Buffalo Nichols during SXSW, on stage at 3TEN ACL Live (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Buffalo Nichols goes on stage alone at the Scoot Inn and doesn’t say a word. In fact, he doesn’t even recognize the sold-out crowd at all. Bundled up in a Bane sweatshirt and chunky cap in the light February chill, he silently picks up his resonator guitar and lets her do the talking.
It’s an intense, extraordinary set. His voice heals with a gruff tenderness, a raw weariness mixed with a burning fury. Nichols’ fingers work over the guitar with uncanny fluidity, at times blasting out a sound so big that, with your eyes closed, you’d swear he had a full band. The songs are rooted in the blues, but expand with an ambient, almost psychedelic edge, and blend with touches of global influences, from West African and Middle Eastern rhythms to folk-jazz. from Eastern Europe. The traditions run parallel and then intoxicatingly intertwine, as Nichols sings dejected (“Lost & Lonesome”) and biting (“Living Hell,” “Another Man”).
“I’m not afraid to ruffle a few feathers if I know people are listening to me.” –Buffalo Nichols
What Nichols offers is an invitation, but it doesn’t make it easy. He knows the crowd, packed into the Scoot’s backyard for the Houndmouth headliner, is not his crowd. He is focused on being heard but lacks the patience to woo those who won’t listen.
The artist never even mentions his name.
“I was bored and just didn’t feel like putting on a fake smile,” he said of the show a few weeks later, sitting on Hank’s porch next to Berkman. “I just lean into emotion, and sometimes I just want to be dramatic. Sometimes I try to be like a stand-up comedian and have fun, but sometimes something bothers me and I’m like, ‘I’m just not going to do it.’ For me, I’m just trying to put on a show somehow, if I feel good, I’ll share it, and if I don’t feel good, I’ll share it, too, and try to be as honest as possible.
“Perhaps with a bit of exaggeration,” he adds with a slightly ironic smile.
Carl Nichols doesn’t even seem like he really wants to sit down for this interview. Born in Houston and raised in Milwaukee, the 30-year-old songwriter has kept a relatively low profile since moving to Austin more than a year ago. He admits it’s partly just his more introverted personality (“I don’t really go out much, anyway”) coupled, of course, with the pandemic. But there’s also the sense that Nichols is simply trying to carve out a place for herself in the world, both physically and creatively, and rightly feels tired of the effort to be authentically heard.
He behaves with assured confidence and is not afraid of difficult and important conversations. He is thoughtful and outspoken, but he also seems wary and never entirely comfortable at the table.
The hesitation is understandable. Nichols has become — unwittingly, but willingly — a leading voice in reclaiming the blues as black culture from its longstanding integration into white-bread blues-rock. A rolling stone last month’s article put Nichols at the forefront of this effort, not just because he draws on the blues in such a unique and provocative way, but precisely because he’s so direct and clear without flinching when he talks about gender issues.
“I get more attention now for my opinions than for my music,” he sighs as our conversation heads in that direction. “On the one hand, if I just shut up and do what’s expected of me, my career would probably be a lot easier. But I’m totally comfortable playing in front of 50 people who are all open-minded and diverse, [rather] than just being one of many blues artists who remain opinionless and rewarded for it. So even though I’m tired of the conversations, I realize they serve a purpose.
“I’m not afraid to ruffle a few feathers if I know people are listening to me,” he continues. “I really feel like what do you have to lose, and if you don’t say anything, then you don’t deserve anyone’s attention. I don’t know if what I’m doing is okay influence someone, but I know for a fact it won’t work if I don’t try. I think artists deny the influence they have.
Nichols does not suffer from illusions or fools. Austin itself sits at the heart of this problematic dynamic, a city that can both revere Stevie Ray Vaughan and produce artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Jackie Venson, who embrace and explode the notion of the blues in their music. Layered on Austin’s deeply segregated history and contemporary racial challenges, the blues becomes a boiler for digesting the city’s social and cultural tensions.
As necessary as these discussions are, putting them on Nichols isn’t fair either. In fact, he is ambivalent about the labels and expectations of being a blues artist.
“I didn’t want to be called a blues artist,” he says. “As a fan, and to some extent as an artist, I’ve seen what it means to attach this to yourself. And it’s disgusting. It’s just not creative, it’s not not inclusive, it’s not diverse – it’s not even good most of the time.
Buffalo Nichols during SXSW, outside of ACL Live (Photo by Jana Birchum)
“But I leaned into it because I’m already there, so I’m trying to see what I can do with it,” he continues. “Blues to me means a lot culturally, but commercially as far as the world of blues festivals and labels go, I’m not interested in that at all. Genres exist to sell music and write about music, but people who do it and listen to it, whatever you call it. It doesn’t have to fit perfectly in a box. So I was really hesitant to call myself a blues artist because I knew the baggage . Now I’m still very reluctant, but I try to be proud of it.”
Nichols’ self-titled debut album, released last year, is nonetheless widely marketed for its bona fide blues. Fat Possum has touted his first signing as a solo blues artist in nearly two decades, and the album, consisting mostly of demos, undeniably dives deep into a traditional acoustic blues sound as a vehicle for confronting harsh realities with harsh truths. .
Yet, seeing Nichols in concert, you realize he’s on an entirely different journey – though the blues may serve as the basis, the world above him erupts in a myriad of directions. The last decade of traveling everywhere from West Africa to Ukraine, his former American duo Nickel & Rose with double bass player Johanna Rose, and his beginnings in the punk and hardcore scenes of the Midwest have been equally influential to him. .
“I’m trying to do something different, and traveling outside of America was a big part of that,” he admits. “The American music industry, and it’s a global thing, but especially in America, it’s very rigid. A lot of artists that I look up to and respect, they have to do one or two genre albums before they go out. ‘have permission to do what they I think a good example is someone like Leon Bridges, who does all sorts of different things, but I don’t think they would have let him do it out of hand He had to give them the classic soul album.”
Nichols finds himself trying to navigate and take advantage of an industry defined by, but not limited to, the genre. It’s a position he’s held before. Nickel & Rose brought attention to the equally charged folk scene with their 2018 song “Americana,” which exposed the hypocrisies of the genre’s gestures toward inclusivity and the realities of its predominantly white hegemony.
The blues offers its own taut thread to walk where expectations of sound are already complicated by generations of appropriation and exploitation. Nichols can rip traditional riffs, but as an artist he’s more interested in genre transformation than traditional reclamation – it’s just that the latter becomes a necessary element to open the door to the former.
“I use the guitar as a tool, but even when I was a teenager I was really interested in electronic music and hip-hop on the production side,” he says. “I never completely gave up on it and I always have fun with it. Especially during the pandemic, I got a little tired of the songs and the lyrics, so I really got into the ambient music, the idea of the physical aspects of sonic. There’s a meditative quality to sound. When you can feel music, it just enters your brain in a different way, so I try to explore that.
“Leaning into the idea of being a blues musician kind of keeps me grounded, and then I can go in all these different directions knowing that I can just use the blues to keep myself from going too far” , he adds. “And you think about every era of the blues, and what changes and defines it is the technology. The difference between Son House and Muddy Waters is moving to Chicago and plugging in. So I don’t think the genre must be limited by what it was like in 1930. In fact, it’s just me exploring technology.”
So the invitation Nichols offers onstage is to reset your preconceptions about the blues, and then let them fade completely. This is, in fact, precisely what he tries to do himself, with his music and within the industry. But he never promised to make it easy.
Buffalo Nichols performs Stateside at Paramount on Wednesday, March 30 with Little Mazarn.