by Roy Kasten
Blink and you'll miss the rising star that is Nikki Hill, a young, powerhouse R&B and rock & roll singer and songwriter, living right here in St. Louis -- when she isn't on the road, which is virtually non-stop. Blink again and you'll miss her second release in 2013, an EP called Soul Meets Country! that follows up her debut full-length Here's Nikki Hill and finds the singer joining rockabilly veteran Deke Dickerson and legendary Memphis soul band the Bo-Keys on four songs, including a sensuous duet on the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn track "Feelins" and a new original called "Struttin'." The latter of which does just what its name implies (listen to the track after the jump).
Hill is currently touring Europe but returns to St. Louis for what will surely be a beyond-packed show at the Blues City Deli on December 28. Senior Writer Roy Kasten caught up with Hill by email to get the story behind the new EP.
Roy Kasten: Let's start at the beginning: How did this project come about?
Nikki Hill: I was a huge fan of Deke's prior EP with the Bo-Keys Country Meets Soul and raved about it. I jokingly mentioned if he ever did something like that again, I wanted to be a part of it. And here you have it!
Was the EP recorded quickly, or did it involve a number of takes, a number of sessions and/or overdubs?
It was a super tight schedule. I had just landed back in the states from Spain, had one night of sleep and then drove to Memphis the next day. I had to be back in a couple of days because then we were flying to Scandinavia! It probably took about six to eight hours for everything once we were in the studio? I can't really remember anymore, but I know that we had almost everything laid down in one day, then the horns came in the next day and a few overdubs and then it was done. The additions of Jack Ashford and Dennis Coffey's playing came later!
Did you know the music of Deke Dickerson and the Bo-Keys prior to the project?
Yes. I think Deke is a killer roots musician and a great historian, so I have been a fan and followed his music and musings for awhile. I saw the Bo-Keys with Skip Pitts before he passed, doing an in-store at Euclid Records. Almost anything Howard Grimes is a part of, I know about!
Had you recorded with another band before? What was it like working with the Bo-Keys?
My first EP was with hired guns and not a band, so yes. It was really fun and a great learning experience, especially since the songs were fresh to everyone, but I'm used to that recording style more than anything. Everyone was enthusiastic about the project which was cool. And plus, Howard fucking Grimes! How could I pass it up? It was cool just hearing and watching him play, and watching his excited reactions to the songs.
What is Deke like in the studio?
A complete nut. Haha, no he's cool. Gets the work done, was very comfortable and provided a good vibe in the studio.
Was there discussion of what the concept of the EP would be? What the sound and vision would be?
Yeah, it basically came up over phone and email, since everyone involved lives in different places and was busy! But with a project like that and something so unique, really we weren't going to know the outcome until we started playing. We were just going on a whim and being total music nerds in the sense of the "concept." I think we just knew no matter what that it was going to be a really cool experience and record.
Was it difficult to decide to record without your band, and without Matt, specifically?
Of course I thought about it, and of course I missed Matt! But, at the same time, going into it I knew it was going to be a recording with the Bo-Keys. That was most of the point. Howard fucking Grimes, remember? So, of course I always miss my pirate crew, but this was just a different project. They were all totally understanding and just as excited as I was, actually! And we can play the song I wrote live!
Continue to page two for more of our interview and a track from the new album.
How did you work up the vocal arrangement with Deke on the song "Feelins"?
The vocal arrangement is from the original "Feelins'," sung by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Deke came up with this more soul-style groove, and then we we recorded it. It just laid down even more greasy! Add in the killer horn arrangement, and man, it sounds like something Otis and Carla could have sung.
That song is quite extraordinary. It's fairly rare in soul music (and even rarer in country music) to hear male and female duets, where one singer is black and the other white, especially on songs with romantic content. Were you conscious of that?
I didn't really think about it that way, just that it was a great song with a really cool soul feel. I sing these songs to and with my husband all the time, so I think I'm pretty oblivious to that kind of stuff when it comes to music. Plus, being in Memphis, the spirit of Stax, who were changing everything without even knowing it, having a band of black and white musicians, it's like, why not? They did it in some of the worst of times and showed that it doesn't matter. If you've got soul, you've got soul. That's how music should always be treated.
The sensuality of that song, the depth of feeling you and Deke put into it, is what makes a great duet.
It's such a cool tune. I'm really happy with the way it came out. It was exciting to do harmonies like that again. That's more of a strongpoint for me and I think it definitely adds depth of feeling to a lot of songs, especially lovey dovey duets.