Nikki Talley Music & BB The Van

Nikki Talley is a touring musician with her husband, Jason Sharp. For the last four years, they’ve lived in a Blue Bell, their 15-passenger Chevy van as they travel the country and share her music. Nikki’s learned a lot along the way – read the interview below to get some tips on life on the road as a musician. She’s got a great sense of humor, too!

Photos (C) 2015 Jason Sharp



Meet Musical Nikki

How did your lifestyle in “Blue Bell”  the van come to be?

My husband and I have lived in Asheville since the late 90’s. Following dropping out of college, I continued to pursue music and traveled regionally, as well as waitressing and bartending. My husband, Jason, who finished his Meteorology degree, got a job working for NOAA and the National Climate Data Center in downtown Asheville North Carolina. It was a great career with great benefits & steady reliable pay. I continued playing music in the clubs and wanted to expand my geographical horizons.

Nikki doing her thing :)
Nikki doing her thing :)

We had a sudden shift in our circle of loved ones when both Jason’s best friend & his father passed away suddenly. We started feeling vulnerable and started questioning: What is life? What is living? It was then that we decided we would simplify. We sold most of what we owned, bought a Chevy van, gutted her & turned into a little home on wheels. We set up a tour that would support us for a few months. We had a few festivals, coffee shops, and bar gigs lined up. Beyond that, nothing was certain. It was a crazy day for Jason when he left his job. We were nervous about heading out but I also knew our costs were going to be very little compared to our life in a ‘house’. But the support from our families, fans and friends was over the top. In fact, THEY helped pay for Blue Bell thru a crowdfunding campaign. People wanted us to take our music beyond the reaches of western North Carolina.

Nikki & Blue Bell
Nikki & Blue Bell

Four years later, we have not only survived but THRIVED. We play around 175 shows annually and couple it with destinations we want to see. We go to many state parks on our days off during the week & take in all the beautiful changes landscapes around us. We have also performed at some of these parks so it’s like we’re working from home! 😉

Why did you choose the Chevy van as your vehicle/home? What are its benefits and downsides?

Knowing we would be full time van dwellers we of course were lured by the hip and SUPER fun and practical design of the VW busses, as well as the dream rigs like the Mercedes Sprinters. The Sprinter vans weren’t in our budget and we had to remind ourselves we are musicians first, and van dwellers second. We had to have something big enough for all our gear. I also knew we would be traveling a lot of highways to find work and gigs. I wanted to feel safe in a big heavy duty van. I also wanted to have the option of stealth camping and not worrying about trailer parking while we toured big cities like NYC and Boston. We found Blue Bell, a 15 passenger van, in Knoxville. We liked that she was blue as opposed to a standard white van. We had heard MANY horror stories from other bands having their van stolen. Blue Bell has no stickers on the outside. She has nothing that would lead you to believe that there are in fact people living inside. We like it that way 🙂 I would also like to mention that when we needed a part in the middle of West Virginia it was very refreshing to say “Chevrolet” when the fella on the phone asked for the make and model.

Nikki & Blue Bell in White Sands National Monument, NM.
Nikki & Blue Bell in White Sands National Monument, NM.

We did the whole remodel on the inside of the van so there’s not a lot of bells & whistles. Basically simple stuff that would get us up and rolling and we continue to work on new things that will save space, time and be more comfortable. We measure the speakers of our PA to make sure they would slide comfortable under the bed. We added a little child’s wooden cabinet from a yard sale that serves as our dry pantry. We have a one burner cookstove and a Yeti cooler that has served us fine.

We are not equipped with a toilet or running water in the van. We usually find our comfort stations at a state park or at the very least a Walmart parking lot (24 hour ones we prefer for this reason). We usually stay in state parks and don’t go without a true shower for more than a few days. Besides we have to look spiffy for our gigs!  Obviously the more rustic areas of travel (out West comes to mind) we can shower in the wilderness. I can wash my hair and rest of my body with less than a half a gallon of water in the van by leaning over a small rubbermaid dish pan when need be. Sometimes the concrete jungle makes it harder for the van dweller to navigate.

Some days I wish we had four wheel drive but beyond that Blue Bell has served us beyond well.

You’ve been on the road for 3+ years. How does travel influence your songwriting?

OF COURSE the travel has been reflective on my songwriting. 🙂 I don’t keep a journal. Jason is pretty good about taking a photo and putting a blurb into a private blog for us to remember each day. We kick around the idea of a coffee table book about our travels. My journals are my songs. A song that continues to be our anthem is called “Travelin On.” The lyrics resonate with us almost daily:

Travelin on just like we were kids on a merry go round and round

We’re somewhere in the middle of chasing our tails and chasing our dreams down

One more summer and we’d have missed

The chance to run away like this

 

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Have you taken any travel breaks in that time? Where do you call “home”?

We honestly GAVE UP any ‘home’. The stuff we didn’t sell we put in boxes. When we come “home” it’s usually up to my mother’s cabin in the middle of 13 acres of gorgeous nurturing land in Brevard, NC in Transylvania County. It is the perfect place to unwind from the ramblings of the road. We usually don’t take a ‘break’. Even when we are home in the mountains of North Carolina we are heavily gigging. Sometimes we find our selves more busy at home seeing friends, family and playing lots of shows.  This past summer we actually have been around for a month and it’s been GREAT…but we’re getting antsy again. Once you’ve tasted that little bit of freedom the road allows, its hard to give that up.

You posted a shot of shaving your legs on your Instagram. Do you have any self care tips for the road?

One thing that I think is different about our van dwelling life is that our musical profession celebrates us on the stage. Looking and smelling like someone who hasn’t been around running water for a few days isn’t an option. We often have to do weddings, private events, so keeping yourself clean and presentable is necessary.

Laundry is self care!
Laundry is self care!

While it is a rustic life, you can maintain good hygiene and it’s crucial to do so! Not only for your physical health but for your mental health as well.

A few things that I always keep on hand to feel refreshed are baby wipes, rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, and various essential oils. I can heat up a small pan of water in the van doors closed, wash my face and feel like a new woman! Hot water (even from the Walmart bathroom!) can be a game changer. {Editor’s note – totally agree!]

It’s certainly not a life for everyone and sometimes it can be hard to be a lady traveling so wild. I haven’t taken a bubble bath in 5 years, but I HAVE seen the Grand Canyon, whales in the Pacific, eaten New Mexican chiles, bathed in a waterfall….the trade off is worth it.

What’s your favored camp spot? [Walmart, National Forest, friend’s driveway..]

Hmmm. Well, after a late night gig I just wanna crash and feel secure but not set up anything etc. So on those nights we usually pull up our Allstays App on our phone and find the closest 24 hr Walmart Supercenter. We feel safer at the 24 hr ones because there is someone always there and we can use the facilities or go buy water/food if necessary.

Nikki & Blue Bell in a Walmart Parking Lot
Nikki & Blue Bell in a Walmart Parking Lot

When we aren’t gigging and making music for hire, we enjoy the serenity we find only in nature. We absolutely love being in Florida for snowbird season. Huntington Beach Stage Park in Destin and Fort Desoto in St Petersburg probably top the lists of Florida parks that we have enjoyed time and time again. We are big fisherfolk so we love fishing down there as well as enjoying the ‘winter weather’ of Florida.

When we we’re out west, Oliver Lee State Park & Rockhound State Park in New Mexico were highlights as well as Joshua Tree.

Do you have any free camping tips?

Allstays App on my phone is my go to for this. It’s a great resource. It rates and tells personal reviews of people staying over:

“This parking lot was noisy, I didn’t feel safe.”

“This one was great. Nice and quiet & even got free wifi from Home Depot next door.”

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Take a photo of your five must haves for life on the road

1. My guitar

Without it I could not travel and do the van life at all. It is my heartbeat my breath my soul as well as what allows us financially to continue to travel and explore.

2. My phone 

I have to use the iPhone for booking gigs making phone calls contacting festivals as well as documenting our life through pictures social media and keeping in touch with my family & friends. This floating fleeting lifestyle of van dwelling can feel very disconnected. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes being disconnected is a good thing. But with all the great apps out there from fitness routines to nature field guides to state park maps & GPS devices to mobile music recording software, an iPhone is essential to us.

Nikki's 5 (6!) Must Take Items for life on the road
Nikki’s 5 (6!) Must Take Items for life on the road

3. Wine opener

Because even a songwriter sometimes needs a little liquid encouragement and when that happens you don’t want to be stuck without it.

4. Alligator clips

These clips come in handy for anything from tarps when a sudden Florida afternoon downpour happens to tapestries when you’re trying to block the California sun. I have use these strong sturdy clips for so many different things even holding up my merch at a windy outdoor festival 🙂

Nikki and Jason making music in New Mexico
Nikki and Jason making music in New Mexico

5. Pour over coffee maker

Being touring musicians coupled with full-time van dwellers most people can understand that caffeine is our fuel most days. The singleserve pour over coffee maker makes it really convenient to heat up a quick pot of water in the van or on the side of the road. Plus we can make it as strong as we like. STRONG!!!!!

6. Essential oils (bonus!)

Aromatherapy on the road can be great.  They take up very little space and keep your van smelling good and can even change your mood. If I’m in a slump I like to reset with a few Deep breaths over lemongrass, lavender & clary sage. It can make a girl who doesn’t have the luxury of a spa day or bubble bath feel refreshed.

What have you learned about Jason that you might not have without this adventure?

That we are truly compatible!! If you think you know someone, live in a van with them. We have been together 16 years. (We dated for 10 then married in ’08.) We joke and say the ‘van years’ are like dog years…they’re WAY longer. Working together AND living together in such a confined space takes a special someone.

Where are you now and where will you be in one month?

We will be in the western North Carolina area until the end of September, then we start heading south into Florida and the Gulf Coast for most of the winter like any good snowbird.

Questions about life on the Road?