Peering out from beneath a pile of wild hair, Stephanie Nilles works the crowd with demented stage banter, barbed lyrics and stride piano topped with cascades of mad, clanking notes. Pounding out a rowdy blues, she rounds the corner into the last chorus: "I'd like to stick it to Ann Coulter," she sings playfully, "fuck some sense into Ann Coulter."
Covers like Chris "Isto" White's viral-video tune "Ann Coulter" — and an absolutely filthy Jelly Roll Morton song — were just part of Nilles' appropriately inappropriate set at the Blasphemy performance series, at Hambone's in Lawrenceville this past Easter Sunday.
But there's much more to Nilles than gleeful vulgarity.
Before hitting the road in 2008, Nilles earned a degree in classical piano performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music — training that comes through in her technique and a harmonic palette which extends well beyond barroom boogie-woogie.
"I still play a lot of classical music," says Nilles. But she found it to be "more of an historical occupation than it is an artistic one." And the solitary hours in the practice room didn't fit with her personality.
After a stint in New York writing songs, Nilles decided to see the country as a performer. "There was a lot of sleeping in the car and eating once a day," she says; eventually she found a home base in New Orleans. The city's vibe suits her, and its rich musical history helps put bread on the table.
"There's a respect for music-making specifically, and art-making in general, which manifests itself financially," Nilles says. Being a musician is "thought of as more of a job, in the best way possible."
While she mainly performs solo, she also works with a trio or quartet for short tours. On Thu., May 24, at Thunderbird Café, she'll take the stage with Zach Brock & Magic Numbers on violin, upright bass and drums.
"Typically when I play with them, it's kind of old school," Nilles says. "I'll jump on, and they'll back me up for a set."
To spice things up during long bar sets, Nilles developed some unusual covers, including "Break Ya Neck," by Busta Rhymes.
"It's kind of a tricky, evil way to get people to be quiet for a second," Nilles says. "The lyrics are just so ridiculous ... and I change all the n-words in there to ‘ninja' or ‘nephew,' so it's politically OK."
In her own songs, she's moving away from punk influences and explicitly political material toward narrative. One haunting song she played at Hambone's, "Kate in the Haze of the Rum," recasts a friend's ugly divorce using imagery from John Steinbeck's East of Eden.
Her explorations don't end there. Currently, she's digging into traditional song forms. "Some of the quicker, minor-key ones are almost polkas," she says. Then there's a mazurka based on Ayn Rand: "Right now, it's just called ‘Mazurka,' but I think I might call it ‘Viagra Monday.'"
And that's Stephanie Nilles for you. As she sings in "For a High Life Commercial," a dark Tom Waits-y sketch: "Everybody loves you when you're charming and obscene."