Her songs are ripe with rainy red Fridays, with disappointments about the lights of the world as seen from heaven, with love gone so wrong the wounds can only be cleansed by the entire ocean. Somber images.
Some of her songs move slowly, diffusing from the strings of a guitar, or rising from deceptively soft finger strokes on electric-piano keys. Then, there are those other songs, the ones that walk the line between folk-grunge and acoustic metal.
Welcome to the hard-to-classify music of local singer/songwriter Nikki Talley.
“There is no one peg that I want to hang my coat on,” Talley offers. “One day I’ll be a singer/songwriter, and then the next day, I’ll be a metal goddess. Or the next one, I’ll want to do a sultry blues number, or want to sound like Norah Jones or Tori Amos on the piano. I have a real hard time narrowing myself down to anything.”
Given the content of the songs on last year’s self-released brother, where constant heavy moods and downcast refrains come through on both piano and guitar, it’s easy to assume the singer’s daily life is dark and brooding.
“That’s funny,” she counters, “because I’m a very happy, cheery girl. In between my songs, I’m just a goof. I’m dorky and happy and silly, but my music is usually so dark and heavy. I guess that’s where I vent.”
It hasn’t been easy for Talley to find her place in the Asheville music scene. She’s fronted a heavy metal band (the now-defunct Flake), performed with indie-rockers as a Tori Amos-styled solo-girl rocker and played the sensitive singer/songwriter for the cafe circuit. Yet to hear her tell it, none of these modern-music archetypes truly fit her.
“If I go to a coffee shop, they’re like, ‘Calm down, girl! We’re just serving coffee,'” she explains. “I’m like, ‘Damn it! You’re serving coffee. Caffeine! Shouldn’t I be louder?‘ And then I go to a club, and I’m like, ‘I want to play piano,’ and people say, ‘We want a rock band.'”
“Musically, I’m very comfortable behind my piano, I’m very comfortable behind my guitar, and I’m very comfortable behind my distorted guitar. I’ve got one song for everybody, and that’s hard for the audience. That one metal head that was there for that one heavy metal song is over hearing me play on the piano. The one person that’s been dying to hear me on piano is saying, ‘What the hell is this amplified stuff?’
“To me,” she adds, “it’s just who I am and what I do.”
Talley remains relatively unknown outside of the singer/songwriter set, though that is slowly changing. Last summer, she appeared as the androgynous sidekick Yitzhak in the North Carolina Stage Company production of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a role that allowed her to meet a lot of other local music makers.
“I feel like I’m accepted because of the Hedwig thing,” she reveals. “It really helped me meet a lot of people in the Asheville scene. But I still feel like I’m on the outside, because I don’t play very often in Asheville. I haven’t found my niche.
“There is so much in Asheville, and it’s so diverse, which might make it seem like it’d be perfect for me,” she continues. “It’s kind of like I have to mold to the venue I’m playing, and I’ve not found the venue where I can do it all and feel comfortable.
“You know,” she concludes, “not everybody wants to hear a folkie, and not everybody wants to hear a piano, and not everybody wants to hear distortion. Except for me.”