Singer-songwriter Nikki Talley left Asheville (sort of) to tour full-time with her husband and bandmate, Jason Sharp. The two see the country from their home-on-wheels, Blue Bell the van, while meeting fellow touring musicians, writing songs and discovering prime fishing spots. Talley talks about all of that, but mostly she’s exciting about the release of new album Out from the Harbor. Talley plays an album release show at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall on Thursday, March 12. It’s a dual release show with Americana artist Liz Longley. Anthony D’Amato opens. 8:10 p.m., $10 advance/$12 at the door.
Mountain Xpress: Tell us about the new album — why did you decide to name it Out from the Harbor?
Nikki Talley: Our new album Out from the Harbor is the first studio album we’ve done in five years. It is not an overly produced album. With the exception of string parts on a few songs, the entire album consists of me on guitar, vocals and banjo; my husband and tour partner Jason Sharp on guitars; and Mike Ashworth (Steep Canyon Rangers) on drums and bass. We wanted it to be a nice representation of what we do live, but with a few little sparkles of the magic that happens spontaneously in the studio. We captured 10 song stories during our session.
We felt the name of the album was a great metaphor for our life since we left Asheville three-and-a-half years ago. Out from the Harbor, like life, is a journey.
What was the recording process like?
This was our first time being at Echo Mountain Studios. Being here in Asheville since the early ’90s, I have actually known most of the folks involved with the studio and it felt like a homecoming. We needed to be comfortable in our environment, and being nestled in the bosom of the mountains we love so much seemed natural. We spent four 12-hour days in a row laying down tracks. It was a very extreme, fast, whirlwind of creativity, mental exhaustion and fun. It really was great to be in a place like Echo that technically had everything you could dream of. We were left to be relaxed and creative.
We called on [our] friend Mike Ashworth to help with the rhythm part of the record. He is first our friend and second a fantastic musician who is no stranger to Echo Mountain. It was great to finally work with him.
Is there a theme or a narrative with the songs?
The words that keep coming back to me are “tragic Americana.” Not something that makes you wanna smile and crank up the radio, right? I write a lot darker than I live my life and because of that, I think people like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are the happiest people in the world. They have an outlet for the deranged stories in their skulls.
A lot of the album travels through the element of water whether it be the sea, rivers, tears or rain. The album opens with a song about how you need rainy days. My sister lived in California for a few years and coming from the misty mountains of North Carolina, she said that she missed rainy days and how even “All the sunshine in California couldn’t make this go away.” I thought it was a great way to start the album.
Some of the other themes that appear on the album tend to be melancholy and sad but again, these are the voices of characters who’ve presented themselves to me. I can’t explain my writing process. There is no method. I am not one who practices writing. I’ve always felt at the mercy of the song when it comes to me. I have to shut up, sit down, listen and try to capture what these voices are telling me. A lot of the stories are things I have never experienced myself, so it’s really hard to explain. I just hope that I’ve sung their story strong enough.
How does being on the road affect your songwriting process?
I have been asked if my travels have influenced my songwriting and not since looking at this specific collection did I realize it truly had. For every song on this record, I can tell you where I was and why I wrote it. Some will be more obvious than others: “Go out on the Water” wasn’t written in the mountains of Western North Carolina, believe it or not. Ha! Others might not be as obvious, but that’s OK. It’s for the listener to decide where each song takes places and what it means to them.
What’s a current favorite song to play live?
My favorite song to play live is often the newest “song baby.” That said, off the album we love playing “Travelin On.” It’s kind of our anthem about being “kids on a merry-go-round … somewhere in the middle of chasing our tails and chasing our dreams down.” I love singing these words with Jason live and feeling our voices wrap around each other. I’m very lucky to share the stage, stories and road with the love of my life (for 16 years I might add!).
On Facebook you mentioned the band Rubblebucket as “one of our faves we’ve met thru our travels.” Besides that group, who are some other band friends you’ve made on the road?
We have been lucky to share festivals, shows and stages with our idols big and small. I think most bands that tour heavily fall on some sort of support at home but also equally from other road dogs as well. We have continually met up with and called on help from other touring acts. Tour can be very isolating, especially touring as a hubby and wife team. As you can imagine, we can shut ourselves up in the van before and after shows leaving our only relationships with people being based on small talk. But we also know the value of the friendships of fellow musicians and have luckily met up with some great people who can relate to the touring lifestyle. There’s a small group of people who have experienced life on the road and know what you’ve gone through to share your art away from the comforts of home. Sometimes words of wisdom and comfort from these people mean the most.
Andrew Duhon is a songwriter based out of New Orleans. He has often let us crash at this place and even showed us around Mardi Gras his way in addition to sharing shows. Megan Jean and the KFB is a fellow hubby-and-wife duo who travel out of their van who we often call on to compare notes of our journey. In West Virginia, we caught up with The Mulligan Brothers (based out of lower Alabama) and continue to share stories from the road. We have also connected with people who aren’t fellow musicians but fellow van dwellers as we were recently interviewed for a documentary about people who work from their vehicles. That community is a great source of information as well as inspiration beyond music.
What would you say is a current best thing and worst thing about living in a small space?
We do not have a permanent address. Of course we have family and friends and fans who often let us park Blue Bell in their yard or let us crash in a spare bedroom for a day or so. When we come “home,” we come back to some property of my mother’s in Brevard where we can decompress from the road and absorb the beautiful mountains we love so much. Some days we miss having certain comforts because nothing about this life is routine. But on our days off we, like an old retired couple, are in the throes of a national park seeing nature, fishing, writing songs by campfire. It’s truly a magical dreamy way to live a life. Not all days are perfect. Most couples argue about directions and when our GPS fails us in 5:00 traffic in Manhattan during a tropical storm on the George Washington Bridge, yeah, things get testy. This experience has really brought us closer together. It’s not for everyone. We get that. We know that we’re lucky.
To quote Jason “The best thing about it is being together all the time. The worst thing about it is being together all the time.” You obviously have to have a sense of humor to keep things rolling.
I think one of the things I miss most, especially around this time of year, is having a garden. Nourishing something, watching it grow. I have to remind myself that I now sew seeds of song instead, wherever the road leads us.
Any special plans for the March 12 show at The Isis?
We are excited to have Bryan White on bass (long time collaborator and friend) as well as Patrick Armitage (Jon Stickley Trio) on drums joining us at Isis. We will feature songs off the new album and will have physical copies available.