Interview: Nikki Hill 

Heartbreak and happiness

Nikki Hill will perform at Abilene Bar & Lounge on Wednesday, July 17, bolstered by her latest album, “Feline Roots.” - PHOTO BY ALEXANDER THOMPSON
  • Nikki Hill will perform at Abilene Bar & Lounge on Wednesday, July 17, bolstered by her latest album, “Feline Roots.”
I once referred to Nikki Hill as being stiletto-sharp and bouffant-cool after she handed me my head the first time I heard her at the Dinosaur BBQ. Like Ali, she floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Hill took the music of artists like Barbara Pittman and Ruth Brown and gave it a kick in the seat. It was so choice.

Hill has ramped  up and amped up the sound on her new platter, “Feline Roots,” with the addition of the late Candye Kane’s guitarist, Laura Chavez. With Chavez joining Hill’s hubby Matt, it’s now a twin-guitar attack that shifts the piss-to-vinegar ratio. Hill has turned up the heat.

We gave Hill a ring to answer some important questions, in advance of her Wednesday,  July 17 show at Abilene Bar & Lounge. Dig her answers. An edited transcript follows.

CITY: Over the span of your career so far, you’ve seemed to challenge the music or dared it, even  to keep up with you, while still keeping a sincere reverence for it. is this on purpose or does it just happen?

Nikki Hill: Thank you, I really appreciate someone noticing that. I would say it's a little bit of both. I intentionally and unintentionally have created from an open mind and sincere reverence of the music, and the deep admiration of the ones before me who are recognized for their own originality. I take that and roll with it.

So, it's unintentional in the sense that I honestly don't know how to go about creating in any other way than being myself and remaining open and welcoming to all the ideas that come to me, and purposeful in the intention to continue to do that.

How do you convert those who don’t understand a strong black woman singing real rock ‘n’ roll?

I consider it not my problem to convert anyone who in this time can't understand or see black presence in roots music. We have a long way to go as a whole in this country of recognizing, seeing, hearing black women.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is now just getting a little bit of her due in the last couple of years. Decades too late. It took 35 years after she died to put a marker on her fucking grave. The godmother. A pioneer. Died penniless and buried in an unmarked grave.

But, that's not going to stop me from doing it. It's not my job to convince people that I deserve my spot on the stage just because they don't think I look like my music. It's also not my job — knowing the unfortunate truths behind so many of the careers of these pioneering artists — to play up a role and be a character pretending to be someone I'm not for the comfort and satisfaction of other people.

People are quick to turn you into who they want you to be, and even quicker to dismiss you when you're done fulfilling their need. I know I'm doing what is part of a longstanding legacy and that what we call rock ‘n’ roll today wouldn't exist without black women. My awareness of that is plenty for me. I'm here to share my music, which in turn shares a lot of me. But I'm not about to waste my joy or stress myself out for people that don't get it, or follow a trope of stereotypes that they use to checklist black women in music. I love this too much to let anyone ruin it for me.

Where does the influence end and Nikki Hill begin?

It begins the moment I'm writing a song. I pick up ideas from everywhere — a drum beat, a guitar riff, one piece of a melody, a mood — but then I have to move on with it. I'll think of things like, “What if Otis Redding went on tour with the Ike and Tina revue right after their 1969 Rolling Stones tour," and create with that idea in mind.

But eventually, the idea is going to become what it becomes, no matter how it started out. Honestly, I wish I could write the kind of song where people say, “Wow, this sounds like a song that ‘insert artist’ could have written!" I think that would be really cool, too.

How does “Feline Roots” fit in the Nikki Hill lexicon?

I never expected to have the opportunity to have one album, let alone three. Once you release an album, you're touring to present it to people, so I don't end up taking much time to think about “fit,” or about the albums as a whole.

I think, like the other albums, it's another representation of me, made for me to stamp this moment in time and the experiences I've been through.

What do you make sure to give your fans every night?

The best performance of each song to my maximum ability every show. Some heartbreak. A lot of happiness. Some discomfort, if things are going really well.

What do they give you?

The ability to keep on. I say it almost every night: They could choose to be anywhere else that night, and they chose to be there with us. That keeps me and my family housed, clothed, and fed. It's so appreciated.

And if they have opened themselves up enough that we all leave the show with smiles on our faces, and feeling a little better about everything, even if just briefly, there is no better payback than making others feel good.

How is it playing with the incomparable Laura Chavez?

We have been having a great time. I was so happy that she had the enthusiasm that she did about joining my band when I reached out to her. It's all good, whether we're on or off the stage.

Her and Matt make an amazing guitar team, and I really love watching people enjoy skillful, tasty, full-of-attitude, two-guitar music. It's hard to find two people that work together that well and sound so good, but I had a gut feeling it was going to be stellar. And it is.

What’s something you haven’t done yet that you want to do?

Take my mama out west. I want to show her things I've had the chance to see and finally share some of it with her.
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