Nicole Atkins has risen to international acclaim due in large part to her unique approach to song composition and collaboration savvy that snags some of the world’s most diverse musicians and producers. That talent, combined with a dark, glimmering style more akin to a David Lynch backdrop than anything in her Garden State heritage, has resulted in Atkins becoming one of New Jersey’s most exclusive and prodigious artists to break out in the last 10 years.
But that galactic status has not come without hard work. Atkins has traversed the major label highways like a veritable vagabond, first landing in the lap of Columbia, then with Sony distributed stalwarts Razor And Tie before breaking rank and coming up with her own successful label model.
While some shortsighted publications refer to Atkins as “off track from her proven past,” I see her as unfettered and free, cruising a wide-open track in a fastback muscle car of multi-directional creativity.
Her latest record, Slow Phaser, has an air of sultry vulnerability mixed with the seasoned and sexy command of an artist that has demonstrated a délicieux méthode borne from life’s tribulation steeped know-how. Danceable, quasi-prog rock crashes headlong into a proverbial “sea” of 1980s-flavored spawn that splashes and pumps influential crude ranging from Bosnian Rainbows and Daniele Luppi, to the ardent and sexual moxie of Chrissie Hynde and Kierin Magenta Kirby from Deee-Lite.
With subject matter that ranges from the gray, pale blooming delusione of ex-boyfriend dissapunto, to the exasperating visibility of inconformistas (you know I love those trust fund lumberjacks) and the isolated road on which she perpetually lives, Atkins jettisons everything nonessential to her soul on Slow Phaser.
I had a chance to speak to her via phone one dark and snowy night as she and Black Sea navigated that never-ending stretch of Americana asphalt.
So, Nicole, what does “Slow Phaser” mean?
When we were recording one of the songs called “What Do You Know” in the middle of the album, we were putting on some sound effects and I said to Tore [Johansson, producer], “Turn up the slow phaser, man.” And I thought to myself, “Oh, slow phaser… sounds like a really cool album title,” and I just thought it was quite fitting for me because I’ve always felt like a late bloomer. And so slow phaser was the sounds that were on the album, but also representative of me at the time.
How did you end up teaming with Tore Johansson as a producer?
He worked on my first record, Neptune City, and probably six months before Hurricane Sandy happened I went out to Sweden with a friend of mine and met up with Tore again and we just spent the day composing. We wrote “Who Killed The Moonlight” and “It’s Only Chemistry” in one night and then didn’t really keep in touch after that. And then right after the storm happened, he emailed me saying he was sorry to hear what happened and wanted to know if I wanted to come out there and make a record. So it was a win-win situation for me because I got to go out there and make an amazing record, and it also gave me a place to live while my parents’ house was being repaired.
To me, your collaboration with Jim Sclavunos from Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds has punched a hole in the side of everything fans had come to expect of you up until this point. Was it liberating to let go and work with another writer?
Yeah, it was great. It was kind of scary at first, too! When you sit down and write a song with someone, you don’t really know. It’s kind of a weird and unnatural thing to do, for me, anyway. And we went out the night before, and then got together the next day and he started telling me that he had a couple of strong opinions on my voice. He said he thought I had an amazing voice, but he thought I sang too loud all the time. He explained that, “You should try to write a few things where you’re not using your full power all the time,” and I was like, “Ugh, he hates me! This is gonna suck!” (Laughs) Then I thought about his point of view and we ended up writing three songs that day! He and I just have a really natural flow when working together; it’s like 100 percent natural collaborative. We wrote a few songs that ended up on the album, but also wrote so many others that we’re actually starting a side-project band.
Did the majority of Slow Phaser come fast, or was it composed over a length of time?
No, it took about two years to write. And throughout that process, I wrote a hundred songs that were very different from Slow Phaser songs. And I’m so glad I didn’t just go ahead and record the first nine songs I came up with. It was a good thing for me to really be able to digest material and do it at my own pace.
I think my favorite song so far is “Gasoline Bride” What’s yours?
Yeah! That’s my favorite, too (laughs). That song actually came to me super-fast. I was walking down the street in New York and the melody and the lyrics came out in like, two seconds. It just popped into my head. That was the song I knew I could connect this kind of disco sound with the prog rock sound. It was a mixture of the two different styles happening simultaneously on the record. And it immediately formed this kind of bridge between the two.
Is “Cool People” challenging the irony of the hipster?
Oh, man (laughs). I spent a lot of time at a certain city bar in the last few years surrounded by famous people and I always felt like a total dork that drank too much (laughs).
What led to the formation of Oh Mercy! Records?
I named it after my dad’s old boat. When I was thinking about who to put this record out with, David Macias [Thirty Tigers] emailed me and said he got my record and was going to listen to it on his way to London, and said he’d get back to me in two or three weeks. Later that very same night, he emailed me, he contacted me and said, “I just listened to the record twice through and it’s absolutely amazing! I really want to do this!” His enthusiasm really got to me.
Moreover, I was reading David Byrnes’ [Talking Heads] book, How Music Works, and I came upon a page that was actually about me! (Laughs) It was talking about record labels and how sometimes an artist with a great record can still fail through lack of ownership and a piece of the overall pie. And it said that if I had owned more of my own music, I would have been way more successful right off the bat, and that just kind of stuck with me.
So now that I’m learning, it kind of feels like I have a hit record under my belt, and all of the press and radio is going well, but it does take an awful lot of attention and money to push it through.
I found it interesting that you turned to PledgeMusic to give fans the chance to contribute and chime in on the creation of Slow Phaser. What were some of the more interesting insights offered from fans about what you were writing?
Everybody gave great insight and I continue to get really positive feedback. At first I thought there would be a backlash because I wasn’t writing the same stuff as I did for the first two records, but it seems like overall this record is more widely… I don’t know, more something for everybody. If you feel like dancing, you can dance on this record. If you feel like crying and getting drunk…
I’ll do that…
You can do whatever you want with these songs! (Laughs)
Hurricane Sandy destroyed so much. How bad was it personally?
I was in Memphis when it happened, which was extremely hard because my family lives in Shark River and they evacuated to my grandparents’ house in Neptune City. When that happened, I was talking to my dad and he said, “Yeah, we’re all fine. We’re all settled in at your grandfather’s.” And then he got a call on his other phone and it was our neighbor saying that our house might be burning down. And then I got a call from my old drummer crying and saying that he was watching my house burn. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t get in touch with anyone after that because the cell towers went down.
The next day I found out that all of the houses on our street, at a minimum, lost their first floors. Also, our neighbor’s house had a gas line leak and it literally blew sky high. They got stuck in debris under one of the cars. They’re OK now, but nobody knew what was happening at the time. It was pure pandemonium. However, the firefighters got there so fast they were able to keep a hose on our house and our neighbor’s house for three hours, so the houses would be wet enough to not go up completely. Otherwise, we would have lost the whole block to fire.
You’ve implemented a program through this release to help others affected by Sandy. How are you doing that?
Oh yeah, the nonprofit is called Waves For Water. This is a really great group that gets money and supplies and builders directly to families. Home Depot is their donations with laborers and needed supplies. The money they raise doesn’t get caught up in administration jobs or paying for staff, so it goes directly to the families. I met one family we were helping and they are such a great couple and they’ve just been through so much, so it’s nice to know I can raise not only money for my record, but also, and more importantly, get some plumbing for these people, so it’s a win-win.
How were you received by a mostly Bruce crowd at Light Of Day?
Well, I first did LOD about 10 years ago, and I always play it when I’m home, but yeah, this year was super cool. New band, new songs and the audience were so receptive. When we walked off stage, Bruce Springsteen walked up and said, “I just had to come early to see your set!” And then we just hung out for a couple of hours and that was amazingly cool. He’s just so… cool.
Word has it on Twitter that Springsteen has been championing your performances and music.
He gave me his assistant’s number and said if I ever needed anything to call them, and I thought I might as well let him know about my pledge campaign. You know, I just thought maybe he would check it out or donate 10 bucks for a download or something (laughs), and then when he put it on his Facebook page, it just blew up.
It was actually the same day that I was planning on taking the pledge down! It was supposed to go down at three, and at two I got a text from my friend Timmy who said, “Go check Bruce Springsteen’s Facebook page!” and I was like, “What?” My phone died in like, two seconds, and everybody was going, “Holy shit!” It really helped push the campaign over the edge.
Is there a duet with The Boss in the near future?
I hope so. He’s just a great and talented guy. I would love to sing a Roy Orbison song with him or something (laughs). Oh! And if he has any spare hits lying around in the vault, maybe he can throw me one.
After everything you’ve experienced in the music business to date, are you still in love with everything you started out believing in?
Yeah, I mean, I was never in love with the music business; I was always in love with the music, so I just kind of try to keep my main focus on writing and being in an awesome band, making records and trying to run my ship as tightly as possible so we can keep on going.
Nicole Atkins And The Black Sea will be playing with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds at Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn on July 26. The band will also play at the XPoNential Fest in Philly on the afternoon of July 27 before playing the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC later that same night. Slow Phaser is available now. For more information, go to nicoleatkins.com.