Niki Lee & Bleak Little World – Passion & Ennui
Written by Liam Sweeny on February 13, 2019
We’ve all heard music that was so unique, we knew, after the first bar of that first song, that we’d recognize them any time we might hear them in the future. That can be good or bad, of course. But when I first heard the music of Niki Chaos, and her band Bleak Little World, I emptied the carafe of my day-old coffee and burned my way through the whole discography. Which was on the internet, so you can to.
Prog-Americana, as I get from hearing Bleak Little World describe themselves, is an two lane blacktop razor ribbon cutting through the desert scrub brush with a diner ten miles up that has a dusty jukebox and a preacher at the door. It’s that kind of music, and that jukebox is filled with Niki Chaos and Bleak Little World.
I sit down with Niki to talk about our personal lord and savior, Leo Fender.
RRX: Your vocal style reminds me of Jazz, in the sense that you explore note progressions and I guess, “curvatures” that bounce from the rhythm on a thin tether, only to come back into that perfect land. Let’s spill some secrets. How do you work the balance between what you do as a songwriter and the improvisation that I’m hearing in the song?
NK: So thoughtful of you to notice my love for jazz. For me, it’s about listening and feeling. Listening to the notes, feeling the rhythm, feeling the mood and emotion of the song. The rhythm is the dance of the song. Every song has a dance. The singing is the melody of the song…the melody commands attention, but also listens to everything else. When writing, I try to tie the melody to the rhythm and bring all of those elements when I sing. After the melody is created, it gets “locked in”, so that we can consistently hit the harmonies every time. I think that’s maybe one of my secrets, little bit of improv, and a lot of memorization.
RRX: Bleak Little World is so multifaceted. I could you all on repeat in my car as I drive through some Peak Oil Blues and I don’t need to switch CDs to hear something different. Question is, being versatile is tough. Have you ever written a song and been tempted to just delve into its style and write twenty more of them?
NK: BLW is VERY multifaceted. My songs are all created in my singer-songwriter style, but then the band – some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with – sink their teeth into a song, and the creativity and dedication they bring to the songwriting and arranging process has been unparalleled. One of my favorite parts about BLW is that Bob Donald, who created and fearlessly leads the band, always encourages all of us to contribute to the songwriting, because our focus has been original music.
For instance, our former bass player Kevin Carroll contributed two songs and co-wrote a third. At the same time, we have a disciplined approach to arranging the songs and practicing as much as possible. Peak Oil Blues is one of my favorite songs Bob brought to the table, and we’ve had some fun updating the lyrics at our live shows to reflect current events. And Peak Oil was also the song I performed my first live electric guitar solo on. And Authentic Earth is a great example of how all the members of the band contribute to making the best music possible. More to the point, we are influenced by a wide variety of styles, and that’s one of the things that makes our music interesting.
RRX: I’m laughing as I write this, listening to Hardcore Suburban Ennui on Vimeo. I love your lyrics, and I think it’s a great complement to have such a range of genre mash-ups, or more correctly, Prog Americana, and have that be a soundtrack to such very important messages to the masses in a very nice subtle contrast. Do the lyrics beg for the music in songwriting, or is it the opposite?
NK: Ha! Hardcore Suburban Ennui makes me laugh when I sing it! That song is another tribute to how BLW likes to celebrate the creativity of fellow musicians. Our friend Phil Merens wrote that one… but we really enjoy it because it offers a great opportunity for Bob and I to share vocals, as well as a light-hearted sarcasm and jazz sensibility that fits our style. And I have to give a shout out to Laura Frare for the awesome video!
With the lyrics, your statement “messages to the masses” is very on-point. Because we embrace different perspectives in songwriting, the lyrics evolve in different ways. But one thing that connects us is our concern for the world, and some of the challenges we face as citizens of the planet. Before we had even met, all the members of the band were writing songs with these themes in mind, so when we came together, it was a natural fit. I believe for most of us, the lyrics come first, and then the instrumental portion of the music is created. However, we also love to jam out and put the words aside sometimes. Sometimes the music without words is just as emotive and powerful, and we’re exploring that side more as we progress.
RRX: One thing that I love about Bleak Little World is that your About section on your website is incredibly well written. I see bands that spend a hundred hours a week in a practice room that only put a list of players in their About, if they even have one. Clearly, writing is important to you, and it shows in your songs. Can you comment on the importance of writing in music?
NK: Yes, I think our music really speaks to the listener who wants a juicy lyric to bite into when they’re enjoying a sonic sandwich. Without hearing the words, our songs stand up on musicality alone, but once you layer on the lyrics, it paints a full picture. Bleak Little World is not an easy place to live, but it’s reality, and one we don’t shy away from. Our lyrics are as diverse as our contributing songwriters, but steeped in a discontent with the way things are; which seems to be a theme that has evolved in our song catalog.
RRX: My illustrious Publisher, and friend of the court, Artie Fredette, informed me that you had taken a sabbatical from music to take on the role of mother. Now, I can only imagine the ups and downs of having to lug many pounds of new equipment around and cleaning up spittle and throw-up, so was the transition from that to becoming a mother a big one?
NK: The transition to being a mother (or a father, for that matter) IS a big one for EVERYONE. It’s a LOT of hard work, and often you have to put your personal passions aside to focus on your child. When my kid was young, it was too hard for me to keep up with work, and being a mom, AND trying to get out there and do the music thing. I took a break for about five years, but the desire to perform was too strong, and over time, I had to get back into it. That was how I met Bob and joined Bleak Little World – because I was hanging out at a jam Deb Cavanaugh hosts, looking for new musicians to play with. And once we both realized how our bleak songwriting was perfectly aligned, the rest was history.
RRX: On your website, you heavily stress the desire to find new artists out there, in the area or elsewhere that are pushing the envelope and exploring the space. There are some musicians who are great at this. And there are some who don’t see the need if they got a smokin’ right hand, so-to-speak. How would you convince them to experiment?
NK: Oh, this is a tricky question… In my view, I don’t push people to do much of anything. They either want to do it, or they don’t. (not to be confused with my opinions, of which I have many) I look for people who are open-minded, and I try to hang out with those people. Those people restore my energy. People with a smoking right hand and no interest to collaborate don’t need my help 😉 But the good news is… I found lots of people who DO love to collaborate (Northern Borne and Safety Meeting – our newest friends, Bob Gamache and Acoustic Trauma also big local musicians and longtime friends), and so I focus on musicians who are open to that, and it’s always worked well for me. And I would be nowhere without the support of Caroline Mother Judge, who always made me feel like the star I wanted to be, which helped me keep pushing forward and booking gigs. There is a great network of support in the Capital District if you’re open and look for it, you just have to get out there.
RRX: This interview’s been a lot about BLW, but your solo work is incredible, and these questions could easily apply to you as well. So this is where you can answer any question I asked BLW for your own work, or any question I didn’t ask. Who do you love? What’s on the calendar? The floor is yours.
NK: This is funny, I MUCH prefer playing with others. It really adds to the potential greatness of the sound. My solo work is really my songwriting, for which I can thank the universe for sending me the words and notes…. otherwise, everything I do is a collaboration. And I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with so many talented people.
And on that note, BLW is excited to be hosting the Best Damn Open Mic at McGeary’s every other week (opposite Hard Luck), which has given me the chance to meet all sorts of new friends. AND, I can’t wait to debut a very special Patti Smith cover at the RadioradioX event with Let Go Daylight (and kudos to Ralph Renna for doing such an amazing job sharing local music with the RRX community). For those fans who might be in NYC on 3/16, we’ve got a very special night lined up at Freddy’s in Brooklyn, so be sure to check out our website for details and come raise hell with us in the city that never sleeps.
We’re REALLY excited for my newest project coming up – niki chaos and the random particles. It’s indie-experimental rock that covers our usual buffet of styles, but allows Bob and I to switch up instruments and really stretch our legs. I’ve been enjoying the drums lately, and Bob the keyboard, so expect to see some new sounds as we explore the sonic landscape. And by the way – I’m REALLY REALLY seeing a BLW Lawn Sausages mash up in the future, because I’ve got a cock, and her mutant babies own the poultry farm and its 1984 out there. So tell Artie I wanna jam.