All hyperbole aside, St. Louis-based soul shouter Nikki Hill is one of the best roots-rock singers I have ever seen. And I've seen quite a few. And I'm not just talking about the stars of now, but of all time. I rate her up there with Wanda Jackson, Barbara Pittman, Etta James, and Ruth Brown. Seriously folks, Hill blows my doors off.
With little fanfare, Hill and her band blew through the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que last month to rock the lid off the joint. The buzz hasn't stopped since. Everyone's still carrying on about the girl with the voice; a voice that is part sweet seduction, part sweeter threat. At 28, Hill is stiletto sharp and bouffant cool, flamier than Little Richard (or perhaps more appropriately, Esquerita), raunchier than Sharon Jones, more straight-ahead than Rachel Nagy of The Detroit Cobras. More than a couple of us fell in love with Hill that night.
Hill recently rang up from a tour stop in Oregon to discuss how she stumbled into singing, who she digs, and how a skyscraper hairdo is divine. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
CITY: You started singing in church. What of that remains of that in your music and what got cut?
NIKKI HILL: I would say aside from the religious references, nothing got cut. The best part about gospel music is it's as rock and roll as anything else out there. The energy, intensity, the realness -- I always want that in my music if I can help it.
When did you first want to sing? When did you first realize you could sing?
This is hand-in-hand for me. I never really wanted to sing. My dad made me join the gospel choir when I was a kid. People said, "Wow, that little girl can wail!" Well, I didn't really care. I just did it because I had to, and then it was something to do to pass the time when I was at my dad's. I guess it's kind of cheesy, but music found me, not really the other way around. I'm just a big music nerd at heart, and I guess I wanted to throw my 2 cents out there and be immersed in it full time.
Who were some of your early influences?
There are plenty. Little Richard, Nappy Brown, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Nick Curran, Amy Winehouse, Bon Scott, The Faces (with Rod Stewart), Eddie Hinton, Allen Stone, The Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Lou Ann Barton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe...it goes on and on.
I love them all for how real they are. Vocally, they are unique, strong, intense, and just plain real. And it doesn't hurt that they had bad-ass bands.
What was your first experience on stage? How did you feel?
Well, singing in the choir really prepared me more than anything for the stage. We had to sing in front of the people in church, and then we also traveled to other churches to sing and to gospel revivals and all kinds of stuff. We had these little dancing entrances coming in through the doors sometimes. I tell you, some of it really teaches you the elements of show business. So, to be honest, the other times on stage haven't really been anything different.
It's hard for me to explain. I just don't get nervous. Excited, yes. Every single time I'm excited, because I'm about to go onstage with my gang of pirates and we're going to do what we can to blow people's minds. So really, every time is just as awesome as the first. I don't go out there with a notion of how my voice is going to sound. I just want to sound like me. A damned good me.
It seems like you've exploded onto the scene. Give a little back ground as to why and how we got here.
My musical history is very quick. My husband heard me singing and it just sparked something in him to keep encouraging me to do it. I kind of thought he was bullshitting me because, you know, we were dating at the time, and I thought he was just being nice. I started singing a couple of songs at some of his shows when we moved to St. Louis and got a great response. Still, it wasn't much more than that. Our friend, Vinnie Valenza, who owns Blues City Deli and brings in great bands, offered me a gig. I said yes, put together a set list and went for it. That was in November of 2011. Not that long ago. After that, I did a couple shows here and there, but it was more a thing: Matt Hill featuring Nikki Hill.
April 2012 and I'm at Viva Las Vegas with girlfriends. We were at Ronnie Weiser's house party, where they have bands come up and jam. My sneaky girlfriend signed me up and I got stuck in it. Before I knew it guys had been rounded up going, "Well, what are you gonna do?" I did three tunes. They showed up on YouTube. The rumor spread that I performed at the actual festival. And by the time I got home, I had e-mails, Facebook messages, phone calls about gigs. Holy crap. My husband was basically like, "Told you." So I wrote the EP to see what the response would be like. That was last July. And, well, here we are.
There seem to be so few female vocalists in this genre, yet obviously a huge demand. Are there other girls we need to listen for?
I honestly am not sure why there are so few female vocalists in the roots music scene. I actually think they are out there, but maybe just not discovered yet. I think unfortunately a lot of females get caught up in doing either what people suggest they do, or what they think they should be doing to impress the people in the music world. And that just doesn't last long, so they never get past playing locally or a few tours here or there. I mean, it applies to everyone, not just females. This is a tough business. It's hard, it's expensive if you're doing it yourself like we are, and it takes balls. If you have a good day job and don't want to give it up, then it's only going to go so far. The amazing female artists that we all admire have set the bar waaaaayyyy up there. So, it's a lot to overcome and make your niche in it. Hell, I'm still surprised people listen to me. I wish all the ladies luck. Be yourselves, and rock!
Discuss what American roots audiences can learn from European audiences.
So far this year we have played in seven countries aside from America. We had a great time and the crowds were great, but it wasn't anything starkly different. The only thing I would say is that they make a little more effort to go check out live music. They still have the same problems, though. Weekday gigs can still be iffy. Thankfully we had great full houses, but talking with the bands over there, they have the same issues with the crowds as we do. If anything, I say they research what they listen to a little more and have sometimes a better musical knowledge. But, again, you meet people here like that, too. To be honest, after playing there so much throughout this year, it was all the same minus the language barrier. Oh, and more people cry over there when they are moved by your songs. So sweet.
How was your latest tour overseas? And in the States?
We just got back from Scandinavia and it was a lot of fun. It's always interesting getting to know the people there, trying the different food, alcohol, and you wonder how the crowds will respond. But, I would say we had a successful tour. People really dug it. We are on tour right now in the States. We have a solid tour schedule through October and are currently bouncing back and forth across the country. There are some killer festivals booked, concert series, and clubs. This is really the tour to promote the new album, so I'm really looking forward to it.
What's your dream collaboration, either with a band or as a duet?
I would say The Rolling Stones, of course. And AC/DC. Lou Ann Barton. Mavis Staples. Ah, I don't dream about that as much as I should anymore...
What is your discography and future recording plans?
Right now I have my self-titled EP that I released late last summer. And a brand new full-length that I have been taking on the road the last couple of months. I just recorded an EP with Deke Dickerson and The Bo-Keys in Memphis that should be out later this year. We will start recording again when we're not touring. Right now, the goal is to get out there and rock and roll in front of as many people as we can.
Is it true, the higher the hair the closer to god?
Amen! Can I get a witness?