Country music fans tend to let a lot of things slide, but states of origin are one point that surprisingly still riles some folks up. For quite a few fans, the South is still the proper answer when country musicians are asked where they're from. So it came as some surprise when Utah-born and California-based Nicki Bluhm began to make a dent in the Southeast.
"A venue in Birmingham, Ala. in 2013," Bluhm remembers. "They were one of the first venues that contacted us and really wanted us to come out and play, instead of vice-versa. We had never played that area before, and when we got there the show was just really well attended by real fans. I remember when we saw how many albums we sold after the show, we said, 'OK, we actually have a pretty big following in Alabama!'"
So it goes that the band hits the road once more, blazing a trail throughout the South promoting their latest album, this year's Loved Wild Lost. The record harkens back to the ageless sounds of the group's California home, with its folk, rock, and country influences pouring from the songs upon first listen.
The new disc finds Bluhm and the band working with well-regarded indie-rock producer Brian Deck, which marks their first collaboration with someone outside of the band. The experience brought a much-needed set of outside ears to the project.
"For a long time all of our stuff was produced by Tim [Bluhm, Nicki's husband], who was a member of the band, but on this record we outsourced for an outside influence," the singer explains. "Brian tuned in the sound a bit more. He was very specific about making the album lean, just trimming the fat, you know? No extra notes being played."
"It was all very intentional. We did a ton of preproduction work on this album, so that when we finally went into the studio everything would be organized and ready and executed well. I think the sound is a little more honed. It's not quite as," she pauses, searching for right word, "eclectic as the past few albums. A little more country-rock, which is something I believe we really wanted to do, to just narrow down the sound a bit."
Something else that bringing in an outside influence helped with was choosing new songs to cut for the new release. Every band that features more than one songwriter goes through the turmoil of figuring out the perfect balance to accommodate everyone involved in the music-making process. "That's where having that new producer really comes in and is helpful, as they can give a neutral opinion on what is going and what is not. You know, just what feels right and what doesn't. We all pretty much agree, and we're pretty lucky in that way. There are multiple songwriters and we all support each other in this endeavor and like each other's songs. They tend to go well together. We just try to pick the best songs possible, above and beyond everything else."
Another change in the band has been the recent slowdown in their Van Sessions recordings, the YouTube videos that brought the band onto the radar of many fans. The videos, which featured the band performing covers of various hits of yesteryear while traveling from one gig to the next, captured the attention of millions of potential audience members and fans. The downside of that, though, is that for every listener that clicks on a video of one of Bluhm's original compositions you have someone else showing up at a concert expecting nothing but the yacht-rock era's greatest hits.
"Of course that was one of our first thoughts, since we would prefer that that not happen, but people have been really cool about being interested in our original music, which is really what we have always done in our shows. No, people are really respectful," Bluhm says emphatically. "I know that there have to be moments where the covers are really what someone wants, or someone leaves and thinks, 'Oh, I really wish they had played that.' We do break out a cover every now and then, but we don't do them every night.
"We're not anti-covers," she says, "but we are more interested in playing our originals, especially with this new album out."
While it is easy to understand why the band would back away from the Van Sessions, as anyone would get tired of requests for Hall & Oates tunes every night on the road, it does bring with it the interesting dilemma of how to keep the promotion of them going strong. Most musicians are lucky to find one novel way of gaining new listeners during a career, without the added pressure of finding a second after the first becomes tiresome. Bluhm states that, while it is harder, old-fashioned road warriorness is what the band needs to focus on at this moment.
"I think the best way to promote your band is to just go on tour and play shows," says Bluhm. "Its definitely time-consuming, but it's necessary to travel and be out. That's what we're doing and focusing on right now, just to get the music out there in front of the people.
"The YouTube videos were really like getting struck by lightning," she adds. "Their popularity was not expected and not really intended, and you can't really repeat stuff like that — there is no way to plan for something like that."