May 14--Roots rocker Nikki Hill may be coming late to the party, but she's already making a big impact.
Hill, 28, only got started a couple of years ago. Before that, she was a "music nerd" with cool taste in vintage clothes mashed up with punk rock looks. She did some harmony singing with a North Carolina honky-tonk band, but nothing serious.
But one day at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., she recognized some chords that her blues/rock guitarist husband, Matt Hill, was playing. She opened her mouth to sing an old Aretha Franklin song, "Hands Off My Man." Hill was shocked at his wife's assertive, growling tenor.
"To be frank, I was like, what the f---? " he said, laughing. "Why didn't you tell me you could do this? We could have been doing this years ago.
"I was like, you sound like you've been doing this for 20 years. We've gotta do this."
Since then, the couple, now based in St. Louis, has been building Nikki Hill's act. An impromptu sit-in at a jam during the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender festival in April and a couple of trips to root-rock loving European venues have built international buzz. The Chicago Tribune and LA Weekly have written about her. And her debut album, "Here's Nikki Hill," shows power, raw energy and vintage style.
She brings her show to Blue 5 Restaurant on Friday, still a bit amazed by what is happening in her life.
"I never ever thought that this would be me, you know," Nikki Hill said.
The Roanoke show reunites the Hills with Nikki's manager, Harry Turner, a Salem native and Botetourt County resident whose clients include blues-rocker Jimmy Thackery, blues duo Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, and singer Reba Russell.
But to Nikki Hill, Turner's connection to the late Nick Curran means the most.
Curran, who died at 35 of oral cancer in October 2012, was a sideman to such acts as The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Kim Lenz before launching a solo career that was just taking off when he fell ill. He was one of Hill's favorite artists of recent years.
"Harry has been amazing, amazing, amazing," Nikki Hill said. "I feel very lucky to have him on our team. It's great, because he's just as into it as we are."
Turner knew her only as the wife of Matt Hill when they first met a couple of years back, in Memphis, Tenn., where Matt Hill was playing a gig with bluesman Bob Margolin.
Later, Nikki Hill sent him recordings of some songs she was working on.
"Jaw on the floor," Turner said of his first reaction to her music. "I did not see that coming at all ... I encouraged her in any way possible: You've got to do this."
It's not that Hill didn't have any experience as a singer. Growing up in Durham, N.C., she sang in church.
"Especially in the South, it's almost like you don't really have a choice," Hill said, laughing. "When I was 6 or 7, I started singing in church, and it was a Dad-made-me kind of thing. I did have a good time doing it, and it did sound good, and I did have fun, to an extent."
But as she grew into a typically rebellious teen, she moved on, more interested in haunting the nightspots, record stores and vintage clothing stores of nearby Chapel Hill than in singing.
"I was just a music nerd, especially being able to experience music in Chapel Hill, so many different bands coming through there," she said. "I was just absorbing everything. So for me, it was like I was just a fan and a collector, and it didn't cross my mind that I could be a part of it, you know."
Hill's musical tastes include Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Nappy Brown, Otis Redding, Etta James, Eddie Hinton, The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Hank Williams, Amy Winehouse and Mavis Staples.
In Matt Hill, she found a kindred spirit.
Hill, 27, played Blue 5 a few times with Margolin, but he fronted his own act, Matt Hill and the Buzzkills, in his most recent appearances at the venue. With the Buzzkills, he showed similar taste in music.
A mutual friend introduced them, and their friendship grew into a relationship, then marriage two years ago . When he decided to move to St. Louis, which offered more venues and a central spot for national touring work, she was happy to do it "just to help Matt's career out."
But he had already heard her singing that tune, and they were already working on more music together. Nikki Hill was even writing her own songs -- all but three of the cuts on "Here's Nikki Hill" are hers alone.
They quickly put together a four-song EP.
"This is gonna sell," he remembered thinking when they first started playing together. "I'm not going to have to beg for my floor-humper gigs anymore. This is going to be good.
"I'd say the big thing for me that was kind of a shocker was the first West Coast tour we did. She just sat in at that jam at Viva Las Vegas, and we had put out that little four-song EP with no promotion or anything. Just the word-of-mouth buzz was huge.
"We were showing up to these places and they were packed to capacity, [though] we'd never been here. We'd go to Portland [Ore.], and the room would be sold out. We didn't even know anybody in Portland!"
Next came a trip to Europe, and more success.
"They know more about American music than Americans do," Matt Hill said. "They can tell you what time Willie Dixon took a bathroom break in [the] 1956 [recording] 'Wang Dang Doodle.'
"We were kind of nervous ... are they gonna dig the soul tunes? And they loved that just as much as they loved the Little Richard or the rhythm and blues stuff we were doing, too.
"It's really cool that people see that we're doing something different. At first we thought it wouldn't work in our favor. But being a little different from other bands is really helping us a lot."
Nikki Hill figures that her late entry into the music business is also an advantage.
"By the time I did start performing, it just reflected all the things I'd seen and experienced and had a chance to hear," she said. "And I'm glad I'm able to execute it in a way that people think it seems very natural."
In no hurry
Even in today's confused and borderline broken music business model, some acts get starry-eyed at the chance to sign a record label contract. But the Hills released "Here's Nikki Hill" on Matt's imprint, Deep Fryed Records, and have no immediate interest in signing with anyone else.
Turner, the manager, said that it's part of a game plan .
"There's been a lot of interest, and labels are lining up, and [the labels] are confused about why these guys aren't just jumping on their offers. They don't need any obstructions. They just need to do their music.
"Once they establish what they do, their sound, their music, that's what goes. If you are young in the game, you will get a lot of people pulling at you from different directions -- do this this way, do that that way. Part of the game plan is to keep them away from all that."
Another part of the plan is to perform, a lot.
"Get out there and hit the bricks and develop it that way, too, in front of people," Turner said. "And by the time when deals that may be of interest ... happen, they'll be established enough in their music and their sound [to say] this is what we do, this is what we're gonna do. And if you want something else, it's not gonna work.
"This is the path they're on. They will not go changing course. ... It's just beautiful to watch it flow."
Go to blogs.roanoke.com/cutnscratch/?p=16300 to hear a podcast with Hill, including three songs from "Here's Nikki Hill" -- "Ask Yourself, "Her Destination" and "Hymn For Hard Luck," three Hill originals. Along with the earlier EP, these songs represent her first foray into songwriting.
"I had my typical moments as a younger kid, writing poetry and stuff like that," she said. "The most I ever got across was really terrible punk rock songs, but those just don't even count, you know what I mean? I wouldn't be able to dig them out of any archive, which is probably a good thing."
She gets her melodies across by singing them to her husband, her bandmates or producer Felix Reyes.
"The songwriting thing has been a really fun experience," she said. "We've all been, including me, really pleased and happy with how it's coming out so far. It makes me excited for future songs that hopefully will be coming out soon."
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