Jason & Nikki

This post was originally published on Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.

I haven't spoken to Nikki, but I've heard her soulful voice in her songs. While Nikki sings and mixes tones from her guitar and clawhammer-style banjo, her husband and musical partner, Jason, adds harmony with his guitar to complete the duo. They book gigs in areas they want to explore more.
As long as their fingers work and the van is running, they will keep going. As Nikki sings, "Life is one big rodeo. So hold on tight. We'll be alright."

Square Feet: 60

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.

Years Living Mobile: 4

Currently In: Telluride, Colorado

Nikki and I are in Telluride right now competing in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Troubadour Songwriting competition.

Make, Model, Year: 2005 Chevrolet Express 3500

We had a Chevy or Ford in mind when searching for vans, mostly because it's easier to find parts when (God forbid) there's a breakdown. When we found our van, it was the right combination of size, age, mileage and price. We're not sure how we came up with the name, Blue Bell, aside from the van's blue color. Nikki just started calling her that in the beginning and it stuck.

Tell us about your van setup.

We gutted the seats and installed a bed and pantry. Space is very limited for us as we have to travel with all of our equipment. Therefore, we can't do all of the mods that most people can. The first and foremost consideration was where to put our equipment. We decided it would all go under the bed. The biggest pieces are our PA speakers. We measured their height when lying down and made sure the bed was at least that high. We carry two guitars, an amplifier, a pedal board, two speakers and a PA head. This all fits under the bed. The next consideration was how to live while traveling between shows. We built the aforementioned bed just high enough that it accommodated our equipment, but not too high where we are right up against the ceiling.

We have a small pantry that was actually a child's toy cabinet that we use for holding dry goods, and a Yeti cooler for refrigeration. Almost all of our cooking is done outside of the van on a single-burner stove. For power we use a marine deep-cycle battery and a power inverter. The battery is charged by the alternator. We haven't gone solar yet but that's next on our list. Just recently, for comfort, we added a window AC unit mounted to the floor and a vent in the roof.

Here's a video clip of that install, with help from a friend of ours.

What were you doing before you went mobile?

Before we set off, we were living in a small shotgun apartment in Asheville, North Carolina. Our typical day was like most others. I'd get up at 7 am to go to work. I worked as a meteorologist at, what was then, the National Climate Data Center. I'd pretty much sit in a cubicle all day (except for lunch). I'd come home around 4:30 pm. We'd have dinner, watch TV and go to bed. Nikki was playing music locally around the area, so her hours varied.

Why did you decide to travel around in a van?

We both had some people close to us pass away not long before we left. It made us redefine what living was. I decided that cubicle life was not for me. Also, there was the realization for Nikki that to get your music heard, you couldn't wait around for people to find you; you have to take your music to them.

So we decided to jump in a van and play music wherever people would listen.

How do you fund this trip?

We fund our travels solely through the money we make playing gigs and selling CDs. The number and location of our gigs is what sets our travel schedule. We've been playing every single month for the last 4.5 years (about 150-200 shows annually). We don't really travel somewhere that's a good distance away unless it's for a set of gigs. Like I mentioned before, we generally pick a region where we want to go. For example, we're thinking about going out west again next spring 2017. So we'll start booking shows for that now. If we have time off and we're close enough to go to cool places (the Grand Canyon, for example) we'll make it a point to travel there. We don't get to be quite as rural as other van lifers/travelers because of the gig schedule.  

Do your travels influence the music you write or does your music influence where you travel?

Both! For instance, our latest album is titled "Out From the Harbor." We named it that because of the leap of faith we took. While it is adventurous and fun, it also feels like we're constantly away from the safety of a stable place. The music influences the travels in that we have to go where people will listen.

While we can generally pick where we wanna go—out west, for example—we’re still bound to certain places on our schedule.

Top Go-To Items

Bungee cords/alligator clips/magnets: These things help hold down all the little things that move while we drive.

Wine opener: The wine opener is a little tongue-in-cheek, but we definitely wouldn't want to be without one. Wine gets the creative juices flowing. A little moonlight, a campfire and some wine. We can usually get a song out of that.

Earplugs: We like to shut out those street cleaners at 3 am in the Walmart parking lot.

Where do you shower?

On our days off we usually stay at state parks, which almost always have showers. Occasionally we do stay in hotels or at people's houses. The last resort is to actually do a quick wash in the van with a small pan and a gallon jug of water. It's a little tricky to say the least.

During a busy gig schedule, if we haven't had a shower in a day or two, then we'll park somewhere like Walmart or Target and do a quick, what we call, cat bath. It mostly consists of us bending over a small plastic wash bin and washing our hair, and then using a washcloth to hit crucial areas. It usually takes no more than a gallon of water between the two of us. It's not the best way, but it holds us over until our days off.

Where do you park?

On our days off we typically camp at state parks. If we need to overnight between gigs, we will usually park at Walmart. Some of our favorite places to park have been out west. Specifically Oliver Lee Memorial State Park in Alamogordo and, of course, Joshua Tree, California.

What has been the most rewarding thing about living in a van?

It's awesome to have everything we own and need right at our fingertips.

The freedom to pick up at a moment’s notice and move to the next location is nothing short of amazing.

What is the most challenging?

Having a stable, comfortable place to be creative musically. While state parks are beautiful, the temperature can be a little too hot, a little too cold or a little too buggy to sit and write music without any distractions.

The irony is that we play so much music for a living that we don’t get much of a chance to just sit and play a little music for ourselves.

What is your advice to others who want to fund their travels playing music on the road?

Above all else I'd say pick a reliable vehicle. That may seem obvious, but I've seen or heard of numerous instances of touring musicians and van lifers in general having more trouble than necessary because they didn't get something that could get them to the next gig.  

Do you plan to go back to your previous way of living?

Not as long as our fingers work and the van is running.

What's next? Any news you want to share?

Other than competing at the Telluride Troubadour Competition this month, we'll be touring around the southeast for the rest of summer, and then hopefully back out west next spring. Keep an eye out for us!

Now I’ve never been one to sit still and we won’t be coming home until...I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Follow Nikki & Jason and their music

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Jason Sharp and Nikki Talley.