"Gospel is the root of roots music, right?"
Rocking roots-and-deep-soul dynamo Nikki Hill breaks from a tour which brings her band, including husband/guitarist Matt Hill, drummer Joe Meyer and bassist Ed Strohsahl, to Snug Harbor on June 6, to discuss the sacred roots of that most profane music — rock 'n' roll. "Driving rhythms, call and response lyrics, a lose-yourself beat — gospel has the damn formula!"
Hill should know. Prior to charting a course from teenaged punk rocker to rock 'n' soul powerhouse, the Durham, North Carolina, native was a schoolgirl singing in a Sunday gospel choir. Weekdays, Hill's tastes ran less liturgical. "Joan Jett's 'I Love Rock and Roll' made me want to jump up and scream at the top of my lungs!"
That love of rock 'n' roll brought Hill to Chapel Hill's punk rock scene. "I got into [punk and psychobilly pioneers] The Cramps." Hill's current retro-chic look — tatted-arms, stacked-heels and bee-hived hair — drew inspiration from Cramps' guitarist Poison Ivy. "I love how [Ivy] paired up her vintage pieces in a way that was total bad-ass."
Yet at that point, Hill had no intention of rockin' for a living. The catalyst for that transformation was a chance meeting at the yearly Heavy Rebel Weekender in Winston-Salem, where Nikki ran into guitarist Matt Hill. Sparks did not immediately fly, but the two soon bonded over shared musical tastes.
"I was trying NOT to date musicians," Hill says, "But [Matt] always had me laughing. We stayed friends over the years, and then, it just happened. We have been together every day since."
Married in March 2011, the newlyweds set out for the greener musical pastures of St. Louis, a "cheap and central" location for touring. With Matt's encouragement, Nikki, who had been singing for fun, began to take her craft seriously. "I started pushing boundaries for myself. I knew that it wouldn't be bullshit if I was willing to fail," she says.
Hill's integrity and determination paid off. At Viva Las Vegas, a roots music festival held each Easter weekend in the gambling mecca, Hill sang at a private party. YouTube videos of the gig went viral and Hill blew up. "People were asking if I had records out and what was happening with my career. The truth is, I had no career."
In short order, Nikki and Matt formed their razor-sharp combo and booked an inaugural gig at St. Louis' famed Blues City Deli. Interest and accolades followed. The Hills started their own label, Deep Fryed Records, released their first full-length CD, Here's Nikki Hill, last April, and have toured incessantly since.
Live, Hill draws on the proto-rock ingrained in gospel's DNA and the precision of soul-jazz stylists like Etta James to put over crackling, self-penned originals and covers of unjustly neglected gems such as Bobby Blue Bland's "Poverty" and Barbara Redd's "Dancing Teardrops." The combo also covers AC/DC's "Rocker" and "Whole Lotta Rosie." Matt's guitar brings 1970s hard rock crunch to the band's set.
Hill sees no incongruity with Etta James and Bon Scott side-by-side in a roots scene usually focused on retro. "Couldn't you see Etta singing rock tunes?" she asks.
Yet, when she's called a role model for women in roots rock, Hill scoffs. "I have my own role models, so it's hard to see myself as one. The musicians I love just had soul pouring out of them. They're the kings and queens of this music, and it's hard to think you're in the same league as royalty," Hill says.
"Maybe I can be the court jester."