She’s been called the female Roy Orbison, a psychedelic metalhead who grew up listening to Elvis and Patsy Cline. She adores Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, does covers of Patti Smith and reminds listeners of Dusty Springfield. She has a voice like gray autumn skies and a fondness for nightmares. Classify Nicole Atkins at your peril.
The one thing you can call her is a Jersey Girl. Singer and songwriter, Atkins grew up in Neptune City, just down the road from Asbury Park, famed haunt of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. She lives there still, as do her parents (who remain good for “laundry and meatballs.”)
Yet despite the home cooking, one gets the sense that her childhood wasn’t exactly sanitized suburban. She has noted repeatedly in interviews how the landscape – littered with abandoned amusements and haunted by the fog of the Shark River – has shaped her songs. Every winter, she told me in conversation, the tourists leave and “the seagulls commit suicide.”
Nicole on the Jersey shore in winter…
With such a setting, and with parents who let her roam amongst the hard core bands and bars of the local music scene, it’s not surprising that Atkins didn’t care for the taste of bubble gum pop. At the age of seven, no less a figure than Donny Osmond pulled her onto a casino stage to serenade her with “Puppy Love.” She responded by extending her index and pinkie fingers in repeated rock salutes behind his back.
After her early education in The Black Crowes and the Boss, she moved to North Carolina for college and got hooked on the old country licks of Emmylou Harris and Graham Parsons. New York and open mics followed, with stints sleeping in her truck while she wrote her self-proclaimed “weirdo songs.”
It was one of these, “Party’s Over,” that caught the ear of the execs at Columbia. A combo of sixties groove, catchy beat and Atkins’s distinctive aching vocals, “Party’s Over” was just this side of radio-friendly and became one of the signature songs on her album, “Neptune City.”
But if Columbia was expecting easy listening from Atkins, it hadn’t being paying attention. Recorded in Sweden with her band The Sea during the dark months of 2006, “Neptune City” is rich with schizophrenic experimentation. Match the James Bondish lead into “The Way It Is” against the school kid chants and la-di-das of “Brooklyn’s on Fire,” for example, and you’d wonder whether Atkins was simply pretending to be a single person.
The one constant is her voice, metaphorically and literally. Like her vocal sound, her lyrics are often shaded with dark hues, her love songs frequently addressing complicated relationships:
I foresaw you like an old ghost story
From a family tree that was handed down to me
I’ve known you like a siren song that warns
I have been informed you could be the death of me
It’s her signature, if you will, and on the phone she was happy to talk about how much of herself she puts into her work. Though flattered by comparisons to famous singers of the past – “I’m thankful that they’re not comparing me to Katy Perry” – she says she’s more influenced by the rawness of now:
I don’t really say, “Okay, I want to keep the 60s tradition alive.” I just kind of try and take the styles of music I listen to and then, that’s only really 40%. The 60% is mostly just raw emotion of what I’m going through at that time. I guess people say “oh emo music means emotional music,” I’m like “that’s not emo, this is emo.”
Nicole on the process of writing songs…
For some, this no-fear approach can be intimidating on first listening. Her songs never ask you to put on a pair of comfy slippers and lapse into a nap. But to say they’re emotional mash-ups is to miss Atkins’s humor and honesty, aspects that reward multiple listenings. She’s not afraid of her musical knowledge, sure, but she’s not ramming it down your throat.
While not a runaway success, “Neptune City” did well, earning Atkins appearances on David Letterman and the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Still, in both her studio-produced videos and her television appearances there’s a hesitant awkwardness that is unlike her stage presence on tour. She seemed almost physically thrown by the process, a feeling she admits to having inwardly:
I really loved it but it was almost like a project album between me and the producer. It was a very, very production, studio-based orchestral album. And at the time that was what I was really into, but you know I felt like in a little ways I got lost in the big picture of the album.
So in the spring of this year, she reformed the band, now called The Black Sea, with entirely new musicians, all friends from the past. She also split with Columbia, an intriguing prelude to the recording of her new album in the winter of 2010. It’s one she hopes to release on an independent label:
We just want to be able to be somewhere where we’ll have a lot more control over the way the record’s recorded, and how it’s put out. Columbia was a great place for me at the time, but when it comes down to it they’re mostly concerned about the bottom line rather than the art. So, we’re looking for a place that will give us a lot more freedom.
Nicole on going independent…
Freedom, yes, but with a price. Atkins readily admits that she wouldn’t be able to be as choosy if she didn’t subsidize her touring income with licensing. To date, she and her songs have helped to sell American Express and Old Navy and she is not averse to doing more:
It stinks to say that if it was the nineties I’d probably feel a lot different. You know I’d be like, “I’m never doing that.” But today, I mean, you turn on the radio and there’s not really too many radio stations around anymore that are playing alternative and indie rock. And again with the album sales. Commercials are a way to really get a wider mass audience to listen to a song that they might never hear on the radio, on Top 40. Look what good it did for bands like Feist or Ingrid Michaelson.
And also, musicians have to make a living. And if we want to sustain ourselves on the road and paying the band and being able to sleep at that econo-lodge after the gig instead of in the van, making twenty grand for a commercial is an absolutely wonderful thing.
Nicole on music and commercialism…
Companies looking to cash in on Atkins’s talent should expect some new approaches in her forthcoming album (fans who catch her on her fall tour don’t have to wait – she’s honing the songs on stage).
Names like Nick Cave, Echo and the Bunnymen and Scott Walker came up in our conversation, as well as concepts like Spanish gun-fighting ballads and lost Led Zeppelin tracks. All will be held together, Atkins says, by the weight of the vocals and a desire “to create this more dark, bluesy raw rock sound that’s still really dramatic, but has a lot more nighttime in it.”
Even Robert Harrison of the neo-psychedelic 90s band Cotton Mather will make an appearance, as co-writer of a couple of tracks. Plus Atkins and Harrison hope to funnel the tunes that don’t make it onto Atkins’s album into another compilation, which Atkins suggests will be more “Marvin Gaye meets Petula Clark.”
It all sounds very ambitious and multilayered, the watermarks of any Atkins project. Her winter of recording will then be followed by a summer touring in those classy econo-lodges, earning enough, as she said wryly, to buy “many houses with the hundreds and hundreds of dollars that I make playing music.” And what about home, I asked her?
I’m trying to work on a music mentorship program for Asbury Park. Because there’s a big revitalization going on there and there’s so many great musicians that are young and between everybody touring there’s always at least one band that’s home.
So I wanted to figure out a way to try and incorporate the music scene in Asbury Park with the high school there and get kids interested in music. And maybe if we can do that it’ll show kids the value in actually buying singles and buying albums again. And give the kids that don’t play football something to look forward to doing after school.
Nicole on her future plans…
Whether Atkins morphs into a worldwide phenomenon and can afford those many houses is up to speculation. She seems more at ease being a rebel than a real estate developer, and her vagabond life currently provides her with plenty of scope to experiment. Not to mention a lot of precious time to play.
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Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.