Nikki Hill Rejoins Rock & Soul In Unholy Matrimony On ‘Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists’

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By ZO

Quiet as it’s kept, Durham, North Carolina has provided the world with some of its most cherished musical pioneers. Go ahead and add the name Nikki Hill to the list of greats the Blue Devil city has birthed, right between 9th Wonder and the Little Brother crew and Piedmont blues legend Bull City Red. Hill has made a name for herself on the live circuits as a fiery performer, channeling some of rock & roll’s most heralded voices, revamping the squalls, screams and shouting-at-the-devil of rock’s pentecostal roots to a blazing new take that she can rightfully call her own, a soul that owes as much to AC/DC as Aretha.

Guitars wail, bass lines leap instead of walk…and Hill’s muscular vocal carries the weight of decades worth of greatness. But please don’t take our verbs for it. Today we have the pleasure of bringing you an exclusive listen to Hill’s debut full-length release Heavy Hearts Hard Fists; an impressive 11-track exploration of her roots in rock’s Southern heartland, harnessing a raw power that’s been missing from the musical landscape since laptop and earbuds replaced Cadillac speakers as the popular mode of playback. And to give you a bit of context, we’ve caught up with Durham’s queen rock & roller to give you an eye into her humble beginnings and the star-lined path ahead.

Stream Nikki Hill’s raucous Heavy Hearts Hard Fists LP below and scroll through to get acquainted with a one-of-a-kind voice that gives us hope for rock’s future while shining a brilliant light on its past. Preorder the album today on iTunes ahead of its official release next Friday, October 16th.

OKP: Who is Nikki HIll? Please introduce yourself to the nice people…what’s your hometown, name of your first pet, zodiac sign, favorite ice cream?

Nikki: Hey folks! I’m a rock n’ roll singer from Durham, North Carolina. I’m a Sagittarius, my first pet was a guinea pig named Teddy, and I like pie with my ice cream! I’m just trying to climb that hill with the rest of y’all.

OKP: Your music seems to fit within a tradition that includes Gloria Jones, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Little Richard, The Black Crowes, The Staple Singers…maybe even The Clash at their most rockabilly Who are your favorite artists to listen to or lean on for inspiration?

NH: Have y’all been reading my mind? Just nailed it! It’s an ongoing, changing list, but some constants to add include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Otis Redding, Toots & the Maytals, Barbara Lynn, Outkast, Nick Curran, Los Lobos, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The Duchess (Bo Diddley’s guitar player), Lauryn Hill, Howling Wolf, Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Otis Rush, for example.

OKP: We’re just gonna hope you said you’re an AC/DC fan–they never seem to get their fair shake in either indie or mainstream music culture nowadays. What draws you to their material? What’s in those riffs and snarls that’s lacking from today’s radio fare?

NH: Yeah. I’m a big AC/DC fan. I actually think they’ve had their fair shake. Millions of fans, amazing records, still recording and doing sell out tours after decades, and they could still walk down the street and not be recognized. That’s fucking making it! Anyway I digress, I think their material is timeless. It’s raw and stripped down, and the groove is just so fucking heavy. There is nothing there besides the basics, and they just kill it. I love Brian Johnson, like I wish I could adopt him as my uncle and go drive around in his crazy race cars and sing at the top of our lungs to Ike & Tina songs. But for me, Bon Scott is the man. He had so much soul. His writing is insane. So simple but it speaks volumes, and that’s such an amazing skill to me. He tells stories about love, about hurt, about life, about things we can all relate to. And it’s being sung with pure soul on top of these blues songs that just rock hard. And you can hear Chuck Berry and Otis Rush and all these great influences. Cranking Powerage or “If You Want Blood (Live)” just takes me to another level!

OKP: Who’s inspiring you in 2015?

NH: I’m into the artists that are just doing what the fuck they want and playing their hearts out. Not worrying about hype or whatever, and just doing their thing and if they have a message, it’s with conviction and balls! I’m currently digging Sturgill Simpson, Adia Victoria, Leon Bridges, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Gary Clark Jr., Barrence Whitfield & The Savages, Alanna Royale, Margo & The Pricetags, Son Little.

OKP: Do feel there’s a resurgence of rock-rooted sounds in the south? Do you feel a part of it–or apart from it?

NH: I don’t really feel like it ever dies. American music has too much of a stronghold, so I don’t think that roots rock n’ roll style will go away. It’s just so embedded in the culture, for whatever that is. I think there’s something about the sound that just resonates always, because it’s pulling from the truth and from the root.
I don’t necessarily feel like we are a part of any musical movement, but that’s more because at this point, there are still a lot who haven’t heard us or we haven’t interacted with! But that doesn’t mean I feel apart from it, if that makes sense. I’m just not even worried about that though. I just want to play, and for people to listen and dig it. That includes other musicians, so I’m hoping we continue to meet people of course. That’s always fun!

OKP: We understand your husband is also your musical collaborator. How do marriage and music get along in your household (or tour bus)? Do you two just never stop working on melodies when you’re in the car, at the breakfast table, or supermarket checkout line?

NH: Matt and I bonded through music. We were friends for years before we started dating. Of course, once that happened, we were inseparable, but I think our friendship is the basis of our relationship. We could share our favorite interests, and we were young enough to share wild dreams of all the possibilities, and then go after it! So, marriage and music just seems to work for us. We’re together 24 hours a day, and have not been apart for over 2 years. Because we tour so much though, a lot of our time together is work or related to it. So you’re enjoying these quick moments for a kiss and hug throughout the day, but that’s really about it when it’s busy. But then we’re onstage, and I’ll look over and I’m like, “Oh yeah! That’s my man!! Look at what we’re doing together!” It doesn’t get old. We take moments to step away from it when we can, try to have date nights even on the road to escape for a couple hours and say ‘Baby, I love you!’ with no distractions.

It’s so funny because we laughed about doing this together, just talking, and then it happened. So now, we’re just grabbing this chance by the balls and rolling with it, and we’re thinking about music a lot of the time. We’re on the road so much it feels uncomfortable not to. I work on things a lot by myself first and then approach him when I’m pulling it together. He is the person that hears my ideas first, at their most undeveloped and fresh. Either that or we’re just dissecting records, searching for that inspiration, and finding even more cool shit along the way. We’re still very much like friends about it, getting each other hip to different things. And to have a partner that can geek out over Howlin’ Wolf in the morning, noon, or middle of the night without a second thought? Yeah, I’m a lucky motherfucker. I’ll stop before I get too mushy, because then I’ll just get into how he treats me like a queen on top of it all!

OKP: Describe some of your best (or worst) experiences playing on tour or overseas–please be graphic.

NH: We played a super rowdy show at this festival over the summer. We were overseas and it was our second time to this place. The first two bands had hyped the crowd up and the people were ready to party. Usually, we expect to work the crowd up through the set. But no, these folks were ready. First note to the last it was on. I broke the mic stand. I stepped on a beer cup that exploded into the face of this kid on his dad’s shoulders. I saw a guy puke his brains out in the corner and go right back to dancing. And during about the 5th or 6th song, there was full-on fuckin’ happening in front of Matt. Pants down, ass up, not giving a shit. We provided the soundtrack. Career milestones, folks!

But when I’m remembering the humbling moments, I could mention the cancelled flights, the trying to get paid by the drunk promoters, the van troubles, the questionable accommodations, the bad sound, the long drive, the up the stairs load ins, the double bookings, the people that bring and play instruments during your set (especially harmonicas!), the changed plans, the hurry up and wait. But, if I did that, you would think I was crazy for doing what I do, wouldn’t you??!!

OKP: What sort of wisdom would you impart to the burgeoning singer/songwriters of the world?

NH: If I could get some advice too, that would be cool! Ha! With so much touring in the short time I’ve been doing this, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about being a bandleader and how to tour. But, I think I’d say to continue being yourself and finding your sound and what that means to you, and to keep working on it! Stay on it even when it sucks. And try to avoid shady people who pretend to want to help you out.

OKP: You’ve been described as an “R&B shouter’ and your music does seem to sit at the, ahem, crossroads where the ecstatic feel of church-based music meets a more worldly kind of ecstasy–do you have a background in the Christian (or other) Church? How spiritual is your approach to soul?

NH: I grew up singing in church as a kid. I definitely think that, combined with my love of so many artists that came up singing gospel, has shaped a lot of my singing approach. But, I never felt religiously attached. I asked ‘Why?’ too much in Sunday School, and I could never get any answers.

So I ignored everything but the music. That was the most exciting part, and even if I didn’t necessarily follow the words, I couldn’t deny the power the songs had as I watched the people react. I thought that was pretty cool. But, I was young and didn’t want to be tied down to anything, so I stopped by the time I was a teen, and found myself getting into punk rock and just finding my own musical tastes, whether it was through Motorhead or Lauryn Hill or whatever. The more I got into it, I started checking out who the musicians I listened to listened to. I found Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and it all made sense! I felt that same sensation as when I sang gospel, but she was doing it with serious rock n’ roll style and attitude! Not only that, but I loved that hearing a song from her, or Nirvana, or Otis Redding, or Amy Winehouse, all spoke to me in similar way. “You’re different, and it’s okay. Live and feel how you want! Fuck fitting in!” I was hooked. If I’m spiritual, it’s music that I’m devoted to, just disappearing into it, whether I’m listening or performing.

OKP: What’s on the near horizon for Nikki Hill?

NH: Touring to promote Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists!

OKP: What’s on the far horizon?

NH: Becoming a better musician. Whatever that entails.
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