There’s a very real case to be made that Nicki Bluhm has been unlucky enough to find herself in the wrong place at a bad time. The San Francisco–based singer-songwriter is definitely onto something, as evidenced by her 2011 sophomore album, Driftwood. Drawing equally on bourbon-hazed country, smouldering blues, and golden-’70s pop, the singer’s songs are the kind that used to land artists like Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne gift-wrapped major-label recording contracts back in the mid ’90s. After being shopped unsuccessfully to record labels, however, Driftwood, like the singer’s 2008 debut, Toby’s Song, ended up coming into the world in a considerably more DIY fashion.
“We weren’t even touring,” she says of the lead-up to Driftwood’s release. “It was still more of a back-burner, hobby-type project. With Toby’s Song, we played shows, but definitely didn’t go out on the road to support it—we didn’t even have a booking agent. And I had a job, and the schedule wasn’t flexible. Driftwood was put out under the same pretence. But the reaction to the record was so rad that we were like ‘We have to get more serious about this, even though we’ve put it out independently.’ ”
Why have things been difficult for Bluhm? Well, start with the fact that the digital revolution hasn’t been kind to the majors, which, thanks to deep cutbacks, seem to have given up on the idea of breaking new artists, especially ones who don’t fall under the easy-sell umbrella of urban dance-pop. Indies, on the other hand, are geared toward acts that are happiest flying their freak flags in deep left field.
Bluhm doesn’t fall into either of those categories. Still, Driftwood is unapologetically accessible enough to latch on to upon first listen, this partly because the singer is as confident with clickity-clack throwback country (“Stick With Me”) as she is with saloon-boogie blowouts (“I Wanna Be Your Mama Again”) and straight-from-Muscle-Shoals soul burners (“Kill You to Call”).
Bluhm notes that she wasn’t one of those kids who grow up wanting to be performers; when she met her husband, Tim Bluhm, a veteran guitarist with the long-running folk-rock unit the Mother Hips, she was on her way to a career as a teacher, singing being more a hobby that she came to later in life. Eventually, though, she realized that, with her other half on the road for good chunks of the year, she had to rethink her priorities.
“Because I was teaching, and he was living the lifestyle of a musician, I never got to see him,” Bluhm says. “Our schedules were pretty much the exact opposites of each other. That really sucked because, when you’re a newlywed, you wanna hang out with each other. So I started substitute teaching so I could go on the road with him, and start playing some of my own gigs. It made more sense logistically.”
The relationship has yielded other benefits, including Bluhm’s getting access to players who gave Driftwood a completely professional sheen. That helped catch the attention of the folks at the Gap, who placed her in a successful ad campaign also featuring the likes of Kaki King and Lil Buck. And, more importantly, moving forward, it’s also sent a message to the heavy-hitting labels of the world that Bluhm, whose backup band is called the Gramblers, is deadly serious about what she’s doing. Her next album, which is already recorded and being shopped around, won’t, in a perfect world, be a self-released affair.
“The new record has a real band feel to it, which is probably because I’ve got a full-time band and all we do now is tour,” she says. “It’s really lively, and fun, and, more so than the first records, reflects who we are and what we’re doing right now.”
If the majors aren’t listening, they’re in even more trouble than we think.