“Our music definitely hearkens another era,” says Nicki Bluhm, “but at the same time, we want it to be contemporary. Reflective of now even though it nods to other times. We want it to be vintage modern.”
With Loved Wild Lost, Little Sur recording group Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers fully affirm a current place in the long winding continuum of the California Sound, born of folk, rock, country, psychedelia, blues, and pop, as ageless, adventurous, and ever-adaptive as the Golden State itself. The album – which follows the Bay Area-based band’s eponymous 2013 debut – sees Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers teaming with producer Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse, Josh Ritter), their first time working with an outside collaborator. The result is the critically acclaimed band’s most compelling collection thus far. The richly layered sound forms the ideal foundation for Bluhm’s remarkable voice and resonant lyrical gifts. Added color is provided by San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra (Death Cab for Cutie, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Walkmen), whose multifarious string arrangements amplify the album’s sound.
Three years of new experiences and nearly non-stop roadwork has had a powerful effect on The Gramblers, spurring creative growth and personal reflection. Songs like “Love Your Loved Ones” explore life’s seismic shifts, what Nicki describes as “the struggle to retain the energy and optimism of youth as life becomes more complex.”
Multi-instrumentalist, co-songwriter, and Nicki’s husband, Tim Bluhm is the quintessential Golden State musician. Tim has been known for two decades as singer/guitarist/primary songwriter in beloved SF rock ‘n’ rollers The Mother Hips and as an in-demand producer, session player and collaborator. Tim & Nicki first assembled The Gramblers in 2008 to serve as Nicki’s road band in support of her two Tim-produced solo outings. The line-up soon gelled into its current state, comprising Nicki’s childhood friend, guitarist/songwriter Deren Ney, bassist – and ALO co-founder – Steve Adams, rhythm guitarist Dave Mulligan, and drummer Mike Curry.
It quickly became clear that Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers was more than a talented singer/songwriter and her backing musicians – they were a band. As such, what was initially planned as Nicki’s third solo record became Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ self-titled debut album.Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers propelled the band to national attention, earning praise from American Songwriter as “a modest, melodic gem (that) neatly combines the rustic vibe of The Band with the more polished approach of Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac.”
The Gramblers toured hard, logging over 200 shows in 2012 alone, including headline tours and festival appearances at Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Hangout, Newport Folk, Telluride Bluegrass and Warren Haynes’ Mountain Jam. National notice rolled in, with Bluhm being featured in The Gap’s worldwide “Shine” campaign in support of their “Icons Redefined” collection and widely viewed TV appearances on CBS This Morning and TBS’ Conan.
When time came to record a follow-up, The Gramblers decided it would behoove them to work with an outside collaborator. A phone conversation with Brian Deck – a veteran studio hand and founding member of Chicago’s Red Red Meat – affirmed him as a producer that could be trusted to help forward the band’s overall goals.
In spring 2014 The Gramblers held 10 days of pre-production sessions at a friend’s ranch in coastal Pescadero, allowing them uninterrupted time to woodshed and collaborate, to share songs and experiences. More importantly, the band needed to settle back into a studio dynamic, to pull back from the inevitable sonic “leaning forward” that comes from three solid years playing clubs and theatres.
“You have to reset,” says Tim, “make sure you’re playing songs that are going to sound good on a stereo in someone’s house or in their car, not just on the stage.”
“We just really wanted to work out the kinks without wasting Brian’s time later,” Nicki says. “We wanted to come prepared.”
In August, Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers convened at Panoramic Studios in Stinson Beach for two weeks of serious recording. Deck “really kicked our ass,” says Nicki. “The vision was ours, but Brian helped our musicianship, our communication. There was a kind of professionalism in the studio that we needed to push us to the next level. Brian’s a drummer and I think its great to have a musician as a producer – they get it. They understand because they’ve lived it.”
Together Deck and the band made a conscious effort to hone The Gramblers’ sound, fusing a framework of archetypal musical idioms into something unique and universal, its individual elements complementing and counterpointing the songs’ deeper themes.
“On the last record there’s a little bit of soul, a little bit of country, a little bit of rock,” Nicki says. “This record, we were trying to make it much more cohesive.”
“The sound is becoming more unique,” Tim says. “An entity unto itself.”
Loved Wild Lost has the sprawling energy of lives in constant transition, manifested in both its contemplative lyricism and expansive sonic palette. Time spent in the van moves slowly and yet passes in an instant, newlyweds become old married couples, strangers become friends become family, wide-eyed innocents become grizzled veterans of the road.
“I think you can clearly hear all that happening in these songs,” Tim says. “Idealism and optimism losing control to the forces of inertia and a life of constant traveling. Happiness becomes an intention and love becomes a long term study of oneself and of one another.”
The band’s approach is both wide-ranging and ambitious, yet always united by a devotion to clear committed songcraft. The band’s three songwriting members all brought in material, with Nicki and Tim contributing the majority. In some ways, Loved Wild Lost can be like listening in on a private conversation between the Bluhms, with all the secrets and truths of their marriage hidden in plain sight.
“Your songs are like a diary in code,” Nicki says.
“Of course there’s subtext to all of these songs,” Tim says. “I probably shouldn’t admit that, because then it’s not really subtext.”
“It’s so comforting,” Nicki says, “when you feel all these emotions that you can’t even put your finger on, but then somebody says it in a song and it encapsulates that feeling that you had, it helps you navigate your life. It puts words to it. Tim’s songs have always done that for me. He’s able to lasso these huge concepts and put them into these perfect phrases. He’s inspired by so many things which is inspiring to me.” Tim-penned songs like “High Neck Lace” allow Nicki to articulate herself on a vast array of subjects, spanning aging, personal politics, intense psychological observation, the search for meaning, and the very mysteries of life itself.
Meanwhile, songs like “Mr. Saturday Night” see Nicki’s own songwriting prowess growing in melodic strength and lyrical candor, “really getting my insides on the outside in an uninhibited way.” Inspired by a photo of a cowgirl in rose covered regalia, her “Queen of the Rodeo” might well be the album’s emotional heart, a singular and slightly subconscious expression of her own amazing journey.
“In my head I was writing a character,” she says. “But listening back during pre-production I realized it was much more autobiographical than I had ever intended it to be. I got hit with, wow, I am totally talking about myself and I didn’t even know it. It’s all very metaphoric of course; it’s about working really hard and moving through obstacles and still maintaining your inner strength. Because it’s really hard – it’s hard to be a woman in this industry, it’s hard to be a woman on the road, it’s hard to be married to a band mate. I think that song was a way for me to release whatever I’d been holding because it came out a lot more personal than I thought.”
“There’s a blind spot that every songwriter has,” Tim says. “That’s one of the things I love about Nicki’s songs, there’s an innocence to her voice, her lyrical voice, that I definitely don’t have anymore.”
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers are now ready to kick start the cycle once more, with all the infinite roadwork and new experiences that entails. Loved Wild Lost reverberates with invention, passion, and spontaneity, but it is but a milestone on a band’s endless highway.
“As the story of The Gramblers unfolds I get new ideas about the directions it could go,” Tim says. “Every time you go around a corner there’s a new view that shows you something that you haven’t seen. It’s always changing and you have to respond to the feedback the world is giving you.”
“I can’t tell the future,” Nicki Bluhm says. “I just want us to stay open to whatever feels best.”