Singer con­jures raw roots of rock and roll

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - LIVE MUSIC - By Mark Jor­dan Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

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.”

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