Blues guitarist and singer Carl 'Buffalo' Nichols was born in Houston, Texas, but was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That geographic dichotomy — Houston's expansive warmth and Milwaukee's steely cold — make their way into his music, which captures tender moments told from a hardened remove.
On the live version of 'Lost & Lonesome', the first song on his forthcoming self-titled album, Nichols plays slide guitar on a resonator, singing about the misery of wandering, even while he can't escape its tempting call.
Given how well his gravelly voice pairs with the metallic twang of his instrument, it's clear to see why Nichols became the first solo blues artist that Mississippi-based label Fat Possum Records has signed in 20 years.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Nichols found his place behind the guitar. In poring over records from other artists, he would sometimes listen to a song as many as 200 times to understand the chord or riff and play it. That foundation gave him a language with which to create his own stories, though it first took leaving the U.S. to figure out what he wanted to say.
Nichols traveled across West Africa and Europe, discovering how tradition could be updated for contemporary listeners. That's his mission in releasing Buffalo Nichols. "Part of my intent, making myself more comfortable with this release, is putting more Black stories into the genres of folk and blues", he said. "Listening to this record, I want more Black people to hear themselves in this music that is truly theirs".
Ahead of his album's release on Oct. 15, Nichols spoke with Holler about growing up in Milwaukee, how the fear of death motivates him, and who he'd most like to collaborate with.
Where are you from and has that influenced the type of artist you are?
I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which exposed me to a lot of lead and that has influenced my art greatly.
Speaking of influences, what were you listening to growing up?
Growing up, I listened to everything I could. I spent many nights listening to the radio and many hours in record stores and had discovered a wide variety of music by the time I reached my teenage years.
Did you ever want to do something other than music?
Yes but I can’t.
Are you more creative when you’re happy or when you’re sad?
I’m always sad.
What drives you the most?
The constant looming threat of death.
In general which comes first for you, the title or the song?
The song usually comes first.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
I would love to work with [TV on the Radio's] Kyp Malone.
Hopefully another album, less COVID and more touring.
Buffalo Nichols is out Oct. 15 via Fat Possum Records.