Nikki Hill's rock 'n' roll revival

Burgeoning singer reimagines righteousness with a DIY spirit

Nikki Hill enjoys a freedom rarely afforded to young artists in the beginning of their careers. Before she embarked on years of relentless touring, the North Carolina-bred rockabilly singer and her husband, co-songwriter/guitarist Matt Hill, decided to take autonomy in their music by running their own label, Deep Fryed Records. Now the pair are touring the world behind Nikki's fiery brand of DIY roots rock revival.

Like many Southern musicians, Nikki's introduction to music started in the pews. As a child, she discovered the power of performance through gospel music and the unity it inspired in the congregation. "I was really confused as far as the religious side of church, but seeing the effect the music, the words, and the beat had on people was something that sticks with me now," Nikki says. "As you get into music, you start to notice the influence gospel has had on all American roots music."

Her personal translation of soul-tinged rock 'n' roll reaches deeper than a neat imitation of Etta James. On Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists, her recently released sophomore record, Nikki's raw bellows and biting lyricism evoke the unbridled honesty that made soul legends so revolutionary. Before she combed through the Stax Records catalog for inspiration, punk rock informed her style.

"As a teenager I really loved punk because of its energy, the rebellious side of it, and I loved the camaraderie of going to shows with your friends," she says.

Shifting her tastes from the hardcore of Agnostic Front to Little Richard's high-energy rhythm and blues was less a transition for Nikki than a natural extension of her aesthetic. The allure of golden-era rock 'n' roll in her adult life intersected with the appeal of punk in her teenage years. Both genres construct their image from a place of fearlessness and revolution.

"Little Richard was more punk rock than any of us could ever fucking imagine," she says. "It takes a lot of confidence in yourself and a lot of insanity to do what he did in the time he was doing it."

Nikki references less obvious influences such as Missy Elliott, Kurt Cobain, and the Fugees as having a major impact because of the sincerity in their music. Even though Matt's bluesy guitar chops and Nikki's smoky wailing hardly inspire Nirvana comparisons, the veracity in her words provide a common link. In one of the first lines in Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists' title track she confronts heartbreak with little sentimentality, "I keep moaning and crying for you, even if you don't care to come home," she sings. "Now my moans set the mood I'm in, I'd rather spend my time alone."

The record's often tormented subject matter combined with her brand of raucous energy contrasts with the buoyancy of her first album, Here's Nikki Hill. She points to the years after those initial recordings when she was constantly touring with little breaks as reason for the record's raw, confessional feel. "There's nothing more therapeutic than being on the stage surrounded by guitar and hard-hitting bass and drums," she says. "I was letting go on stage every night so I pushed that out in the recordings."

An early desire to maintain ownership of their music and management allowed Nikki and Matt the freedom of their brutal touring schedule. Back when the pair were performing small shows in their current home of St. Louis, they formed Deep Fryed Records in 2010 to challenge themselves, learn the business, and carve out a career. That foundation of self-sufficiency gave Nikki the freedom to craft her own voice outside the influence of labels that often advise the development of burgeoning artists.

"When you first start out your head is a in a place where you're vulnerable and you're gonna hear things a little differently because you just want help," she says. "I am kind of a no-bullshit person so that wouldn't fly with me."

On "And I Wonder," she offers this simple explanation for her independence as she wails over a sheet of Matt's smoky distortion: "I got nothing to lose, you can trust me, my hands don't shake."

One could point to her upbringing in punk's DIY ideology, or to the spiritual guidance of Little Richard's wild style, but Nikki's formidable sense of musical freedom and vocal prowess find strength in her own righteous convictions.