On last year’s To Rise You Gotta Fall, alt-country singer Nicki Bluhm sings, “How can you know good until you know better?” with soulful passion. If that sounds like the sentiment of a break-up record, well, there’s a reason for that.
In 2017, the celebrated Bay Area folk-rocker split from both her longtime band the Gramblers and her husband (who doubled as her musical director), and left California for a new start in Tennessee. It was a painful, tumultuous time. A lot of that pain can be heard on the record. But if To Rise You Gotta Fall says anything, it is that the pain was always worth it.
“The content is personal,” Bluhm says from her new home in Nashville, “but the reason people keep writing about love and heartbreak is because it never stops happening. It doesn’t matter what country you live in. It doesn’t matter what you believe, your religion—we all fall in love, and get our hearts broken. There’s something oddly comforting about that.”
More importantly, she adds, you recover.
“There’s so much growth that happens. That’s the hope,” she says. “You get beat down, but you will get back up.”
Recorded in Memphis at legendary Sam Phillips Recording, To Rise You Gotta Fall was a collaboration with producer Matt Ross-Spang, whose recent credits include producing an album’s worth of unreleased songs by Elvis Presley.
In addition to being Bluhm’s first time recording outside of her home state, it was her first time recording without the Gramblers backing her. In true Nashville fashion, Ross-Sprang hired a group of studio musicians to back her—a choice that greatly influenced the feel of the record.
“I liked the idea of people not knowing me or the story I was recording, because it was so personal,” she says. “It would have been too vulnerable if I did it with a bunch of people I knew. Instead, it brought this professionalism to these super painful songs.”
Even with the comfortable emotional distance, Bluhm still had to get outside of her comfort zone a bit for the recording.
“When I went into the studio, I thought I was going to sing scratch with the band, but then I realized they didn’t know the songs or the energy, so I needed to sing them for real so they knew where to put the emphasis,” she says. “I had to guide them in that way.”
Throughout, Bluhm’s live vocal takes lend to Rise’s raw, performative feel. On tracks like folk-rock opener “How Do I Love You,” Bluhm sets the tempo, gently pulling the beat forward or getting it to lay back, depending on the lyric. And on the title track (a great bit of Dusty Springfield by way of Curtis Mayfield), Bluhm’s interplay with the band gives the song a sinuous feel, bobbing and weaving through the punches that come. Across the album’s 11 tracks, there’s a voice crack here and there, but instead of sounding loose, the performances feel full, lived in and more powerful than something artificially polished through dozens of takes.
“My goal with this record was to capture the moment, not perfection,” Bluhm says. “There’s a lot of imperfections in my singing, but I thought it was more important to be authentic. I wanted people to hear me the way that it happened, not the way I manipulated it to be.”
Now on the other side of the pain, Bluhm is on to better things. She loves playing the songs—it’s just that they’re not for her anymore. They’re for anyone who needs them.
“I’m definitely emotionally beyond it all,” she says, “I still like to play these songs because there are a lot of people who are in that space I was in when I wrote them.”