Nikki & the Phantom Callers have a unique sound that blends alt country with indie rock and old-fashioned ’60s pop. The Atlanta quartet’s latest single, “Motor Run,” embodies this eclectic style; the band refers to it as a “sunny garage-pop anthem with Southern rock swagger.” In the upbeat, catchy track, lead singer and guitarist Nikki Speake’s expressive, rich voice describes the excitement of a long-distance relationship with lyrics like, “Don’t worry honey / I saved all my money / to meet you out on the road.”
Speake has played in a number of other bands, including garage-rock power trio Midnight Larks and the all-girl psych-rock outfit Shantih Shantih. Her current group is about to release its debut LP, Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me), on April 3. We talked to Speake about her new album and the musical, religious, and professional background that’s inspired her work.
AF: What inspired the song “Motor Run”?
NS: This is probably one of my only really light-hearted songs. It’s about a long distance relationship. That type of romance is never meant to last, but is a unique experience of talking and making plans to drive all night, and the thrill of seeing each other when the timing works out. You never get the chance to grow apart, as much as fade away, but you’re more focused on living in the moment.
AF: What else is your new album about?
NS: These are a collection of songs I’ve written over the past 20 years, so it’s not one concentrated theme as much as a journal of my life. I tend to write songs as free therapy, so it’s my way of working through whatever I’m feeling at the time, be it grief or heartbreak.
AF: What’s behind the title of the album?
NS: When I was a registered dietitian at Emory Hospital, I worked in the geriatric dementia and psychiatric ward, and it was a crash course in worst-case mental health issues for me. I would almost every day come back to my cubicle and cry as I wrote charts on my patients. Many days, though, they were so sweet and loving and just appreciated anyone taking the time to talk with them.
One day, when I was checking on the dementia patients, a lady called me over and motioned me to come in close, and she said, “You see all these people?,” pointing around the room, “Everybody’s goin’ to hell, but you and me.” It really floored me, and I never forgot it. I think I told her I was honored. I wrote a song about my time there, with the same title, and wanted to name the album that too. I feel like, in a strange way, it holds hope of solidarity in a world that seems to be falling apart, even more now than ever.
AF: Did your experience as a registered dietician influence your music in other ways?
NS: I am still a registered dietitian, but experienced three layoffs since 2012, my most recent being June of last year. On my last day of work, one of the kitchen staff told me, “This is the Universe’s way of telling you that you’re on the wrong path, so why aren’t you listening?” I really did take that to heart and know that my true love is music, even though I enjoy helping people.
I think being an RD, especially in the hospitals, helped with my music by keeping me grounded and in tune with the issues people have every day; so many are lonely and sick at the same time, and you are really their confidant during those times. It’s one thing to work solely in a creative field, and it’s wonderful, but I do think you can easily become out of touch.
In the end, though, I would often be too emotionally drained to write or play music when I was a clinical RD. I never got used to having patients die, or see their families grieve. That’s why my heart really goes out to all the doctors and healthcare workers, especially during this pandemic.
AF: You play a really unique style and mix of genres — how did you develop it?
I think a lot of it comes from growing up in a small town, before internet, and being curious about music and yearning to hear more than what’s on the radio. Going to Auburn University introduced me to people from all over the world, and their musical influences, and I fell in love with it all. I love country and I love rock and pop; I love it all!
My attention span is too short to pick one thing, but I try to combine it into something unified. That’s why I love playing with [guitarist] Aaron [Mason], [bassist] Anna [Kramer, who also plays in Shantih Shantih], and [drummer] Russell [Owens] so much. We have similar tastes, but different backgrounds, and they are so creative. I feel like the songs would just be shells without us all weaving in our own influences.
AF: How else has your upbringing in rural Alabama figured into your music?
NS: Growing up in a Southern Baptist family and going to church three days a week, that imagery has seeped so deeply into my subconscious; it’s part of me. A lot of it was pretty scary as a kid and lit up my imagination with questions — so much talk of blood, death, sacrificial lambs, eternal torture, and pain in fire and brimstone.
From the get-go, you’re told you’re a sinner and that this life isn’t as important as your afterlife. It was even more prominent in my grandparents’ generation, who were such a huge influence on my life. I remember finding an old photo album with photos of dead relatives at their funerals, but that was common practice back then. My grandmother even has old newspaper clippings of Hank Williams in his casket, so it was a cultural and generational thing. People just don’t do that any more, or want to be remembered that way. So, I guess growing up with this kind of worldview comes out in my songs, but more in a way that recognizes the poetry in the darkness of it all.
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