After spending a few years transforming herself from a down-home horse lover to the first lady of San Francisco’s music scene and now an Internet meme in the million-click club, Nicki Bluhm is heading east for a debut Philadelphia performance. But you probably know her from one of the viral Van Sessions cover song videos posted on your Facebook feed.
A dark-eyed lady almost always photographed with a golden halo seemingly made of sunsets and pure ‘70s AM morning radio vibes, Bluhm has a music-scene Cinderella story: A few years ago, when she was still living near San Diego, caring for horses and considering becoming a teacher, Bluhm—not a girl, but not yet a Bluhm—was spotted singing at a party by Tim Bluhm of Cali cult band the Mother Hips. In short order, they met, married and made music. She released Toby’s Song in 2008, and then Driftwood in 2011, which has reviewers describing her sound in shades of Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Grace Slick.
PW caught up with Bluhm on the phone the day before she took off for her first national tour and chatted while she walked around the mall.
Hey, Nicki! You’re having quite a year, with three different bands: There’s yours—the Gramblers—there’s Brokedown in Bakersfield, and an album of duets with your husband Tim Bluhm. Then there’s your first national tour, modeling for the Gap and the viral Van Sessions videos. That’s a lot all at once. What’s it feel like?
It’s cool. I’m at the mall right now getting last-minute stuff, and I’m walking by the Gap, and my face is there, all big. I took a picture to send to my husband, and the mall security was making fun of me. I was like, “No, I promise it’s me! I’m just trying to show my husband!”
Is that the first time you saw it?
We actually were in Paris when it came out, so it was on the main shopping street in Paris. It’s been cool. I’ve definitely seen it in places, but it’s always fun when you see it on the big scale.
Is it making things different at home? Are you starting to get recognized on the street?
No. You can’t really tell that it’s me because my head is turned to the side. People are definitely talking about it, though. It’s been in the magazines, like Vogue and InStyle, and I think it was just in a bunch of fashion magazines. That’s cool—because my name is in it also. That’s the best part of the whole campaign, the name association. Obviously, that’s what you want.
How do you see the East and West Coast scenes as being alike or different?
I don’t really know a whole lot about the East Coast music scene. The closest I came to it probably was when my husband was on tour with Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer. I met him out there for a little tour, so I was able to check out at least the Grateful Dead scene, which was not that different than the West Coast Dead scene [laughs]. But I’m definitely more of West Coast girl.
So, between the Gramblers, your main band, and Brokedown in Bakersfield, you’re hanging out with dudes a lot. How do you like being the girl among the boys all the time?
I love it. I have two older brothers, so I’m pretty used to being around boys. In some ways, it’s a little bit easier emotionally. It’s kind of less emotional, although boys definitely do have their own version of drama, which has been an interesting thing to observe and be a part of. But I love boys, and the boys in my band are super funny, and everybody keeps it pretty light and is just all in, 100 percent, and really stoked to be doing what we’re doing. Everyone’s really appreciative of how busy we are, and it’s all just really good vibes.
When you started out and met your husband, you were playing guitar and singing covers, but you hadn’t written any songs yet. How did you go about writing and finding inspiration?
The first song I ever wrote is called “Toby’s Song,” and it ended up being the title track of my first record. Tim just really encouraged me to start writing my own stuff. I’m pretty good about taking assignments, so it was a really good push for me to motivate myself and try it, and I ended up really liking it. I love writing songs now. It’s really therapeutic and cathartic. It gets easier and easier the more you do it. I’ve been writing for about six years, and I keep trying to come up with good stuff.
The Van Sessions are a cool way to spend time on the road. Are you planning on making more of them while out on this tour?
[Laughs] We don’t do a whole lot of planning. We kind of do it as we go. But we’ll definitely be doing Van Sessions, for sure.
Of course, the super-viral video was a Hall & Oates cover, and you’re coming to H&O country. Are you playing any of the Van Session covers live?
We were kind of going back and forth about whether we wanted to do it and were like, you know what? If lots of people are stoked on it and people want to hear it, we’re not opposed to playing them live. We obviously want to get our original music out, that’s our first and foremost intention, and that’s what’s most important to us. But we also realize people want to have fun and dance. So we don’t always do it at live shows, but we have, yeah.