As clear as a ray of California sunshine, Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers evoke the sound and spirit of the group’s home-state predecessors from the ’70s. Listeners can hear echoes of Little Feat, Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac and, in the earthy, gliding vocals of Bluhm, the heyday of Linda Ronstadt or Emmylou Harris.
“All that music definitely conjures up a golden era for me, just with the really rich vocal harmonies and great tone on guitars,” says Bluhm, 35, whose band returns to the Sinclair on Aug. 27. “I didn’t live through or experience that, but I have a warm, magical feeling about that time, about that music, about everybody being together in [Laurel] Canyon… There was a lot of collaborating and partying and discovery and support, and I really liked that.”
A native of the Bay Area city of Lafayette, Bluhm first distilled musical influences from family: Two older brothers were Deadheads, her father favored country and jazz and her mother loved soul. In the wake of her own vinyl discoveries, Bluhm forged another family connection. She followed San Francisco rockers the Mother Hips, whose singer/multi-instrumentalist Tim Bluhm saw Nicki sing at a party and encouraged her. The two eventually married and became bandmates.
“The unfolding was pretty organic,” she says of their relationship, which now extends to songwriting—separately and together—with the Gramblers. “I really appreciate having somebody to go to who I really trust and admire in that way.” They formed the band in 2008, and the lineup congealed around drummer Mike Curry, bassist Steve Adams, rhythm guitarist Dave Mulligan and lead guitarist Deren Ney, one of her childhood friends who also contributes to the writing.
Touring with a spouse can be tough, but she adds, “Being in a band with anybody is challenging. It’s a very close relationship, and not just physically, that you’re all crammed in the bus together and playing together… It’s very intimate and requires constant communication, hard work, compassion and kindness.”
Similar thoughts surface when Bluhm talks about songwriting, saying that her main intention is to relate to people. “Going through life is really challenging,” she says. “[Music] is comforting. I know I always use music in that way. If I’m feeling really awful or going through a hard time, it’s comforting to listen to a song where the writer is like, ‘I get it, I know. Me too.’ There’s a sense of compassion in that.”
Cue “Queen of the Rodeo,” one of Bluhm’s favorite tracks on her band’s latest album, Loved Wild Lost, released in April. “It’s a song about perseverance and dedication and not giving up, working really hard to get what you want and not really caring what people think,” she says. It includes a line about watering horses, drawn from Bluhm’s experience riding and working around stables, but she didn’t think the song was autobiographical—at first.
“You just start writing about a character,” she says. “I don’t really know who it’s about. You go through the motions, and a lot of it is subliminal. Sometimes it takes a while to put the pieces together. But whatever comes out of you is part of you.”
At the same time, Bluhm and her bandmates took a step beyond themselves on Loved Wild Lost, enlisting Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse) as the group’s first outside producer. “It’s a little more refined,” Bluhm says of the album’s blend of country, folk, rock, blues and gospel, with a dash of strings from San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra. “Brian was great about making us trim the fat.”
The Gramblers know how to strip things down. Consider the band’s iPhone-filmed Van Sessions on YouTube, recently revived with a take on the album’s funky “Mr. Saturday Night” after a rare day back in the van rather than a tour bus.
“You’ll have 12 hours driving through the Rocky Mountains,” Bluhm says of the scenario behind the series, hatched to kill boredom—before a Hall & Oates cover went viral. “The more you can play music, the better musician you become. I’m glad people liked it, but it was also a really good exercise for us as a band.”