As a touring musician, Nicki Bluhm is used to spending more than half the year on the road — staying at different hotels in different cities — enough to turn the unfamiliar into the status quo. But since separating from her husband in 2015 (they divorced two years later), Bluhm hasn’t been touring much, so it’s a surprise when she has to think for a minute before answering a question about where she’s calling from.
“Lagunitas, California,” she says, finally, followed by a long exhale all tangled up with a sigh of relief. “I woke up this morning in the dark and I was like, ‘What bed am I in right now?’”
She explains that for the first time in a long time, what draws her from one place to another isn’t the grind of trying to make it in the biz but a search for something more ethereal: herself. Her stupor doesn’t come from a woman overwhelmed, but a woman becoming, occupying that fleeting moment of transition when a person is totally in-between here and there.
Save for a few suitcases at the foot of her friend’s guest bed in Lagunitas, all of Bluhm’s belongings are boxed in a truck on its way to Nashville, Tennessee. Bluhm says that when she needed it most, Nashville was ready to take her in like an old friend, giving her a full heart and pocket full of songs. Bluhm’s on the way to somewhere new, not because she has to leave, but because she has somewhere else she needs to go.
In a few days, Bluhm and her mom will drive out to Music City, but first she has to finish saying goodbye to California — to the people and places that have always been home. As soon as she gets to Nashville, she’ll step back into the studio to record her fifth album, the first one full of her own songs.
The album will be the culmination of her journey through the past two-and-a-half years since the end of her marriage to Mother Hips frontman Tim Bluhm. She doesn’t talk in much detail about what it was like to untangle herself from her husband, both personally and professionally, but she admits the separation was both big and extreme, acting like a split down the middle of her own self-understanding.
“I married Tim when I was 26, and at that age I didn’t really have a grip on who I was or what was happening in my life,” she says. “We had fused together, Tim and I. So, I guess if I’ve been looking for anything, it’s been for who I am… without anybody.”
As a musician, there are a lot of things that Bluhm is known for, but flying solo certainly hasn’t been one of them. She’s known for being Tim’s partner, for the warm vocals she lays in harmony with her alt-county/bluegrass band The Gramblers, and for accompanying some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll like Phil Lesh, Ryan Adams and, this June, with Joan Baez.
It wasn’t fear that kept Bluhm from playing alone — she says being a woman in rock ‘n’ roll means you have to work hard, be hungry, play tough. Long ago, she learned to think of fear as a guide, not a deterrent. What was keeping her from flying was being underneath someone else’s wings.
“I feel like I was such a good student of Tim — I really wanted to do everything right, to make him proud and succeed. But, with him, every song I wrote he helped me to finish, and so now I’m shifting to see how I can express in a way that is going to unfold the second layer of me. And really, that’s about learning to trust myself.”
Her first solo show was just before the new year, on Dec. 29, in a small theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At sound check, she posed for a casual selfie to post on Instagram — no makeup, hair pulled back, standing in front of dozens of empty rows in a theater. “I’m on at 7 p.m. SHARP,” she writes and adds #nbsolo, punctuated with a wide-eyed, straight-lipped emoticon, in perfect mimicry of the smile hesitantly hanging from her face.
Nicki admits she was scared and says she followed that fear right out to center stage. She remembers how quiet it was, hearing her footsteps as she walked to the single chair, how loudly she could hear her heartbeat as she pulled the guitar strap across her shoulder.
“Walking out in front of a crowd of people with one guitar and a bunch of break-up songs is about as vulnerable as you can get,” she says.
And that’s exactly what she’s been looking for.