In not exactly this order, this is how Nikki Talley has spent the past few months: She ended a three-year stint playing cafes in suburban Toronto; reintegrated to her home turf in Western North Carolina; turned 30; and released her second album, Telling Lies.
And then there was that $10,000 she won on the local reality TV show Carolina Star. But, to hear her tell it, that was done almost on a whim.
“I was out in the garden one day listening to a radio station,” recalls Talley. “I was staking up tomatoes and getting rid of Japanese beetles, when I heard this announcement saying something about ‘Carolina Star … $10,000 … recording contract … tryouts at The Orange Peel … Channel 13 coverage.’”
Freshly returned from the Great White North, Talley says she decided it to give it a shot. After all, she’d been out of the local music since 2004, and she hadn’t really had time to raise her profile back to its former level. Carolina Star seemed like a long shot, but it at least it would be something.
“My original idea was to get as much local press as I could in order to let folks know I was back in town,” she explains. “I was kind of looking for something to propel me into the spotlight, and I figured this was the perfect opportunity. I’d at least get on the TV once.”
As it would turn out, Talley got to be on the TV way more than once. An experienced performer, she rose through the ranks of the 12-week competition, slowly edging out hundreds of other contestants in the American Idol-like show.
“There were so many damn good singers, I never expected to get so far,” she says. “And I never in thought I’d win it!” But win it she did, belting out surprisingly powerful versions of classic songs like “Hit the Road Jack,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Let it Be” and her final song, Neil Young’s “Helpless.” (Which, coincidentally, is a song about Canada.)
Although all of the previous Carolina Star shows had been prerecorded, the end of the finale episode was broadcast live from the sales lot of sponsor Auto Advantage. Talley had nearly been voted off the show only a few weeks before, and didn’t have high hopes about claiming the prize.
“[When] they announced the winner, I still didn’t think I heard ‘em right … I really was stunned,” she says. “From the video and photos folks showed me afterwards, I truly have this glazed over look on my face. The hardest thing was to go and sing after they handed me that big ol’ check. I could hardly speak, much less bust out a prize-winning performance.”
Now that Carolina Star is over, with some of the cash already spent on a new guitar and clutch for her truck, Talley isn’t exactly sure what, if any, long-term impact the show will have on her career. In fact, some parts of the show are still unresolved, such as the exact details of the “recording deal” that was supposed to be part of Carolina Star prize package.
And then there’s a larger question: What can people know about Talley’s real music – her original material – from watching how she sang 90-second snippets of other people’s hits?
But she’s not letting it get to her, claiming that she’s glad to return to her own gigs and her own songs. “It was weird for me not to play my own music and not to play my guitar. I didn’t know what to do with my hands while I sang!”
Now back on the gigging circuit and belting out her distinct brand of bittersweet melancholia, Talley seems almost as reluctant to embrace Carolina Star-dom as she is hesitant to accept the label of singer/songwriter.
“I do sing, and I do write songs, but the [singer/songwriter] genre isn’t something I think I represent properly,” explains Talley. “I hate the genre thing. I actually hate the word itself. I don’t like saying it.”
So, if she’s not a singer/songwriter, and she’s not comfortable embracing the role of a cover artist, what kind of musician is Nikki Talley, exactly? Should her stint with her old rock group be considered? Or the time she took a turn in musical theater, playing Yitzak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch?
Even Talley is at a loss for an exact description of the music she makes. But she can get close.
“I think my musical style is something like this,” she explains. “PJ Harvey is playing bartender alongside Tori Amos, Björk, Natalie Merchant, Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco. They have Alice in Chains on the stereo in the back of the room, and they are all trying to come up with the perfect cocktail. They each throw in their own pinches of spice, and turn on the blender. It’s a tasty, dark melody, and it makes your heart burn. [Then] comes Laurie Anderson with some Rolaids.”
But that’s not quite right, and even Talley knows it.
“I don’t know what my music sounds like,” she adds. “The songs just kind of take over themselves.”
[Ethan Clark is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Asheville.]
Nikki Talley performs at the Root Bar (1410 Tunnel Rd.) on Thursday, Aug. 23. Info at rootbar.com or 299-7597.