Closer Look Summer Indie Artist Spotlight: Nikki & the Phantom Callers

Nikki & the Phantom Callers, featuring songwriter Nikki Speake on guitar and lead vocals, Anna Kramer on bass and backing vocals, Aaron Mason on lead guitar, and Russell Owens on drums, performed live in-studio on "Closer Look."
Credit Emilia Brock / WABE

Growing up in the small town of Dadeville, Alabama, songwriter Nikki Speake first learned to sing in church. By the age of 16, she was writing country tunes with a darker twist. The blend of these two styles formed the roots of her songwriting and musical sound.

>> Check out more from Closer Look’s Summer Indie Music Series here.

Speake moved to Atlanta 14 years ago, and began to play music again in 2013, honing her skills in the local music scene. She currently plays bass in Shantih Shantih and is one of the vocalists and songwriters in Midnight Larks. But her own group, Nikki & the Phantom Callers, allows her to explore songwriting that doesn’t quite fit with her other acts. The band’s music blends indie, country, a retro 1960s sound, and something Speake calls “Southern Gothic rock”.

“Southern Gothic stories have a lot of Biblical allegory and, for me, a lot of my songwriting does because I was raised in a very religious home where I went to church three times a week,” Speake said. “So, I still have a lot of those stories in my head, and try to relate it in a way to my own life now. It’s more like the storytelling, I think, but also we have this southern edge; it’s a country rock edge to it.”

Speake calls Nikki & the Phantom Callers a “super group” of Atlanta musicians, featuring Anna Kramer on bass and backing vocals, Aaron Mason on lead guitar, and Russell Owens on drums. Each member of the group has a history playing in Atlanta’s music scene and, just like Speake, is currently in multiple bands. And they don’t always play the same instrument in each act.

“I’m primarily a guitar player, so this is all kind of new to me,” Owens said. “It’s a challenge; it actually puts me in a different brain. But it kind of helps with the overall songwriting, because I get to learn it from this side. Every instrument helps, like it helps me with my timing on guitar, like piano helps, or bass helps in different ways.”

Whatever the formula may be, it seems to be working. The band released its first 7-inch single, entitled “What the Daughter Does, The Mother Did,” at the end of July. Both songs on the new single — “Prodigal Daughter” and “Mamas Should Know” — exhibit Speake’s soaring, dulcet voice and its somber lilt over the beat of jangling, dark country numbers. Kramer’s harmonies introduce a beautifully haunting contrast as the two voices interweave.

Given that this is only the band’s first single, there’s likely a lot more to come from Nikki & the Phantom Callers.

“My dream for us is to get on a really nice tour, play some festivals, eventually make a living off music,” Speake said. “Have our songs in movies, TV – the sky’s the limit.”