There is still a place in this world for good old gutsy rock ’n’ roll music. Nikki Hill is proving it internationally.
The Durham, North Carolina, native has been plying her brand of roots music in Spain, Australia, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Morocco, India, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
On Friday, Hill and her band of world travelers will hit Harvester Performance Center, in Rocky Mount, with music from her two albums, 2013’s “Here’s Nikki Hill” and 2015’s “Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists.” The records have been her international calling card.
“This allows you to go to these places,” Hill said in a phone call last week from her home in New Orleans. “I couldn’t have even dreamt of being able to make it happen. It was always kind of a goal on the list to get out and travel and see something other than the one perspective you get all the time, but it was kind of a pipe dream in a way, trying to figure out how to afford it.”
The dream started getting real about six years ago, after she married guitarist Matt Hill, a veteran of the Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh blues scene. Nikki Hill had been a “music nerd” with punk rock attitude and an eye for vintage clothes. Then one day at their Chapel Hill home, she burst out in song as her husband played chords that reminded her of Aretha Franklin’s “Hands Off My Man.” She shocked her husband, who soon was plotting to collaborate with her.
The couple has moved a couple of times since then, first to St. Louis, then to New Orleans, where they have been for three years. They prefer swampy heat to midwest snow, and because they’re on the road so much, they decided they might as well leave their stuff somewhere cool, she said.
And they are on the road — so much. Hill said she is not sure quite how much, because she hasn’t counted up all the dates. But it’s plenty. And the reception has been great, even in Morocco and India, where one wouldn’t automatically assume a big response to American roots music culture.
“It’s another one of those things that reminds you of how universal music is,” she said. “In some places, they don’t even know what you’re singing, but they feel the energy. I think it’s a great testament to roots music, soul and blues, as being the kind of music that you put all of yourself into. People vibe on that energy and they get into that.
“I get a lot of emails asking, ‘What are the lyrics to this song?’ and people trying their hardest to interpret it. It’s a great way to connect on and off the stage. The reception is … better than it is in the states a lot of times.”
Not that stateside is completely bereft of rock ’n’ roll passion. It’s just that we take it for granted here, she said.
“When you do find your American fans, it’s usually a pretty strong music love,” she said. “That’s a big part of their lives.”
She and Matt Hill have brought on a second guitarist, Laura Chavez, who used to play with the late West Coast punk-blues icon, Candye Kane.
“We started with a second guitar player last summer, just playing with the idea, and I am in love with it,” Nikki Hill said. “Matt and Laura make a great guitar team, so I’m so excited to continue this lineup on the road this year.”
Hill added: “She is pretty well known for being a bad-a– guitar slinger. I’m just really excited to be working with another great player and having another great female presence. That’s a cool thing when it works out. It’s cool to be up there with her. We’ve been friends for a while and have really admired each other. I’ve got a lot of respect for her, and it’s just awesome.”
Nick Gaitan (bass) and Chris Reddan (drums) round out the recently solidified lineup. Gaitan played with Billy Joe Shaver for seven years, and Reddan’s resume includes blues guitarists Popa Chubby and Jimmy Thackery.
“They’re all road warriors, which is really cool,” Hill said. “Everybody’s a solid hang, on top of being phenomenal players. I cannot imagine how hot on fire it’s going to be after some more touring together.”
Through all the lineup changes, Matt Hill has remained a constant, at home and on the road.
“I’ll be forever thankful to him for introducing me to songwriting as a form of therapy, and getting yourself out there,” she said. “We talk all the time about just what a trip it is.”
Now that the lineup appears settled, it’s time to look to a new album. The watchword, even with the international buzz Hill has built, is patience. In that respect, she and her manager, Salem native and Botetourt County resident Harry Turner, agree.
“All the circus [stuff] is cool, TV and endorsements and big gigs, but that’s not the stuff that lasts,” she said. “You see so many people get into the television appearances and the tour bus and a year later, they’re nowhere to be found.
“[Turner is] just as big of a music fan as I am … and that’s something that I really appreciate about him. He doesn’t ever push us to do things that are taking that immediate, easy way. Sometimes you lose opportunities, but I feel like holding off on certain things, we gain so much.”
After all, she said with a laugh, she is making a living playing her own, uncompromising take on throwback rock ’n’ roll in 2017. She doesn’t want to get away from the attitude that got her to this point in the first place.
“I’m a punk rocker at heart,” she said. “I’m very do it yourself. I’m very small team, small tribe. I don’t really care about corporate [stuff]. I don’t really care about being in the eye of people with money. It’s really about being in the eye of the other, of the underdog, of the people I can relate to, like me. Otherwise, I think I probably wouldn’t be playing rock ’n’ roll or roots music.”