Nikki Hill’s show at Local 506 this Thursday night is something of a homecoming. The soul singer and her Blues Music Award-winning husband, guitarist Matt Hill, met in the Triangle before migrating to St. Louis together more than two years ago. When they left, Nikki was a supportive wife and music addict, not a performer. Hopefully, then, she will excuse the locals for their surprise over the prodigal’s artistic emergence.
“I had no idea she was a musician,” says Glenn Boothe, who employed her as a bartender at Local 506. The same club where she once slung drinks now hosts her return as a singer, supporting her fine full-length debut, Here’s Nikki Hill. Though she claims to be an amateur, you’d never suspect it from her spirited, Stax-style blues-rock. There’s a sweet fire burning down below, whether it’s the minor-key soul of “Right on the Brink,” which strolls like an Ike Turner blues ballad, or an infectious reggae-tinged cover of Doug Sahm’s “Who Were You Thinking Of?”
Nikki and Matt met while he was fronting Greensboro band Matt Hill and the Buzzkills about seven years ago. Their mutual friends thought they would hit it off, and they did, becoming best friends. That’s where things stayed for a long time before romance sparked. Even before that, Matt was pushing Nikki to embrace her gift—a rich, sultry voice in the style of Etta James, weaned on the church choir and burnished by an enthusiast’s love of good music.
“I love listening to it at home, live, wherever, whenever,” Nikki says on the eve of her tour. “Actually, between working at the 506 and hanging out with so many musicians, I was really opposed to ending up with a musician. It just happened. It’s almost like if it didn’t happen with that timing, this never would have come about.”
In 2011, Matt Hill’s debut solo album, On the Floor, won the Blues Music Award for Best New Artist. A year later, before the release of follow-up Tappin’ That Thang, the Hills moved to St. Louis, mainly for its geographical centrality. There, Matt finally wore down Nikki’s reluctance to perform.
“He was always like, ‘You should be on stage. You should be doing this. You know a lot about it. It’s obvious you’re talented,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t bullshit me,’” she says, chuckling. “He was really insistent about it, so I did a couple small things, sitting in with him and his friends. The response was always great.”
“Once we got started,” she continues, “it gave Matt and I another thing to do together. It was always our intention to be partners-in-crime. We get to work together in a way that we had never worked before, and that was really exciting.”
She’s also happy to be returning to Chapel Hill for this concert. Though the pair already played a show in Durham that turned into a hoedown with friends, playing the 506 is another thing.
“Hopefully, Glenn will be there,” she says, “and just to think about going back to your true old stomping grounds—this has been my first real year of touring and you couldn’t ask for a better experience. We played close to 30 festivals. It was just like, ‘What a trip.’ We’re pretty mind-blown over here.”