that has on her sound.
Hill and her band will return to familiar turf next week, playing three shows in North Carolina, including a performance at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Sept. 6. (Hill and her husband Matt, the guitarist in the band, both met in the Triangle area in 2005.)
I spoke to Hill earlier this week as they made their way back to New Orleans for a brief bit of time off before hitting the road again. By the end of October, Hill and her band will be playing a string of dates across Germany.
She’s a dynamic frontwoman and vocalist. The kind of rock that Hill plays is a direct continuation of the stylistic cross-pollination and evolutions that have characterized the music since the beginning. It’s always been possible to hear the stomp and grit of John Lee Hooker in the coiled, chrome-plated riffage of AC/DC. Hill and her band take that muscular, snarling, scuzzy, bar boogie — the devil’s music, celebrating sex, booze, the open road and wild freedom — and reinject it with a growling soul, some Memphis strut and sizzle. Workmanlike drumming and gleaming twin-guitar interplay give Hill a sturdy foundation on which to build.
You can definitely trace strains of Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, and Chuck Berry in the sound. Or, put another way, you can hear the swagger of the Rolling Stones, Humble Pie and the Faces, and the other bands that soaked up rock ‘n’ roll, the blues and other flavors of American music. You might detect some rockabilly here and some dancehall/reggae-inflected grooves there. It’s eclectic, but it’s not whiplash-y. All of the threads braid together naturally enough.
The ability to pull the different components together, to make the most of contrasts without disorienting the listener, those are all part of being an entertainer. Hill said she picked up many of the fundamentals of working an audience while singing in church as a kid.
“There’s no better place to learn showbiz 101 than the Baptist Church,” Hill said. “It’s a show. It gives you the beginning, middle and end; you watch how the pastor ebbs and flows with the crowd–the swells, the call-and-response. It’s incredible.”
She also credits her formative years as a teenager going to all-ages shows or sneaking into venerable Chapel Hill clubs like the Cat’s Cradle or Local 506, seeing legendary Triangle-area acts such as Southern Culture On The Skids, Dexter Romweber, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, all of whom mined the musical past in creative ways. As a young person obsessed with live music and exploring old music, Hill said she was lucky to connect with a group of like-minded music nerds.
Finding herself “most of the time being the only black woman around,” Hill began a process of probing the central role that African American women played in what became rock ‘n’ roll. That’s something she enjoys reminding others of as well.
“This legacy is so wide,” she said, pointing to the connections to gospel, blues and roots music. “There’s something about the history of it that really caught me.”
Hill released her third record, Feline Roots, last year. If her career started out playing rock, blues and soul covers, she soon found herself wanting to write her own material and to showcase her originals.
“I thought it was gonna take me months to write a song, but every time I wrote one, I wanted to write another,” she said. “I was coming up with ideas, and they definitely have a mind of their own. Writing has become this cathartic thing.”
Navigating the challenges of the world, coping with the uncertainties of romance and the indignities of the workplace, holding one’s head up and getting what one wants out of life — those are the themes that Hill returns to. As one song from the newest record concisely put it: “Don’t Be The Sucker.” Elsewhere, like on “Poisoning the Well,” she brings a punk-soul edge to her questions about the state of things: “Why can’t we live our lives [and] not be terrorized by hate and greed?” Hill can howl, moan and belt. She has a full voice that she knows how to push to get just the right amount of brass or grit.
Hill has a degree in exercise physiology, and she’s worked as a bartender, too, so she’s no stranger to working up a sweat and late hours, both of which serve her well as a stage performer. Still, as much as she and her husband are pursuing a dream, making music together, traveling the world and carving out a career on their own terms, with the effort that goes into organizing tours, recording sessions, record pressings, T-shirts, marketing and the whole complex logistics of keeping a band together, Hill said being on the road or up on stage is the ultimate payoff.
“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Hill said. “But it’s always a trip to see where your music takes you.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Nikki Hill at The Blind Tiger, 1819 Spring Garden St., Greensboro, on Friday, Sept. 6 at 9 p.m., theblindtiger.com