Compass Records is excited to announce the release of renowned singer/songwriter Nicki Bluhm's new album, TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALL out June 1. To celebrate the announcement, Rolling Stonepremiered the tle track yesterday, hailing the song as "a blast of Memphis soul." TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALL as recorded in Memphis at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording studio and features two co-writes with Ryan Adams and a Dan Penn cover. For these live band analog sessions, Bluhm brought in producer Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell), and the studio band included Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitars), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion), Al Gamble(Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano) and Dave Smith (bass), with Reba Russell and Susan Marshall (background singers), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and various special guests.
"It was the very first song we tracked," Bluhm told Rolling Stone, "and Ken just started playing the groove and the band slowly started to drift in. Ken is such a present musician, and he's listening to the words and reading the room and the vibe...There's a line in the song that says, 'I went looking for some perspective, so I knocked on my mama's door,' and he just hit the drum -- the rim -- like a knock, which brought a playfulness and lightness to the song. I love Will's guitar playing, too. It's so understated, but he makes himself known. It's like the old saying goes: 'The young bull charges down the hill, but the old bull takes his time.' These musicians were tasteful; they're all old bulls full of experience and class. Having a string section arranged by Sam Shoup was the icing on the cake. Memphis had melted into my California soul."
After six years with her band the Gramblers, and recent high-profile collaborations (Phil Lesh, Infamous Stringdusters, Ryan Adams), Bluhm wrote the life-chronicling songs for TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALLover a two-year period, during which she got divorced and moved to Nashville, TN. The album is a chronicle of her state of mind following these deep and fundamental life changes.
"These songs are quite personal," Bluhm says. "They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn't have survived without."
Bluhm's divorce, along with the need to challenge herself, inspired the West Coast na ve to make her spur-of-the moment, cross-country move to Nashville in 2017.
"Nashville was inspiring because of all the songwriting going on here," Bluhm says. "When I would come to Nashville on writing trips it was just percolating... it was intoxicating. So I very hastily, in a matter of days, decided to move. I just had this gut feeling."
Ross-Spang happened to be mixing a record in Nashville at the time and they met up and hit it off immediately.
"I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did," Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. "My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn't want to even have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we'd record in Memphis."
Once settled in Sam Phillips Recording, the sessions revolved around tracking live with an ace band assembled by Ross-Spang.
"We really just recorded live and we didn't do that many takes of each song," Bluhm says. "The final versions we ended up with were all one take. It was really refreshing to go analog. It minimized over thinking and second guessing, forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. Sam Shoup did all the string arrangements and when he walked in the room I thought he was a housepainter; he was the most understated, unlikely suspect. That was the thing about Memphis that was cool... not a lot of egos, just people making music for music's sake. Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends me curating his sessions and who he decides to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, 'not perfection but captured moments in time.'
"I had lost my partner in so many ways," Bluhm continues, "my musical partner, my life partner, my creative partner, and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to start my own engine. It was really intimidating and scary," she says "but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn't even know I had in me. I was on autopilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving forward. When the album finally comes out it's going to be like setting a caged bird free."
Bluhm will be touring this year and beyond in support of TO RISE YOU GOTTA FALL. The confirmed tour dates are below with more to be announced soon.
Peter Oren Trio
Indiana-born, everywhere-based singer-songwriter Peter Oren possesses a remarkable singing voice, low and deep and richly textured: as solid as a glacier, as big as a mountain. Similar in its baritone gravel to Bill Callahan, a hero of his, it rumbles in your conscience, a righteous sound that marks him as an artist for our tumultuous times, when sanity seems absent from popular discussions. His voice is ideally suited to confront a topic as large and as ominous as the Anthropocene Age.
That term is relatively new, reportedly coined in the 1960s but popularized only in the new century to designate a new epoch in the earth’s history, when man has exerted a permanent—and, many would argue, an incredibly deleterious—change in the environment. Sea levels are rising, plants and animals facing mass extinctions; it may be humanity’s final epoch, which makes it a massive and daunting subject for a lone singer-songwriter to address, let alone a young musician making his second full-length record. But Oren has both the singing voice and the songwriting voice to put it all into perspective. The songs on Anthropocene, his first album for Western Vinyl, are direct and poetic, outraged and measured, taking in the entire fucked-up world from his fixed point of view.
Art and activism are inseparable on these ten songs, each bolstering the other. “There’s no separating art from reality,” says Oren. “The reality is that our politics are guided by our emotions, and music has the capacity to demonstrate those emotions, at least on an individual level. And if you can talk to someone on an individual level, you might be able to have a more useful conversation than if you’re talking to a roomful of people.”
Oren hails from Columbus, Indiana, a city famed for its midcentury modern architecture (and as the hometown of our current vice president). Yet, as he notes on the sober “Falling Water,” the town is “named for a murderer and a misnomer”—not a brave explorer but a greedy exploiter. “What do you do when you’re from a place that’s named after a genocidal figure?” he asks, not quite rhetorically. “It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with: the long history of segregation that is by a long stretch not over.” He began putting his thoughts down in poetry while a high school student, later picking up a guitar and setting his verses to music.
“It was a form of therapy, a way to process whatever a teenager’s trying to figure out. And there’s a lot to figure out with politics. I’ve always had a tendency to be critical of what’s going on, and when I got pulled into the Occupy movement, I had my ideas about the world questioned.” As soon as he could, he left Columbus to travel the world: drifting along American highways in his trusty pick-up truck, folk and hip-hop albums his only company on the road. Along the way he kept his eyes and ears open for new experiences, new inspirations, new songs to excavate out of the earth like fossils. “I always go ‘cause I ain’t learned to stay,” he sings on “Burden of Proof,” a song full of vivid highway imagery.
“I was trying to capture what it’s like traveling around the country, sleeping at rest stops, and harboring disdain for the both the evangelical tendencies of the Bible Belt and the commodification embedded in pop country music. Songs feel like a process of discovery more than creation. Most of the time I’m just trying to understand how I feel, trying to figure out if there’s some nuance or shape that I can give a feel. I feel best about the world when I’m writing a song or when I’m playing a song and I can tell people are really listening to it.”
After releasing his full-length debut in 2016, the eloquently spare Living By the Light, full of road songs and wanderers’ laments, he began playing more live shows, just him and his guitar on an empty stage. The set-up was not simply financially expedient but musically effective, allowing him to address listeners more directly, whether he’s singing to a scattering of curious onlookers or a full house of fans. Early encouragement came by way of Joe Pug, another singer-songwriter unafraid to confront big issues in his rootsy songs. “I was on a bill with him in Bloomington, Indiana, and he invited me to open another date for him in Chicago. His support was amazing. He was the first real professional musician I ever worked with.”
He would not be the last. Soon Oren attracted the attention of Ken Coomer, the drummer for Wilco and a producer in Nashville. Together, the duo assembled a backing band featuring some of the city’s finest session musicians, including keyboard player Michael Webb (John Fogerty), singer Maureen Murphy (Zac Brown Band), and guitarists Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill) and Laur Jaomets (Sturgill Simpson). On Anthropocene they provide stately backing for Oren’s songs, with drips of pedal steel and quivers of strings subtly reinforcing his observations about the state of the world. “Throw Down” bristles with energy and resolve, penned for “the people on the far, far left,” Oren says, “the anarchists and the rioters. There’s not often a voice that’s trying to understand those people or defend those positions.”
Anthropocene might be merely didactic and oppressive—a giant bummer of an album—if those rallying cries weren’t tempered with something like hope, particularly on the sunny “New Gardens.” He penned the tune as a teenager, but as an adult felt the message still resonated. “Save the fences for the rabbits,” he sings on the earworm chorus. “If you need a tool, you can have it.” The song celebrates labor, individual and collective, as the most effective tool for last change, and that vision of communal responsibility that makes the album such a rousing call to arms.
“Music is a sympathetic process, where people who feel the same can experience it together. I don’t know if my songs would change somebody’s mind, but they might help people feel a little bit less alone in their opinions and might encourage them to get involved in some way. Nobody’s going to riot when the album hits the street, but maybe it can in some small way help turn the tables.”