Break-up songs are as common as love songs, yet some are tougher to stomach than others. A quick fling will often end in a diesel fire, but a 10-year marriage? San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm and her husband, Tim Bluhm, lived in a musical fairy-tail. Tim Bluhm, of The Mother Hips, was also her producer, co-writer and band leader with Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. The two were synonymous. One name was not uttered without the other.
Everything fell apart over the last two years, and after an abrupt divorce, Nicki Bluhm put her life on hold and moved to Nashville. Now she’s back with a new band and a solo record that exposes her raw nerves. Bluhm needed to write these songs to heal and, in a way, to pass some healing forward.
“In my 20s, when I was going through a lot of challenging times in a personal relationship, music was such an important tool for me in processing and getting through things—in understanding that I wasn’t alone and that those feelings were normal,” Bluhm said in a recent call from her new home in Nashville. “So in a way it’s like a work of service for me. In groups they talk about giving back, and that’s almost like what this feels like for me.
“At this point in my life this is the content I have to write about. I didn’t choose to have this happen in my life, but I’m trying to make the most of it and process it in the most healthy way that I possibly can.”
Bluhm began writing the songs for To Rise You Gotta Fall (out tomorrow) from the time her marriage was failing to its aftermath.
She described “How Do I Love You” as a plea for improving communication with her ex-husband. “Battlechain Rose,” which she co-wrote with Ryan Adams, is about coming to terms with betrayal. A second song she wrote with Adams is “Something Really Mean,” about facing another woman who hurt her. “The Last to Know,” one of the earliest songs she wrote in Nashville, asks a question she was unable to ask to ask at first: why was she the last to know?
The title track, meanwhile, is a hope for healing from the devastation. “What doesn’t kill you makes your story longer,” she sings.
For Bluhm, the songs offer fans a glimpse into her state of mind: a “filter that I’ve chosen to share.” They also connect the dots of her move from the Bay Area to Nashville and explain why her new album was recorded without The Gramblers, which she shares with Tim Bluhm.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers on hiatus
In 2015, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers released Loved Wild Lost and hit the road for more than a year of heavy touring. That’s when her “life change” began.
“[Tim Bluhm] was really a mentor to me, and partner; not only professionally but personally,” she said. “When all of that transition started to happen … that was a really trying time for me.”
At the same time, Bluhm drew attention from the likes of The Infamous Stringdusters, Phil Lesh and Adams, and did a lot of guesting singing. That’s also when she began writing about herself and what was on her mind. To make a record she would need trusted partners. That’s when she began going back and forth between the Bay and Nashville.
She stayed with a friend at first, and the city and its musical industry culture began to grow on her. Eventually she was introduced to producer Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell), who convinced her to record the new album not at the Stinson Beach studio where she and the Gramblers made their previous record, but at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, a 1958 studio he was reviving at the time.
Around that time, she also realized she could not record or tour the album with the Gramblers. She and her bandmates are not shutting any doors on each other and she still thinks of them as family.
“The songs that I’d written were so sensitive and so steeped in the past decade of my life,” she said. “Going through a divorce is so traumatic. And the band was a big part of my life at the time. … The only baggage I wanted to take into the recording session was the words written on the paper.
“So Memphis was appealing to me; Matt Ross-Sprang was appealing to me. … And I knew that he would take a strong leadership role as a producer, which I needed, because my producer was always Tim. I needed somebody who was going to fill some pretty big shoes; not only musically but emotionally.
Ross-Sprang found all of the musicians for the recording sessions. All but one, drummer Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco), were from Memphis.
“I knew not one of them,” Bluhm said. “It was a great introduction for me to the South.”
Bluhm built a rapport with Coomer, and after she moved to Nashville for good, he put together her new touring band.
“The move to Nashville really was personal in the way that I wanted to start over,” she said. “You don’t want to be running into your ex everywhere you go. We had a really small community in California.”
With the songs being so personal, did Bluhm worry what her ex-husband would think?
“Of course I did, but I also knew that it was such an important catharsis for me and I was my priority at that time; and still am, and I’m still learning to be,” she said.
“That was a traumatic time for me and it ended in such an abrupt way that the songs were not only cathartic but they were also conversations that I was never able to have with him. It was part of my process and I can’t really help what came out. I tried to be as articulate as I could. The idea was not to be cruel or bitter and I hope it didn’t come off that way.
Until last year, Nicki Bluhm had never lived outside of California. Now she’s 2,000 miles away from her family and her closest friends. She misses San Francisco, and while she’s growing more comfortable with her adopted city, she doesn’t know where she will be a year from now. She said she’s trying to stay in the present.
“I’m living on the knife’s edge of fear and excitement,” she said.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.