After Dark: Nikki Hill
09:23 AM, Jul 26, 2013
If you go
What: Nikki Hill.
When: 6 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way.
Tickets: $15 advance, $20 day of show, available for no additional fee at Abilene, and for a service charge at the shows co-sponsor, Record Archive.
Amenities: Barbecue available from Good Smoke BBQ.
It was early in 2012, and Nikki Hill was at Viva Las Vegas, a primo rockabilly and roots fest, just because she likes the music. But a friend had other ideas: working behind Hill’s back to sign her up for one of the open jams that are as easy to find at those kinds of events as a motel Dumpster loaded with empty beer cans.
Hill looks like she fits in with this crowd. She has a real vintage sense of style, she looks right in a pair of imitation leopard-skin skintight pants, topped by an exaggerated, forward-flying pompadour like Ella Fitzgerald, or more so Little Richard held in place by a scarf. “Honestly,” she admits, “it’s become a fashion statement, but it’s pure laziness.”
So the lady makes an impression. Even more of one as she starts to sing. As 2012 Viva Las Vegas went on, “you go from not big at all to onstage at 3 in the morning with Phil Alvin,” she says.
“That’s the power of YouTube. By the end of the festival, the videos were already up and people were contacting me about ‘I want to book you’ and ‘Where can I buy the record?’ And, obviously, none of those things existed.”
They do now. There’s a record, and the 28-year-old Hill’s booked to play Abilene Bar & Lounge on Sunday. Yes, there will be barbecue. But the grill won’t be the hottest thing at the club that evening.
Hill always loved the music, but insists she never saw herself onstage. Even after she married a blues guitarist in 2011. She was a personal trainer, with a college degree in exercise physiology and a job at Duke University Hospital. Sure, she and her husband, Mike Hill, would sing together some at home, “and he was was really encouraging,” she says. The good ones do that. “He’d say, ‘Look you’ve got a great sound you’ve got a great voice, it’s something people would love to hear.’ “
It was a gentle nudge toward the stage. Mike Hill even started interrupting his band’s shows, announcing ” ‘Hey, I want to get Nikki up here to sing a few tunes,’ ” she says. “And we’d worked on them, just to be sure they were good.”
Since Viva Las Vegas, Hill hasn’t needed any kind of a nudge. When she gets onstage she knocks over people. It’s rock and roll, she says, but there’s gospel and blues and punk in there. Mike Hill was right. Nikki has something people want to hear. She’s a talked-about newcomer to the roots scene, hardly at home much these days, she’s so in demand.
She grew up in North Carolina. “Most southern kids start singing in gospel choirs, usually at about 4,” she says. “I sometimes compare my church to the church from The Blues Brothers, minus the cartwheels down the aisle. When I started listening to Little Richard it was really nothing different. He came from the church as well. It’s the same intensity, the same honesty.”
Those church days have served Hill well. “A lot of people, when they watch me perform, they’ll say, ‘Wow, you don’t seem nervous at all,’ ” she says. “But I was being pushed in front of a lot of people as a kid. I got over the nervousness part as a child.”
But eventually, musically, Hill moved on. From rock of ages to rock and roll. “For me, it seems very, kinda natural,” she says. “On paper it does sound a little crazy. But the craziest thing I did was dye my hair green.”
The green hair was to ease her entry into the thriving music scene in nearby Chapel Hill. “As a teenager, I was looking for something, for trouble to get into,” Hill says. She was a music nerd, “And I was looking at and experiencing a lot of different music. Classic rock like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones and stuff like that. Bo Diddley and B.B. King. I went to a lot of shows. I really liked rock and roll, and that ranged from artists like Little Richard to modern punk-rock acts. Honky-tonk bands. I grew myself into the music scene. It was fun, I loved watching people play and sing, collecting and trading music.
“Living in the moment of it, it didn’t feel rebellious. My actions weren’t rebellious. I was just curious.”
But not curious enough to get onstage herself. “I get the question all of the time, ‘How did you know you wanted to be a singer, a musician?’ ” Hill says. “I didn’t know. Everything just fell right into place, to where it was presented to me.
“A lot of musicians, ones who sing, don’t like the sound of their own voice. It takes a lot of assurance from other people to get up there.”
Now, with the assurance from her husband, and the roots-rock fiends who inhabit environs such as Viva Las Vegas, Hill is a singer. She’s also the band’s main songwriter, another skill she picked up on while hanging out on the Chapel Hill scene. “I always paid a lot of attention to what people are saying,” she says. “I wouldn’t say my music really has a message, at least not right now. I like to write about good times, good feelings. I do like songs that are out on the brink, threatening. I definitely have a lot of attitude, I’m told.”
Two years ago, the Hills relocated to St. Louis. “It has that small town, big-city vibe,” she says. And it makes touring the country easier, when you’re equidistant between the East and West Coasts. Most of a touring band’s life is not spent on stage, but in a moving vehicle. “Driving through the desert overnight and seeing coyotes, 18 wheelers on fire, crazy car accidents,” Hill says. “Just seeing the terrain of the United States. I didn’t get to travel much before this.”
But the road is where the sound matures, from stage to stage. “I full-on believe that we have got a sound that people want to hear, and we have songs that people want to hear,” Hill says.
“We don’t know anybody and the place is sold out. I’ll be signing CDs for an hour and a half and into the next band’s set.
“Two songs in, the waitress walks up with two rounds of shots. And then you know how that night is going to go.”