I had the pleasure of meeting Nikki and The Midnight Larks in February at the Field Trip South hosted by Hidden Volume Records in Orlando. They put on a great show , and I’m excited that Nikki has taken the time to talk to 50thirdand3rd about her solo work and other band collaborations.
A Few Words With – Nikki Speake
For those unfamiliar with your music, can you can you give us a little of your back history?
I think I was about 4 the first time I sang in public, so I’ve been singing most of my life. I started writing my own songs around 16 after my sister bought me a guitar. I never took lessons, I just learned a few chords from a book and started making melodies. That’s still my favorite thing to do. When I went to college at Auburn University I started singing and playing my songs at coffee shops, house shows and the college radio station. Then some friends of mine (Katie Barrier of the Pine Hill Haints and Brooke McCarley of In Snow) started an all female punk band called Whistle Bait and asked me to sing. We had songs about punching boys in the eye and cutting people with switchblades! It was all pretty hilarious; we had a great time and got to play a lot of shows with the Immortal Lee County Killers and did a little tour from Auburn to New Orleans with the Legendary Shack Shakers. After that I started a psych-country band called Virgil Otis with the amazing Jody Nelson (Through the Sparks and Heath Green and the Makeshifters). We got a good bit of press and attention in a very short time, but I was young and dumb moved to Seattle. I had no idea we were as loved as much as we were. It was before any social media — even MySpace — so there was no way to generate instant “likes.” I still regret it to this day. I probably didn’t play music at all, other then a few solo sets here and there, for about 10 miserable long years. I started back playing about four years ago, and have been in a lot of Atlanta bands since: Sioux City Sue, 30 Year Old Women From Mars, Midnight Larks, Shantih Shantih, and now Nikki and the Phantom Callers.
Who would you list as your musical influence?
I grew with a steady drip of the Beatles, Elvis, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner duets and my dad’s Jimmy Driftwood records. The Pixies changed my life as a teenager. When I was a punk singer my biggest influences were Wanda Jackson and Joan Jett. I tried my best to create a hybrid of their growls and hiccups, and they’re still a big influence on the way I sing today. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Melanie Safka, and lots of Otis Redding. I could name so many more, but I’ll stop.
What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you since you started up?
Since I started playing and singing again after a decade, I’ve tried to throw myself into the music world full force (as much as I can and still keep a day job). I’m in three bands right now, and don’t plan to stop, ha. I toured Europe with Shantih Shantih of Dusty Medical Records and Wild Honey, and that was such an amazing experience. I’ve also had the opportunity in Midnight Larks to play some bigger festivals, like Project Pabst, and share a bill with major artists like Mastodon and Santigold. It’s all cool really though. Even if I play a show to 10 people the rest of my life, I’ll never stop again.
For the kids in bands…what kind of gear do you use playing gigs?
For Nikki and the Phantom Callers I use my first and only electric guitar — a turquoise Epiphone Les Paul Studio, and I love it so much! I’ve had it since 2001, and I just wish I were a better guitar player to do its beauty justice. For my amp I use a Fender Blues Jr. that I’ve had about as long, and I love it too. In Midnight Larks and Shantih Shantih, I mostly play bass, and use a Fender Jaguar short scale bass and a Fender Rumble 500 combo amp. I guess I love Fender!
What are some of your favorite albums from the past few years?
This is a really hard one, because there is so much new music out there that I feel inundated with new releases and find it easier sometimes to stick with the old albums I love. I really did wear out Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds, even though I haven’t listened to his new album much. It was so perfect and beautiful with just the right amount of psychedelia. The only other *new* vinyl I have bought in the past few years was Guy Blakeslee’s solo album and the Coathangers new album, Nosebleed weekend. Both great! I just discovered Doug Tuttle, and really love his new release too. I was already a fan of Gringo Star, but after touring with them and hearing their new album “The Sides and In Between” each night, it’s quickly become a new favorite for me — top notch songwriting out of that crew.
Do you see any real use for social media, or is it all just a pain in the ass to keep with?
I’m not sure so would have a Facebook account if not for my bands, so it is definitely a necessity! I’ve had people say they came to my show just because they found me on Instagram, and that makes it worth to me. I try to make it fun, so that it’s not tedious, but it can be time consuming with everything I have going on.
Do you pay attention to reviews or comments from people about your music or do you just turn that noise off?
I want to hear feedback from people, if it’s delivered in a positive way, and I have been lucky in that respect. I always want to do better than I did before, and if someone suggests something that could make me a better performer, I’ll most likely try it. Creating and nurturing a song that has your private thoughts for the world to hear is a pretty vulnerable place though. I think all artists are masochists in that respect.
If you could tour anywhere in the world, where would you want to go?
Anywhere, I’m ready!!! Ha. Shantih toured Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and it was just incredible — lots of time in a van, but incredible nonetheless. I have friends that have toured Scandinavia and made it sound like a magical place for musicians — that they are actually revered without the judgment we have here to get a “real” job, less ageism or the assumption a musician can be past their prime if they are over 25. That’s what I’ve heard anyway.
Can music save the mortal soul or is just a good backbeat to your life?
I know there are people who don’t really care about music, but yes, for me, I would be dead inside without music! It’s my life and it brings me immeasurable joy.
Any last thoughts for your fans?
It’s hard for me to grasp that I have fans who aren’t related to me (!), but I would say thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart! Your support and encouragement mean so much!