Singer conjures raw roots of rock and roll
Walking around New Orleans, her adopted home of the past two years, singer Nikki Hill finds inspiration in some of the more neglected corners of the Crescent City’s musical legacy, like the former J&M Recording Studio, now a laundromat, where Little Richard, Fats Domino and others helped lay the foundation for rock and roll with their earliest recordings.
“I’m really trying to dig into the New Orleans influence on rock and roll,” says Hill, who is originally from Durham, North Carolina by way of St. Louis. “We’ve really tried to absorb the history. Every time you think you’ve seen a lot of it, you talk to someone else, and there’s so much more. We have a lot more exploring to do, that’s for sure, but I do find a lot of inspiration being down here.”
Hill, who returns to Memphis for a free show Sunday at the Levitt Shell, came to music relatively late. She was in her 20s when she first got up to sing backup in a friend’s honky-tonk band, but has made up for lost time with a packed touring schedule since the release last year of her second album, the self-released “Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists.” Downbeat magazine Singer-songwriter Nikki Hill returns to Memphis for a Sunday show in the Levitt Shell’s free summer concert series.
called her “a powerhouse singer and killer live performer,” and the Milwaukee Journal-sentinel called the record “a harddriving, back-alley LP of rock, rhythm and blues.”
What has attracted so much positive attention to Hill is a sound that is a deliberate throwback to the rock and R&B of the 1950s and early ’60s. At a time when much of pop music is so calculatedly conceived and coldly produced, the raw, organic energy of the musty tunes from a halfcentury ago sounds surprisingly refreshing.
Growing up in rural
North Carolina, Hill sang in choir but was never particularly engaged with music until her teen years. Her much older sisters were fans of ’90s hip-hop and R&B acts like Whitney Houston and Salt-n-pepa. Hill’s musical education would be quite different.
“When I was 13, I remember meeting a girl who is still a good friend of mine. … I remember she was the one that came to school in band shirts and smoked cigarettes and had purple hair, and that was just intriguing to me,” says Hill, who was soon piling into her older friend’s 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. Free admission. Visit levittshell.org for more information.
car to sneak into shows throughout the Research Triangle region.
Punk and hardcore bands grabbed her attention at first, but soon she branched out to embrace more roots-oriented acts like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Dexter Romweber.
“Punk rock is a great gateway if you let it be,” says Hill. “Seeing a poster or a clip of an artist like Little Richard, who was the punk rocker of his time. And then talking to bands and seeing what kind of things they’re into. All those guys would mention Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all these wild men and women of blues and rock and roll. It was a no-brainer kind of transition.”
One artist Hill met on the North Carolina roots scene was guitarist Matt Hill (Memphians may know him from The Blues Foundation’s 2005 International Blues Challenge and, a half-dozen years later, his win of Best New Artist at the organization’s Blues Music Awards). Matt and Nikki fell in love and in 2011 married and moved to St. Louis. Throughout their relationship, Nikki sang occasionally with her husband on stage, but in St. Louis she emerged as an artist in her own right. With Matt putting his solo career on hold to back her up, Hill began playing out.
Sticking to the doit-yourself lessons she learned from punk bands, Hill is determined to guide her own career. She released her 2012 self-titled EP, her 2013 full-length debut, “Here’s Nikki Hill,” as well as the more forwardlooking, R&b-centric “Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists” on her own Deep Fryed Records label.
“This music is just timeless because it’s so full of energy and attitude,” says Hill. “That’s still really appealing now. I don’t really ever see that sound dying. It’s just too essential.”