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The soul of Nikki Hill




You probably don't know about Nikki Hill, but don't expect that to last. She's about to be swept up in the rising roots-soul wave that's already brought us Sharon Jones and Bettye LaVette. The North Carolina native is part of the genre's next generation, adroitly positioned to make waves with her spine-tingling voice and husband Matt Hill's formidable guitar chops.

Nikki grew up singing gospel in the church, and that flavor remains in a lilting vocal style that combines the sultriness of Billie Holiday — and soulfulness of the classic Stax Sound — with the larger-than-life verve of blues legends like LaVern Baker and Etta James.

The couple met up after Nikki started going to see Matt performing with his band, the Buzzkills. "We had a lot of mutual musical friends telling us we should meet and hang out," she recalls.

Two years ago the young performers united in matrimony and promptly moved to St. Louis to put a band together. It was Matt, a Blues Music Award winner, who'd come up with the idea of creating a kind of family business in which the hard life of the road could be shared. Nikki, who had considerably less experience and ambition, was at first skeptical.

"I didn't have the dream since I was a little girl to be a star," she says of her initial reticence. "He was encouraging me to do more of it, and I kind of played off the idea. Then I said, 'OK, if you're so supportive of it, let's give it a try.' There was lots of encouragement from friends and family too, and I thought, 'Well, maybe they aren't lying.'"

They weren't wrong, either. On her self-titled 2012 EP, Nikki shows surprising versatility and assurance for someone making her first-ever recording. She channels Stax-inflected R&B on the slinky original "Right on the Brink," serves up bright '60s doo-wop girl-pop on "I Know," and brings a slow-burn blues balladry to Ike Turner's R&B classic "Gotta Find My Baby."

"I was flipping through and listening to records, and that one popped up and I was like, 'Man, this would sound so cool with a really laid-back beat to it."

While the singer's offstage humility is charming, it's also wildly misplaced, as shown by last year's critically acclaimed full-length debut, Here's Nikki Hill. There's a curatorial care and respect with which the Hills treat blues and roots music, but unlike most of their contemporaries, it's not handicapped by a desire for genre and time-specific verisimilitude. It's old and new at once.

Nikki's vocal style dovetails nicely with Matt's more Sun Records-inspired rockabilly inclinations. In addition to being a talented guitarist, Matt's a passionate showman who's enlivened by the manic madcap spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis. He's been known to scoot across the stage on his back while playing guitar and to stage dive into the audience.

Nikki, meanwhile, says she's encouraged by the success of kindred spirits like the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

"It's great to see the country — and the world, really — get into it," Nikki says. "This music speaks to everybody, and that's what makes it a really widespread thing. It's music that the average person goes through, in happiness or sadness and everything in-between."

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