Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers have done the near impossible—they’ve gone viral. With a series of videos in which the band jams out in their tour van to such sing-along pop classics as Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” the band has managed to reach more ears and eyes than could fit in a stadium. But they have more to offer than just realizing the furthest extents of your car jam out fantasies—because, after all, haven’t we all acted out our inner rockstar singing along to our favorite tracks while behind the whee?. In April, Nicki Bluhm and Gramblers proved their mettle with the release of the magnificent Loved Wild Lost, a collection of well-written and tightly packaged pop tunes that are a pleasant Californian blend of rock, country and blues. We recently spoke to Nicki about the natural joy of singing in the car, what it’s like to be a late-bloomer, and the timelessly beauty of Dolly Parton songs.
You guys have played a bunch of festivals this summer. Is it like being at musician summer camp? You see your musician buddies; you’re outside and camping.
Yeah, definitely, it’s really fun. We just did [Portland] Lights Fest and we had a bunch of friends there. It does; it does feel kind of like camp. You show up, there’s a bunch of golf carts and dirt and grass. People just feeling good and being happy. It’s definitely got a camp feel, a camp vibe.
It’s also got to be interesting, because normally when you play a show you’re playing for people who have come to see you. But when you’re playing at a festival you’re playing for a lot of people that this is first time seeing you, and that’s got to be a different vibe on stage.
It is. It’s really cool, actually. You can kind of get a feel of what the festival is like as soon as you drive in. And you can start wrapping your head around how, you know, you want your set to go, and how you want to relate to this particular audience of people. It’s definitely a throw-and-go kind of thing. So it’s nice to have your own shows, where you play with your own gear, and have time to sound check. That’s all really nice. But there’s no limit to the festival, to reaching new people, which is really a crucial part of growth.
This has been a big year for you guys between the new album release and going viral. Has the newfound recognition change anything about the way you guys approach the music, either in the studio or the live performance?
This is really like the tour for the album release. We did some tours in the spring, when it first came out, we did some residences but this is the first proper one. So we’re really excited to go out and see the reaction, and so far the response to the new album has been really good, really positive. So it’ll be fun to return to a lot of those markets we have been many times and see, you know, who shows up and how they respond.
This will also be the first big tour after the van sessions became such a big smash hit. What is it about singing in the car do you think, like singing in the shower, that’s so pleasant and relatable? Why’d you guys decide to film those songs like that?
We really did it just out of boredom. When you tour, especially on the remote West coast, everything is very spread out. So we mostly did it to pass the time. But I think that people like singing in cars and showers—I know I certainly do—its sort of a natural thing. Its sort of what we do as humans. And there’s some nostalgia there—riding around in the car with mom or the carpool or whatever listening to the radio. There are definitely fond memories of singing in the car, at least for me.
I remember once hearing my friend’s mom belt out Nirvana’s “Sliver” in the car, and thinking to myself that it was most badass thing I’d ever witness. Sometimes I wish it were socially acceptable to sing in other closed spaces, like in elevators or metro terminals.
You should start doing it. Start the trend.
Sometimes I sing in metro cars.
Right, because the acoustics are good down in those stations.
In a recent interview I read you think of yourself as a late-bloomer. Would you say there are advantages to that in the music industry?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask me in twenty years. I’m still in the thick of it. I’m still on the journey. But, yeah, I think when you’re a late-bloomer things happen more slowly with you and it helps with your patience. To be patient, especially in this industry, it moves very fast and you can want things to happen right away, but it just doesn’t—I mean it happens for very few people. So I think that being a late-bloomer definitely helps with your patience, and that’s something I’m always working on. To just not want anything to fast, trusting that the universe knows what’s best for me. That’s just the journey I’m on and I have no idea what’s around the corner.
Does it have any impact on your approach to songwriting? Is your writing process more refined now?
That’s probably true. Because the more people become familiar with you and the more ears that are gonna be on each record—hopefully the number of ears on each record increases each time—so yeah, there’s more of an awareness about song writing as you get deeper into your career. Because at first you’re wondering ‘who’s gonna be listening to this, I don’t even know.’ And then when you start to realize that people are gonna listen to this it become your duty to produce quality and well-thought of [music].
With singing, beyond just sheer ability to sing, are there any other attributes that make a great singer? For instance, Billie Holiday didn’t have a phenomenal vocal range, but her singing still had something that propelled it to another level.
Big lungs is an important thing to have—well-exercised lungs, and at least a basic knowledge of how-to sing from an anatomical level, which I’m consistently working on, so you don’t blowout your voice or overwork or use the wrong parts. And then its just tone; it’s our own unique character that’s in each voice. It’s not always appealing to everybody but if it’s appealing to enough people then you get to keep your job.
Does that come with your interpretation of the song?
That’s the most important thing about of singing: is listening to what you’re saying and feeling it and believing it and translating it. Not just, you know, reciting it. Linda Ronstadt was the master of that. She sung other people’s songs and she was really able to put herself inside of them, and you’d never know she didn’t write them because she sings them with such conviction and passion.
In your own music I hear a lot of influence from classic country acts. What do you think it is about the music of say a Dolly Parton or Gram Parsons that makes it timeless? Why is that music still worth aspiring to?
For one thing, the lyrics… I don’t know. What makes any piece of music timeless? It’s like people keeping it alive. People having love for it and keeping it going. For me, those two artists you mentioned, there’s just a certain emotional attachment that you have—I just listened to a Dolly Parton album yesterday, one of her more recent ones—and it still has her voice, her character, her execution is still top-notch. And I think it’s a quality of music that you put out definitely helps allow the music to live a longtime. Joni Mitchell, too, is that way.
It also enters an emotional space, too. Like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Even if you were listening to that and didn’t know English, you’d understand that she was singing about heartbreak. That it’s a cry.
Yeah, and it’s really human. Who’d ever think that Dolly Parton would ever had to struggle or fight for her man with another woman? Whether or not it’s about her.
It feels like it is.
It feels like it is and its one of those things as a woman you hate to even admit. So it’s really a brave song. She’s just an incredible writer. And I also think that a lot of her older records conjure her childhood and up bringing, and its very touching. “Coat of Many Colors” I weep every time I hear that song. It’s just incredible. As a Dolly Parton fan, you’re following her life with her records. And that’s a pretty intimate thing you get to do with someone like that, so I’m grateful that she still makes music and puts it out.