Growing up in rural Dadeville, Alabama, Nikki Speake has a specific Southern grit embedded in her soul. More Flannery O’Connor than Margaret Mitchell, there’s a morbid spirit to much of Speake’s writing, and nowhere is that more apparent than Nikki & the Phantom Callers’ debut LP, Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me). The eleven-track collection of boot-stomping alt-country and jangly indie-rock weaves a series of stories exploring a beautiful darkness in stark contrast to their predominantly sunny tonality; a Southern Gothic study of grief soundtracked by country-tinged ‘60s pop. “I am very Southern, I grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist family going to church three times a week,” says Speake. “Those older Southern generations have so much grief surrounding them—even the church services are morbid. I think my vocabulary was formed by that, so it’s just how I think.”
Speake has been living in Atlanta for years now, playing in the garage-rock power trio Midnight Larks and the all-girl psych-rock outfit Shantih Shantih, and performing alongside acts like Shooter Jennings, Lydia Loveless, L.A. Witch, Joshua Hedley, Black Lips, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires & more prior to forming the Phantom Callers in early 2017. In the short time since their formation, the band—featuring lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Speake, lead guitarist Aaron Mason, drummer Russell Owens, and Speake’s Shantih Shantih bandmate Anna Kramer on bass and backing vocals—has garnered acclaim from national media outlets including Paste, Wide Open Country, PopMatters, Cowboys & Indians Magazine & more, and in 2018 was named Atlanta’s best country band by Creative Loafing.
Nikki & the Phantom Callers’ new LP was recorded in late 2018 at Maze Studios in Atlanta. To record the album, Speake enlisted Ben Etter (Deerhunter, Cate Le Bon, Hazel English) as lead engineer and brought on Bronson Tew at Dial Back Sound (Drive-By Truckers) to master the record. The result is a crisp, expansive record with as much sonic depth as emotional resonance and an unmistakable Southern rock swagger.
It’s no wonder Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me) drips with authenticity—this is the record Speake has been unconsciously working towards for decades; a raw, macabre expression of Southern experience that blends garage-pop, country and rock & roll into something all its own. “When I started doing open mics twenty years ago, I’d play country songs I wrote and a handful of Springsteen covers,” says Speake. “That country-rock sound has always been what I’ve wanted to make, it just took me a long time to find a group where I could make that happen. In all my other projects I’ve been a supporting player—and I love them—but this one is mine.”
Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me) kicks off with its title track, a garagey barroom shuffle that soundtracks humanity’s descent to the underworld, inspired by a conversation with one of Speake’s patients in her job as a registered dietitian. The revelry in cheating damnation is short lived, though, as “Phantom Caller” finds Speake visited in dreams by the ghosts of those gone before her, begging for salvation that she’s unable to deliver, backed by layers of deceptively upbeat fuzz-pop. Later on the album, “Mamas Should Know,” finds Speake grappling with the death of her mother at a young age, lamenting the lost maternal influence in her formative years as she sings, “If you die before we wake / Don’t leave it all up to us to figure it out alone.”
Elsewhere on the record, “Howl With Me” nods to Speake’s country roots with a spin on the traditional murder-ballad, reflecting on the murderer’s remorse after that fact rather than recounting the specifics of the killing. The album’s centerpiece, “They’ve Never Walked Through Shadows,” wades through the mystery of the afterlife with the foreboding gait of a funeral march and the choral cadence of a gospel hymn, while closer “Fallen Angel,” explores depression, loneliness and the loss of hope atop crunchy guitars and gorgeously hazy backing vocals.
Speake didn’t write this collection of songs with the specific intention of investigating the myriad ways grief and loss manifest themselves throughout life, but the results speak for themselves. Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me) stands not only as a spectacular debut from Nikki & the Phantom Callers, but as a deeply personal reflection on lives passed, loves lost, and a culture fixated on damnation.
Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me) is out April 3rd, 2020.