Entertainment » Music

Nicole Atkins takes her music to a new level

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Mar 5, 2011

When singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins unleashed her first major-label album, Neptune City, in 2007, the enthusiastic response was almost instantaneous. Atkins' voice, which hints at old-school crooners like Roy Orbison with undernotes of Patti Smith and Rufus Wainwright, was distinctly powerful in the way it transformed somewhat melancholy lyrics into an art form at an entirely new level. Her song "The Way It Is" was particularly celebrated for its sweeping, melodramatic beauty.

Fast-forward four years and Atkins has finally released that album's successor, titled Mondo Amore, an album that's darker and more aggressive than her debut, but still alluring in a post-Goth-Americana-rock kind of way. It's a darker mood that reflects the upheaval the New Jersey-born singer experienced in recent years, most notably changing record labels and bands. Despite all of the changes, the most fascinating drama remains present in the music itself and this is an album marking a refreshing evolution in the powerful singer's sound.

In the midst of her tour in support of that album with her band, The Black Sea, Atkins spoke with EDGE about her thoughts on being dubbed a "musical survivor," getting action on the road and why she writes her songs for Frank Sinatra.

On the road

EDGE: How has this tour been going since you kicked it off last month? Is it nice to be back on the road?

Nicole Atkins: It feels great to be back on the road. All the shows have been really well-attended and super fun. We’re meeting tons of people we saw three years ago and there’s a lot more people out at the shows. We’re doing a lot of radio every day and it’s actually been kind of grueling to be honest. We really haven’t had a day off and my hair is definitely feeling it.

EDGE: This has been a pretty tumultuous few years for you, which have been well documented by other articles -- you changed record labels, started over with a whole new band playing with you and ended a long-term relationship. Was there ever a point in all that where you wondered if you would get back to where you left off with the last record?

NA: There were a lot of ups and downs the whole time that passed between the last record and this one. I was constantly working, but it was more behind the scenes, working on songs, working on the album and even when I was dropped from Columbia, I was on the road with the Avett Brothers and then we went into the studio to record this album. Then I was just working on putting together a new band. I was busy, but there were times where it was a little hard wondering who would put this record out there.

There were offers, but the record industry is so different now. A lot of them wanted you to give up your publishing [rights] and it’s just like, ’No way!’ So I waited it out for a long time until I found a record company that was really interested in the record without wanting my first born child too.

Now that I just remember the day when the record actually came out, on February 8, and then we had the first day of our tour, a release party at the Bowery. There was a big article in the New York times about a "musical survivor" hustling for a second chance. I thought, ’I’m only on my second record and I’m a musical survivor?’ But I just remember feeling extremely excited, it could be anxiety as well, but I’ve worked really hard and been through a lot, and now it’s all finally happening again -- it felt calm, overwhelming and anxious all rolled into one.

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Watch Nicole Atkins’ video of "Vultures":

Mondo Amore - darker, more grittier

EDGE: The new record - Mondo Amore - definitely had a darker, grittier, more guitar-driven edge to it. How important was it for you to give this album that mood, as compared to your first release?

NA: I really wanted the first record to sound a little bit more like this record, actually, but there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, especially when you’re at a major label. There’s a lot of people telling you to tweak things and I think if I never hear the word "tweak" for as long as I live, I’ll be really happy. I’ve always been attracted by darker sounds in music, plus that reverbed-out, psychedelic sound like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Echo and the Bunnyman. I wanted to make a record I’d actually listen to this time around.

EDGE: I think one of my favorites is its closing track - "The Tower." Can you tell me more about what inspired it?

NA: "The Tower" took me the longest to write. I came up with the idea of "The Tower" when I was in Sweden making the first record. I wanted a concept song that talked about when you’re building a relationship, it’s like building a physical tower where you get so caught up in the actual things around you, the lines of communication get caught off between you and your loved one. At the end, the stairwell falls out and they’re at the bottom and you’re at the top. The only way to get on level ground, then, is to explode the whole thing.

The concept came first without a melody. I had this Eastern European melody I had written just sitting around and then I had the melody for the chord sitting around and I just never thought they’d end up in the same song. Two years later, I was on a treadmill and they just popped into my head linked together, so I ran into the bathroom at the gym, sang it into the phone and wrote the lyrics immediately after.

EDGE: You utilized Kickstarter.com to help secure funding for this tour and got a huge response -- you raised over $22,000 split between over 300 contributors. Was that a shock to you?

NA: I was completely shocked. When we did it, I doubted if people would donate. ’You need a van? Go get a job!’ But I think our fans realized this is our job and the only way we’re going to get to you is if you help buy our way because we’re broke. I was really, really humbled and just really made me feel like maybe I am doing the right thing by doing this for a living. It’s really cool, too, because we’re meeting a lot of the fans who donated to Kickstarter on this tour and they’re really excited and they feel like they’re a part of what we do. And they are. It’s a nice team effort.

EDGE: Has your family always been supportive of your musical career? What are some of your first musical memories?

NA: My family was really supportive of me. I became obsessed with rock music at a really early age. When we moved to the town my parents live in, when I was six, our neighbors had this 11- or 12-year-old daughter named Jenny. This was right when MTV first started popping off and she was obsessed with Motley Crue and Black Sabbath.

She babysat me and I thought she was the coolest person ever -- she had a perm and a jean jacket with Motley Crue’s name painted on it. The first day we watched MTV, I loved Motley Crue -- they wear makeup and I wanted to wear makeup! So I started painting black lines under my eyes like Nikki Sixx and I painted the Theatre of Pain album cover on my jean jacket. I was in a Catholic grammar school and all the girls were going to school with bows and ribbons in their hair, but I’d show up in a spiked choker and Motley Crue jacket -- and I was seven.

Very visual music

EDGE: You recently responded to Neko Case’s assertion that it’s harder for women on the road to get some, uh, action than it is for men, who tend to have at least a groupie-wannabe or two in the crowd. Tell me more about that.

NA: Well, girls are more picky in general but when there’s a guy on stage, from what I’ve seen, there’s cute girls in the audience, plus the guys in the band and they all want to talk to each other. For a girl on stage, I think the guys you want to talk to get a little intimidated and think you might be a lot tougher than you might be. The guys you definitely don’t want to talk to are the ones who do -- the close-talker creeper types. It’s definitely not as fun in that aspect, being a girl on the road, but I don’t really care.

EDGE: You just played a show in Madison at a venue a few blocks from the protests happening at the Wisconsin capitol. Do you have any thoughts on the current political landscape?

NA: I do think it’s sad that people can’t all just get together and just agree on the basics of human rights and needs, which is a shame. In my state, we have a new governor that’s cutting benefits for teachers and Medicaid benefits for the elderly and education and health are the most important things, that last things that should be cut. It’s crazy to me. What’s next? Gassing puppies? I do think basic human rights and needs and morals and kindness should be before any sort of money or religious crisis. I think a lot of peoples’ values in America are really displaced right now.

EDGE: Your music feels very visual and I know you are a visual artist too. Who are some of your favorite artists right now?

NA: I have a lot of favorite artists and I’m getting back into feeling the need to make paintings again, which is exciting. Off the top of my head, my favorites are the photographer Lucia Holm, the painter Nic Rad and this illustrator Fernando Diass from the East Village. They all do pretty creepy and humorous stuff. I always really like William Blake and a lot of darker art.

EDGE: You’ve covered a lot of other artists in your time, but who would you most like to see cover a Nicole Atkins song?

NA: I would love to hear Nick Cave cover "Vultures." I would also love to hear Rufus Wainwright cover "The Way It Is" or "Neptune City." There are so many, but I would love to hear what maybe one of the Flaming Lips or Tame Impala would do with one of my songs. I write a lot of songs in a guy voice, which is a lot of the reason my vocals are higher keyed and louder. I write them all in the key of Sinatra, and then I adapt them to me and bump them up a couple of keys, so it would be great to hear some guys try out the songs.

EDGE: If one of your songs were to be licensed for a film what directors would you like to see use them? What about television shows?

NA: Definitely David Lynch for movies, or the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino. I think a lot of my songs would work great in a Tarantino movie. For TV shows, definitely True Blood, or I would also love to play a lounge singer in Boardwalk Empire. You know how they always have the lounge singers singing songs from the ’30s in the casino scenes? I want to do that so bad.

EDGE: Well then it’s good we’re putting it out there! What else is coming up for you beyond this tour and what are your goals for the album?

NA: I really just hope that as many people as possible hear it and like it and find something in it they can relate to. That it will bring them comfort or good times or get them through dark times. I hope that we can keep touring and get to play bigger stages soon, because I need some more room to dance. I also want to be more financially secure so we can take a keyboard player on the road and maybe a backup singer or two to flesh out the band and keep it all meat and potatoes.

Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea tour continues in venues throughout the country including Washington DC (3/9), Philadelphia, PA (3/10), Hoboken, NJ (3/11), Austin, TX (3/12), Northampton, MA (4/1) and Freehold, NJ (4/2). For more information and other dates visit her website..

Watch Nicole Atkins’ video of "The Way It Is":

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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