Divorce is a tricky, emotional time for many of us — and it can be even more complicated if you work with your significant other. Here, singer songwriter Nicki Bluhm shares the story of her divorce, and how it fueled her latest album, To Rise You Gotta Fall.
I was probably 19 years old when I first saw my future husband play the guitar in San Francisco. At the time, I was working on a ranch, but I always knew I had an itch to work in music. I had learned how to play the guitar, sang a few songs at home, but nothing serious. Then I saw him and his band play at the Great American Music Hall, and I was so enthralled. I knew I wanted to be on stage, closer to it all.
One night, after a show, he and I got to talking, and he found out I played guitar. He listened to me play, and told me to keep doing it, to keep writing and practicing. We started to see each other at more shows, at more after parties, and after a while we started dating.
He became both my mentor and my partner. He convinced me to keep writing, helped me book my first tiny gigs. We recorded my first songs together in his little studio in San Francisco, with musicians he called up to play as the backup band. And eventually, we started playing and singing together.
In October 2007, we got married — and we had some great years. We put a band together, made a few records, toured the US and Europe. We were on a really fun ride, compatible musically but also in life. We both loved being outdoors, camping, being in the mountains. I learned so much from him. He was an amazing person — he’s still an amazing person.
But over the years, he started to struggle with substances, as many musicians I've known have. He’d go through stints of sobriety, and then not. And the pressures of the road are real — it’s not a healthy lifestyle. There are late nights, there’s always alcohol, and you’re basically playing in bars. It’s a constant test of your ego, trying to sell tickets and keep people interested. Just because you sell out one show doesn't mean you're playing Madison Square Garden next. And he had already been through all of that — the riding in the van, playing empty rooms — with his previous band. To repeat that with me was really hard for him.
So I started to lose myself in him. I would do anything to try to make him happy, adjusting my behavior to match his, what I wanted to mirror his wants. I just really wanted to please him, to make him happy, keep everything together, temper his mood. The more I inquired about why he was unhappy, the more he withdrew and became distant, and the more he withdrew, the more I inquired. Now, upon reflection, I realize you can only be responsible for your own happiness. But when I was in that relationship, I couldn't help it.
We tried everything. We did therapy, tried "separation," but we were touring together, so it meant performing on stage together every night, singing love songs together and falling back into the fantasy that everything is okay. After every show, I was thrust back into the reality that my marriage was dissolving — and my heart broke a little more every night.
It took two years of trying before my husband finally asked me for a divorce in 2015, after 10 years. For me, it didn't make any sense. He couldn't articulate why he wanted a divorce, what was wrong. He confessed his infidelity 9 months later. And then, it all clicked. For more than half our marriage, he says, he had been unfaithful. And thinking back, I should have known. I should have trusted my intuition. I just didn’t want to believe it.
That’s when everything changed. I stopped feeling so crazy, stopped beating myself up about where I went wrong (although those feelings do emerge from time to time). We moved out of our house, and I moved into a little place of my own in Sausalito. Our divorce was finalized —after 10 years of marriage — and I began to write the title track of my new record, "To Rise You Gotta Fall." I felt I had no choice but to come out with a solo album, no choice but to prove I could do it on my own. It was scary for me. He was so involved in every element of my life — professionally, personally, musically. This album was to prove to him, to myself, and to the people around me that I could do it by myself. So I just fueled myself with willpower, willing myself to not need him anymore.
I found other people to write with in Nashville, new partnerships that weren’t emotionally loaded, and sought out old friendships. But mostly, I learned to rely on myself as the constant. But it is lonely, learning to be your own best friend. When I first started singing these songs, I would perform them by myself. Just me in a sequin dress and my guitar. I was opening for Josh Ritter, Lukas Nelson and the Wood Brothers, and I wanted to show that I could write my own songs, find a producer, make a record, and perform them on my own. It was about me being completely self-sufficient. It was scary, but I did it, and I felt really proud of myself.
Since then, I've realized it's okay to lean on people. It's important to have a support system. That's come out in my music too — I now perform with a band, and it's been so fabulous, and it's so different.
I spoke to my ex-husband right before I put this record out, just to let him know, and it did mean something to me when he told me he understood. The stages of grief are softening. It's been more than a year and a half since the divorce, and I'm still in the process of of comprehending what happened. It's taking time to move through my emotions, and there are some days I feel like I’ve taken a step forward, and other days two steps back. Sometimes, problems take a long time to fix, and for me, I’m learning how to sit with that discomfort, develop a relationship with myself, and understand that this process is actually never-ending. I loved him, and losing him hurts, but I love myself more.
I do wish the ending could have been different, but I have so much gratitude to him. Now I can look back and say, I don’t think I would change anything. I am grateful I had this incredible relationship, I am grateful for the times that it was good. Now, I can relish in little victories: Some nights, especially when I'm tour, I get to bed, with brushed and flossed teeth, with under-eye cream, and I wake up and I think, Good job, me.