Nikki & the Phantom Callers

The Beauty in the Dirt:
Nikki & the Phantom Callers Walk Through the Shadows

A common mistake made by many unseasoned independent/local bands is booking a release show for an album or single based on the estimated time of delivery from the pressing plant. It’s always a guessing game whether they’ll actually show up on time or be held up due to any number of delays. Although it means you’ll need to sit on a box of vinyl or CDs for a month or more, a much wiser course of action is to wait until your order arrives intact and mistake-free before even booking the release show. There are few things more embarrassing for a band hoping to make a splash than hyping up a release show for weeks only to have a barren merch table when the big night arrives because the records didn’t make it on time.

If the current situation persists much longer, Nikki & the Phantom Callers may end up having the unlikely distinction of pulling off the opposite extreme: selling out of their debut album before they even have a chance to play a release show for it!

“Wouldn’t that be something?” chuckles Nikki Speake, the demurely congenial and charming lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist for the Atlanta-based quartet. Released April 3rd in the midst of COVID-damnation, with record stores temporarily shuttered and all live shows canceled, Speake’s been selling the 250-copy limited-edition vinyl pressing of Everybody’s Going to Hell (But You and Me) personally, one-by-one, by mail order, and she’s already sold through about half of them. That may not seem like much on the face of it, but trust me, in this day and age it is certifiably impressive for a little ol’ band that few outside of metro Atlanta have heard of, especially minus the organic on-site benefit of live performance, a province in which the Phantom Callers shine brightly. And Speake is emphatically grateful, though admittedly also genuinely heartbroken from the bad luck of the circumstances.

“I was feelin’ pretty proud, because booking shows is not my favorite thing – you get so much rejection, and people not writin’ you back,” she tells me before ticking off a list of once-confirmed gigs now wiped out, including the Atlanta release show, an anniversary party for Creature Comforts Brewing in Athens, shows in New Orleans and Mobile and a trip to the upper Midwest for a week of dates including Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit, where they’ve never played before.

“I’m not gonna lie if I said I’ve not cried about this,” she says. “Especially in the beginning, I was just sooo disappointed, because, you know, it’s been years that we were trying to put [the album] out, and get everything done, and like I said, as an independent artist trying to compete and book tours with more established people, it’s really, really… a lot of stress. Although, that sounds like I’m complaining, because playing music is, in some ways, a luxury, even though you don’t live a luxurious life. But I was pretty devastated. But I’m just hoping that it can pick back up.”

Yet there are some positives to the band’s unforeseen ill-fated timing. As many major and indie labels have postponed the release dates of albums from many acts, this has worked in favor of artists like the Phantom Callers. Discerning music lovers are still hungry for great new music, and Everybody’s Going to Hell – expertly co-produced (with the band), engineered and mixed by Ben Etter at his Reynoldstown studiohas gotten some positive press attention and selected radio airplay around the country. So more people have heard the band, or at least heard of them, than might have otherwise were we in the midst of a typical crowded springtime music industry timetable. And this might, possibly, make it a little bit easier for Speake to book the group in other markets once the venues open back up. At least, that’s my optimistic assessment.

“Yeah, I’m hoping. If [clubs] were going to have us one time, maybe they’ll have even more reason to have us, because they feel sorry for us,” Nikki laughs.

I’m speaking with Speake (which would make a spiffy name for a podcast, if she ever decides to lower herself to that level) by phone – me in Atlanta and she and her half-Beagle/half-Chihuahua dog Fern in her hometown of Dadeville, Alabama, where Nikki’s been watching after her 92-year-old grandmother Lily Mae, who’s been experiencing a few health setbacks of late after living in the same house there for close to 70 years, the last two alone after her husband Marvin passed in 2018.

“I don’t think she’s heard [the Phantom Callers album] all the way through, and she’s extremely picky, but she says ‘New Year’s Day’ is her favorite song,” Nikki mentions, referring to the most country of Everybody’s eleven cuts. “She doesn’t really like the more rock [songs], hahaha!”

Both sides of Speake’s family – of Irish and English descent – go back many generations, to the 1800s in fact, in east central Alabama’s Tallapoosa County, of which Dadeville is the county seat. Through one of those free ancestry-tracing websites, Nikki recently found a photo online of her great-great grandfather, a man by the name of Franklin Greer, who was in the Civil War.

Lily Mae, on Nikki’s mom’s side of the family, is one of several in the clan with a musical history. Jokingly described by Nikki as “the loudest [person] in the church,” when Lily Mae was young she and her sister were in a gospel trio called the Davis Sisters, who would travel around the area and perform. “They would take the train from Dadeville to Opelika [28 miles southeast] and they would sing on the radio. I wish I had a recording,” Speake says. “And then when she was older, she was in a quartet. And I don’t know the name of it, but it was her and my grandfather’s brother, and her sister and somebody else. And they would travel around and perform… She still has some of her handmade outfits that they would wear onstage.”

Speake’s family had a farm near Dadeville when she was little. “We had horses and goats and pigs, all that stuff. Eventually all those things kind of were sold off, and then for a while we rented our land to a cattle farmer who would use our pasture and keep cows there and feed ‘em. So we had some income from that. And then we have a big catfish pond, about three acres… In the summer, people would come in and fish, and pay by the pound. My sister and I, that was our job at my grandmother’s place – I was probably like three or something – to weigh the fish. I always thought that was so much fun, because people would come in in big school buses or church vans, and have their lounge chairs and just camp out around the pond. I can remember walking around and listening to everybody, and talking to everybody. It was like summer camp.”

Coming from a Christian family, Nikki remembers “having to stand up and sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ or something like that when I was four or so. I always had to do things like that in church… And my grandfather on my dad’s side of the family was a really, really great harmonica player. He played harmonica at my sister’s wedding, and sang. And he also wrote songs, and tried to get some published, like some Christmas songs. He taught himself to play piano when he was 65, I think. Just started playing it in church, and anytime I spent the night with him that was all he wanted to do, was get his tape recorder, and he’d press record, and we would just sing all day and play songs. I do have some of those recordings.”

It’s news to me that the Future Farmers of America had a musical division, but come to find out Nikki was in an FFA a cappella singing quartet when she was a teenager, and would travel to competitions statewide alongside the dairy judging and forestry displays and whatnot. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool!” she tells me, in that sweet Southern accent of hers that could disarm a battalion.

Speake’s first rock band was an all-girl punk group named Whistle Bait, formed while in college at Auburn with future Pine Hill Haints member Katie Barrier. Next came Virgil Otis, a cosmic country group whose repertoire Speake pulled from for the two songs that kick off Side B of Everybody’s Going to Hell: “Blue Moonlight” and “Motor Run,” although the latter has been considerably speeded up in its Phantom Callers incarnation.

“I always regretted not continuing that band,” Speake says of Virgil Otis. The band’s vibe is “what I’ve been trying to get back to [ever] since, I think. I was young and I didn’t think that people were interested in anything I was doing. And I moved to Seattle and then I moved to Atlanta, and I [initially] had a really hard time finding people to play with… I feel like it took me about this long to kind of get back what I had deserted, in a way.

“I moved to Atlanta about 15 years ago,” she recalls. “I was doing a lot of open mics and things like that, hoping that I would meet people, but then you just don’t really click… I think a lot of it, too, was the mentality of my being told ‘You need to put this aside, and get a real job, and go to college.’ I felt like it wasn’t something I could pursue seriously. But then, a lot of it was I just didn’t know enough people. I knew, like, Keefe [Justice] and Brooks [Meeks] from the Close – I knew them from going to see them play, ’cause they went to Auburn. I knew people [but] I would try to start bands, and then it just wouldn’t work out… I think it hurt my confidence a lot, in a way, because I went from a place that was so easy – like, Auburn just was like our little music playground. Everybody was in a band together, and everybody had fun… So, it was kind of a wake-up call when I got to Atlanta. I was like, ‘Oh – it’s not that easy!’ So, it took a long time.”

Eventually, of course, Speake found the proper people in Atlanta and began playing music again, first with a short-lived female country trio called Sioux City Sue, then as one-third of the popular genre-bending rock band Midnight Larks and subsequently as a fresh addition to Shantih Shantih, the latter of which she continues to record and perform with. But to paraphrase the great sage Bono, she still hadn’t found what she was looking for, as far as deep personal musical fulfillment.

A little over three years ago, with assistance from Birmingham musician and studio owner Lynn Bridges, Speake recorded a song she’d written years earlier called “Phantom Caller,” about recurring dreams she experienced following the death of a loved one. Making a homemade video for it, the song “Phantom Caller” could be seen as the public revelation of Nikki Speake as her own artist, and as the genesis that led to forming the band of the same name.

“I think that was just kinda my way of forcing myself to have my own independent project, and kinda get the wheels turnin’,” she affirms, pointing out that Phantom Callers do a significantly different version of their namesake song. “I think [the band version] is maybe a little bit more fun,” she maintains – not to mention it sneaks in a brief soundbite from her late granddaddy Marvin at the beginning.

The group came together gradually, but organically. She’d already been playing alongside Anna Kramer in Shantih Shantih and knew that Anna would fit in impeccably on bass guitar and backing vocals. Russell Owens (ex-Mermaids/Dog Bite/Missile Command/more) accompanied Speake for her contribution to a Leonard Cohen tribute show at the Star Bar in late 2016; he played guitar that night (as Nikki was operating a weird keyboard for their particular song) but mentioned to her that he really wanted to play drums in a band, prompting Nikki to reply, “Let’s do it!” And lead guitarist Aaron Mason (ex-Ocelot), newly back in Atlanta after spending several years in Austin, had been recommended to Speake by EARL booking agent Damon Hare; Aaron initially told Nikki he wasn’t ready to jump back into a band, but he changed his mind after seeing her and Russell at the Cohen tribute. Nikki & the Phantom Callers made their live debut in April 2017 at Little Tree Art Studios, as part of Randy Garcia’s once annual indiepalooza Nophest.

The foursome swiftly attracted an enthusiastic local following, and justifiably so. The Phantom Callers excel at evocative, timeless, sha-la-la rock ‘n’ roll touched by heavenly stardust harmonies, Southern Gothic shadows and lingering echoes of twang. Clear, lovely and precisely amplified, Nikki’s voice commands the surroundings with a natural, resounding richness that’s earned comparisons to Neko Case. Which doesn’t exactly irk her too much: “I don’t feel like I try to emulate [Neko], but I really, really love her music.”

Speake says she mostly draws from her own life when writing her lyrics, “especially the older songs.” So, yes, she really did have “a little bitty black cat” when she was a kid, as the opening lines of “Mica Hill” describe, and she confirms that her family “always had the radio on” (she remembers trying to record mixtapes by taping songs off the radio onto cassettes, “and you’d wait all day for the song that you wanted” – I did the same thing!) and while she admits that “my daddy liked to do the backstep” may not be so literal (after running the farm, her father – now retired – was a schoolteacher and principal), the next line in the song, alluding to losing her mama, surely is – Nikki’s mother passed away when she was twelve. “I wanted time to stop turning at an early age, you see,” the song continues, “I could smell the beauty in the dirt, and knew the worst was meant to be.”

The distinctly lonesome “Mamas Should Know” more directly references the death of a mother, leaving her children to “walk around in an empty daze” and “figure it out alone.” The song, which was rerecorded for Everybody’s Going to Hell, first surfaced early last year on a 7-inch, along with the non-album track “Prodigal Daughter,” both recorded by vintage gear enthusiast Randy Michael (The Booze, Black Linen).

“It’s different, because on the [version] on the 7-inch, I’m doing all the backing vocals and harmonies,” Speake points out, “but on the one on the album, Anna’s doin’ ‘em. I think there was a reason she couldn’t get over to Randy’s that day when we were doing that one, so I wanted to do a version that she sang on.”

But for a proper showcase of the entrancing vocal enchantment conjured by Nikki and Anna, go directly to “They’ve Never Walked Through Shadows,” the sublime centerpiece of Everybody’s Going to Hell. Structured like an old Southern hymn, the two women’s voices volley to and fro and then align in unison as a stark military drumbeat marches forth and Kramer’s bass, augmented by an E-bow in order to sound like a distorted cello, creates a foreboding undercurrent. It’s unlike anything else on the album, and according to Speake it wasn’t even necessarily intended to be included.

“After we had recorded everything, Anna and I were just playing around, kinda singing it, and we didn’t know that Ben was recording it. And then he got so excited, he was flipping out – he was like, ‘We’re gonna do this!’ and ‘We’re gonna do that!’ And he gave [Anna] that E-bow thing… And then I just played a piano. We had a lot of fun with it. And it ended up being [a standout] – I said, ‘This has to be a single! I’m gonna make a video!’” Which she did, premiering it last autumn, several months in advance of the album. A video for the album’s closing cut, “Fallen Angel,” was also shot, directed and edited by Atlanta music vid king Video Rahim, and premiered in mid-March.

Speake self-released Everybody’s Going to Hell under the label name Tiny Tornado. After taking a large role in getting Midnight Larks’ 2018 album designed, press and released, that learning experience made the process for the Phantom Callers’ album and 7-inch go a little more smoothly. She’s also an accomplished graphic designer and she created the cover art for the aforementioned records. And that’s her posing on the front cover of the Phantom Callers’ album, modeling a too-tight red velour jumpsuit that reads SPOIL ME across the front. Granted, she’s a toddler in the yellowed old photo, and the jumpsuit was a hand-me-down from an older cousin, but still… this woman can do it all!

So it seemed worth asking just how serious she is about it all. Is music a hobby, as it is for many local bands in any locale? Or is she committed to taking it further? Because she and the band certainly have the talent, chemistry, songs and sound that could – with a lot of dedication and hard work – take them further. But if that’s their intent, is Atlanta the right place to be at this time? Or should Nikki succumb to the prevailing winds and see what can be accomplished in Nashville, like everybody else, with all the songwriting, performing and recording opportunities that happen there with Speake’s chosen style of music? Sober questions that necessitate thought-out consideration. And these things have definitely crossed her mind.

“I am a hundred percent serious about not giving up on it,” she tells me. “But I’m not too young myself. I didn’t play music for almost a decade, and I felt really sad about it. It just felt like something was missing. So now, even though it’s really stressful… basically [trying] to book everything and be the manager and do the artwork and everything, to me it’s worth it, because I feel like I’m making up for this lost time, and trying to kinda get ahead… I’ve been lucky enough to get some freelance things on the side – and I feel like I can maybe just transition into graphic design if I had to. And still have time to pursue music.

“This is going on our third year being together, as a band,” she continues. “And we haven’t been on any big tours or anything, but… you know, it’s so cliché – everybody moves to Nashville – but we’ve got some friends that are there, and they say there’s always somebody that wants to play, there’s always opportunities, really unique things that you can do. I’ve thought about trying to make a way where I could live in both [Atlanta and Nashville]. And if I did freelance design, I could do something like that. And that was really my goal, kinda, for [this] year – to work independently, so that I have the freedom to go and be a part of different communities if I could, just to see who would embrace our music, and [see] what opportunities were out there. Because, as great as Atlanta has been to all of us, I think that as far as making a living as a musician, it’s harder.

“That’s definitely been on my mind. Especially the past year,” Nikki concludes. “I mean, why not? What do I have to lose?”

Like a lot of folks, I’d be sad to see Nikki Speake leave Atlanta if she so chooses, but if it’s for potentially greener pastures, I’d also be 100% behind her. Atlanta’s independent music scene (the rock ‘n’ roll end of it, at least) has always gone through extreme peaks and valleys, but lately it just seems like a huge festering tar pit. Too easy to get stuck here, unrewarded and unmotivated. Ultimately, we should encourage what’s best for her.

The chorus of the Phantom Callers’ “New Year’s Day” includes the confession, “I wanted to leave, but I was too afraid to try.” It’s referring to a relationship in Nikki’s song, but it could apply here as well. And no one should make that same mistake twice.

Photo by Jaysen Michael.