Nothing Without Nikki

Neo-soul singer Nikki Hill and her husband Matt. Onstage, they lead a quintet.                                Photos by Aubrey Edwards.

Nikki Hill didn’t know if she believed her husband, guitarist Matt Hill, when he touted her potential as a singer. “I thought he was just being really nice because he was my husband and that was just what he was supposed to say,” she says with a smile in her voice. But when other St. Louis musicians began inviting her onstage to perform, she started to take it seriously.

The retro-styled Hill has always loved music. Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, she sang in a gospel choir, and as a teenager began frequenting the legendary Cat’s Cradle and other clubs, hearing groups like Southern Culture on the Skids, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ben Folds, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. When she turned 21, Hill got a job at Chapel Hill nightclub Local 506 to be close to the scene. Now 30, she leads her own internationally touring quintet (with husband Matt), comfortable belting out a slow-burn soul ballad like “Nothing With You” or a high-energy blues rocker such as the title track of her 2015 album, Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists.

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What was it that you liked about going to see live music as a teenager?

You really thrive off the energy and the different nuances between the live show and the record. That became my life. If I had a spare dollar, it went to seeing a live show. Coming from the MTV generation, seeing music videos, you’re obviously kind of turned on visually by it, but there’s something special about going to see a band live.

When did you start thinking about music as a career?

I’m still riding high on the idea of it myself. I really thought it would just be a fun thing to do at home, something Matt and I could do every once in awhile, but we started booking duo gigs. It blossomed into a YouTube video, and then people think you have records and they wonder what your tour schedule is. I was just starting to write and practice and get better, and suddenly it went from “I have no idea what I’m doing” and “Why am I doing this?” to “Oh my God, I have to do this.”

So songwriting isn’t just a hobby anymore …

I need to write. It’s like breathing. I have to write to clear things out of my head. Things are coming out, you’re writing them down, and later you develop those words into something. What influences was I going to take from the artists I really liked, and what parts am I going to really put myself into — writing was something that I knew I had to make happen.

Have you always been comfortable on stage?

It’s really me getting up there and being myself. People are either going to like it or they’re not, but I can’t change the way I act or the goofy things that I do, or if my voice messes up — there’s not much you can do about it, so being nervous to me is kind of secondary.

The Brevard Blues N’ BBQ Festival at Brevard Music Center happens Friday, June 3, and Saturday, June 4. Nikki Hill performs on Friday, along with John Truant and Levee Daze, John Németh, and legendary blues guitarist Anson Funderburgh. Saturday’s lineup includes regional favorites Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats and many others; headliners are the Blind Boys of Alabama and Bettye Lavette. For ticket options and more information, see brevard-bluesfestival.com or call 828-862-2105.

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