Nikki Hill’s secret recipe: Take equal parts revved-up rockabilly punk, AC/DC metal stomp, and scorching modern electric blues, and add overflowing spoonfuls of raw, edgy jump blues, R&B, and soul. Blend on 11. What pours from the speakers is one fiery, passionate soul shouter with plenty of attitude and the grooves to back it up.
Yet, this North Carolina native makes it clear she’s not just someone content with resurrecting the past.
“Being an artist with a lot of vintage references is cool, but at the same time, you don’t want to be perceived as a complete throwback. It’s not everything that I am,” Hill says. “I mean, I am not reinventing the wheel by any means, but … [I] make things fresh.”
Hill grew up listening to oldies and singing gospel. She studied the classic soul singers — LaVern Baker, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Tina Turner, and Barbara Lynn, among others — and incorporated a little of each definitive style into her vocal delivery.
“I think my voice and my style is an automatic thing,” she says. “It’s what I remember and recall, and it’s what I base my vocals on. It has a lot to do with being able to use those different styles and phrasing and apply them to what I’m doing now.”
Despite the soul music of her upbringing, Hill, like many teens, went through a rebellious stage. A musical detour found her fronting a punk band. The journey allowed Hill to shape her identity, while also cementing her ability and confidence on stage.
“You want to be different than your parents. You want to figure out what you’re into,” she states. “I didn’t have a career — it was just what I was doing at the time. It was this energetic music. It didn’t have a message, just a lot of shitty players. But it was teaching [me] to be myself and not be afraid of it.
“I guess that’s what I took from being a punk rocker at that time,” she adds, commenting on the gritty edge and occasional shouts that inhabit her mostly soulful ways. “I don’t really let go of that now. I credit that time with giving me a lot how I am now.”
Her soulful roots burst forth again when husband/blues guitarist Matt Hill rescued her from a dual life as personal trainer by day, bartender by night. He frequently brought other musicians home for jam sessions, and Hill would lend her voice to the proceedings.
“He would always say he liked my voice. I thought he was bullshitting me just because we were married,” she says with a laugh. “He didn’t have to say that. It was just fun for me.”
Yet, it was a starting point and, at the urging of friends, the pair hit the road together — mostly performing blues and R&B classics. And the offers kept coming in.
“I’m not going to lie; it was something I wanted to do pretty instantly,” she says. “I just kind of knew that being able to do something musical was exciting, but it was also a way to make a little extra cash.”
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Eventually, it was obvious a full band was needed, and with it came a more diversified set list showcasing Hill’s varied vocal styles and backgrounds. A steady following led to a rousing — and well-received — debut album, Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists.
“There’s just something about the music that makes me feel good, that makes people feel good,” she exclaims. “That’s why I’m doing it!”
Nikki Hill is scheduled to perform Wednesday, September 7, at the Rhythm Room.