FALL IN LOVE…
Nikki Hill. Beautiful badass mother fucker on stage, and the sweetest gal offstage. We first saw this rock ‘n’ roll musician perform at Viva Las Vegas a few years back, and have followed her style and musical evolution. We could go on and on about her fantastic style, in those high waisted 70’s style jeans and rock t-shirts, with that big afro – it really is an incredible visual. But the reality is that it’s more about how she belts out tunes, as if she were the love child of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, with a cup of Little Richard thrown into the stew. She is accompanied on stage by her extremely powerful guitar-playing husband, Matt Hill, who is very much a southern gentleman. The duo make incredible rock ‘n’ roll magic, very much like Ike and Tina (minus the wife-beating!) We anticipate very big things for the constantly touring couple, who drive and jet all around, bringing their southern charm and music to the masses. Look out world! Get ready to fall in love with Nikki Hill. Photography by Alexander Thompson. http://nikkihillmusic.com
PONYBOY: Nikki! You’re traveling everywhere with your band, just constantly touring. You must be exhausted!
NIKKI HILL: We’ve been doing a lot of traveling! But, I worked a lot of physical jobs before this. So I’m feeling really, really lucky to still be doing this, no matter how tired we get. I’ve never had exhaustion that felt so fulfilling at the end of it all. And that’s a lot more than most people can say. The best thing to do is just find your flow with it.
If you don’t find some sort of comfort in all of the chaos, or something for yourself, you will be burnt out and drive yourself or the people around you crazy! It’s a learning experience for sure, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything! My mama said do it while I’m young and still have the energy for it! I think I’ll listen to her.
PONYBOY: How did you get started in music as a profession?
NIKKI HILL: When Matt and I were dating and started living together, I would sing along to him playing guitar at home. He thought that it sounded really cool. I thought it was a little bit of bullshit, and he was just saying that because he thought he had to! The most similar thing I had really done before was singing harmonies with a friend of ours honky-tonk band. But it was never about me being upfront and singing. By the time we got married and moved, Matt started bringing me up to sing during his gigs. And a lot of people reacted the same way he did. So I thought maybe it wasn’t bullshit and I should give it a try. I can’t say I knew what “it” was supposed to be. At the time I really didn’t have anything to lose, as we were both doing what we needed to get by. And if it meant I got to spend even more time with my new husband, I thought that sounded great either way! And so I just went for it. I figured it would go no bigger than maybe some local duo shows and maybe a band of friends sometimes. You know, we could have fun and get free beer and maybe make some tips. And that pretty much did happen, off and on, for some of 2011 and 2012.
Then YouTube videos popped up. That brought on requests for records and out-of-town shows. I started trying to write songs. And in-between my jobs, I was working on booking shows and planning things. I asked Matt to come with me to California. I had booked a few gigs, and then he booked a few to fill it in, and we came up with this nice little tour. It was my first time driving West, and the planning was crazy, but we went out and had a blast. It was successful for what we had done, enough that we wanted to try again.
We scraped money together so I could record an EP and have music to take on the road. We then used that money to go back on the road, this time with a rhythm section. By that point I had overseas interest for records and shows, and connected with my now manager to help me out with booking. More gigs came in, and it just never stopped. I quit my day job while we were on that second tour, and threw myself fully into trying to continue musically. And more and more the nights onstage were feeling like that’s what I needed to do. I learned quick, and hard, and I’m still just trying to soak it in. I’m a lucky motherfucker, that’s for sure!
PONYBOY: Tell us about your early years.
NIKKI HILL: I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom and two older sisters in Durham, North Carolina. My mom worked all the time, so my sisters mostly watched me while growing up. Things were definitely rough here and there. We moved around a lot. The four of us shared a bed oftentimes in a one bed place. The neighborhoods and things happening around us weren’t always great, but my sisters did a great job of keeping me out of trouble and away from a lot of things. We didn’t always have a lot, but we were fine. I also spent some of my time going to my dad’s house, who lives in the country of North Carolina. It was very different than the way I lived with my mom. I’ve always said my dad is the first troubadour I’ve ever known. He never really took the time to sit still and was always in the middle of some kind of bizarre hustle. He was driving trucks when I was a kid, so he was gone a lot on his work assignments. I later found out that he was bouncing between truck driving and being in and out of jail, as well as odd jobs. But out there I could play in the woods and do that kind of thing. So, I got a little country life mixed into the city life, in a bit of a strange way. Then as a teenager, I found punk rock. That was the gateway to a lot of what I love now.
PONYBOY: When did you meet your musician husband Matt Hill?
NIKKI HILL: We met probably ten years ago? We’re both from North Carolina and had mutual friends that introduced us. He was also playing guitar, leading his own band in town. I always enjoyed his music because he can put on one hell-of-a rock n’ roll show! I thought he was a little immature for anything romantic at the time though. At one point we tried to go on a date, and it was just no good on that end. But we had fun hanging at shows and talking music, doing things like that. We just ended up going right back to being friends. A couple of shitty relationships later for both of us, and time seemed to change it all. I’m so glad we had a chance to get to know each other that way! By the time we were together as a couple, it felt like the best thing. Our friends almost didn’t even care, “Duh. Of course you guys are together. That took long enough!”
PONYBOY: And what’s it like touring and working with each other?
NIKKI HILL: I love it. We love it! The beginning of working and touring together was a pretty selfish attempt by both of us to spend more time together, so we definitely got what we asked for! We just support each other. Together and individually. We can be silent in the same room. We can talk for hours. Something as good as this relationship is worth whatever it takes to make it work, so that’s what we do! There’s no better feeling than looking over onstage and seeing the love of your life up there sharing the same experience. We don’t even have to speak. It’s unreal.
PONYBOY: How would you describe your band? To someone who’s never heard your distinctive sound?
NIKKI HILL: I usually just say we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. I think it leaves room for a lot of sounds, and I think that’s just great, as things continue to develop and we see where we go with the music. I dig bands that are hard to describe, but I feel like descriptions are better coming from the people that actually hear it. It’s great hearing the interpretations. I love the different things people say after they have seen a show of ours or listened to the records. Rock n’ roll seems to come up the most!
PONYBOY: How was your music changed since you first started singing?
NIKKI HILL: Well, I hadn’t written any songs when I first started. I was having fun, and just practicing with melodies and styles that I liked, from artists like Little Richard, Otis Redding, Irma Thomas, LaVern Baker, Barbara Lynn, Otis Rush, and others. And learning a lot! Singing roots taught me so much about music, patterns, counting, phrasing, dynamics, and so much more. I just learned it all onstage, and then when I wasn’t onstage, I would study it.
When I first started writing, I was really using those influences to form my songs. It helped me get more comfortable with what I wanted to do, and that’s what I’m still working on. But, with the comfort, I’ve been able to push into trying other sounds. I love the artists I’m influenced by, but now that I’m in this, I want to work on really putting myself in it, more and more. I don’t want to be a jukebox. Just look at me, I’m not Mick. I’m not Little Richard. I’m not Janis. I’m not Tina. I’m not British. And I wasn’t alive in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s. I can’t tell their stories. I can interpret them, I can relate to them, and I can love them. But I want to be a musician, so it takes more. I can pay tribute, and I love to, but at the end of the day I have to be myself. I think that’s the part you’re figuring out forever. You never learn everything about music, but you never stop trying! I’m glad most people appreciate that and are supportive of how we develop, and are enjoying watching our progression. I’ve never been much of a purist about anything, so I’m not starting now!
PONYBOY: Who were your musical influences growing up?
NIKKI HILL: I started getting into discovering music that was away from the radio and MTV when I was a teenager. I checked out some of my parent’s old records, as well as making friends with people that were into the live music circuit going on in The Triangle in North Carolina. It was a great way to see and hear so many different bands. Getting into punk rock as a teenager really opened the doors for discovering roots music. Before that, I listened to everything, so I never fell hard into listening to only one thing at a time. But rock ‘n’ roll and blues really had the energy and vibe that became a constant for me.
PONYBOY: If you could share a stage with any one musician/band, past or present, who would it be?
NIKKI HILL: This might be the cruelest question ever! Ha! I can’t even answer this one. I’m gonna answer this one how I like! So many. Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, AC/DC, the Staple Singers, Eddie Hinton, Motorhead, Jerry Lee Lewis, Barbara Lynn, Johnny Thunders, Lauryn Hill, Prince, Ike and Tina Turner, The Blasters, Los Lobos, Nick Curran, the Rolling Stones, Link Wray, Fishbone. See? I told you!
PONYBOY: We noticed that your individual style has also evolved, from when we first saw you a few years back at Viva Las Vegas. We just love your 70’s vibe with the afro, rock t-shirts and jeans. What brought that about?
NIKKI HILL: Calling it evolution is giving me a lot more credit than I need! Anything that is noticed has been purely by default and necessity! I wish I could say I planned it all, but I really didn’t. Viva Las Vegas is where you get to wear your fancy, fun 40’s and 50’s clothing. So I had a great time with that the couple of times I went. When I performed at Viva in 2013, I wore this silver lurex drop waist amazing dress. Why not? It was super fun, and fun to wear! Then I sold it, as I needed the money! I hadn’t been performing much before that, and I was at first taking from the artists that I was covering, and wearing stage attire to go with it. But then, I started moving more onstage, as the sound was evolving. Then my vintage shit started tearing, disintegrating, heels breaking! That sorta thing. And I didn’t have money for a separate stage wardrobe, so that made me nervous – I knew if I kept wearing my vintage clothing, my closet would disappear! It was fun and all, but I also didn’t want to be stuck with having to dress up to be quite honest. Also, once we started touring, I had zero room in the minivan for multiple suitcases. I’m just not the type to figure out how to take more clothes, because as much as I like style etc., my mind is just 1000% on the tour. I’m the bandleader, so I’m already carrying merch, paperwork, all kinds of extra bullshit. I didn’t want to add a garment bag. Whatever. By the time I bought a bigger van, I was still not into carrying more.
So, I switched the heels out, and the jeans were just the other things that I had in my closet. And they felt good onstage. I have some skirts that I can wear too, with wide belts. And now, I still have my vintage in my closet for enjoying when I’m home. I’ve collected pieces from the ’40s to ’70s for a while, so I’m glad I can switch it up! I can throw on a vintage top or accessories or boots to wear onstage which is awesome. The more I’ve gotten into vintage, I’ve discovered cool pieces, and different ways to style things. I just can’t limit myself. I dig simplicity, but I do like having unique pieces that make people wonder “Where did you get that?”, no matter what era. As far as my hair is concerned, it really was just more of taking the scarf off. The scarf wasn’t even a fashion statement, it’s something I’ve grown up doing on and off, especially during awkward length phases. And laziness. I didn’t realize it was a ‘thing’, until people started mentioning it in interviews and write-ups. I’m shocked anyone notices anything I do! And I still definitely wear it. That’s how you know I’m in the last couple weeks of a tour and haven’t washed my hair!
PONYBOY: Are there any clothing designer’s that you favor?
NIKKI HILL: Sure! I love designs by Lilli Diamond, Shaheen, Ceeb of Miami, Alix of Miami, Frederick’s of Hollywood, Tadaschi, Estevez, stuff like that. I’m not very knowledgeable with designers, but I have some friends that I can turn to that are really keen into identifying my unlabeled pieces!
PONYBOY: And finally, if you weren’t singing rock ’n’ roll every evening, what do you think you would be doing as a profession?
NIKKI HILL: Well, I have a degree in exercise science, and I was doing personal training before playing, so I would probably do that again. Anything to help people and make them feel good about themselves. That’s what I’m into!