Dreaming Without Pain – New Jersey singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins opens up to SJF

  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Dreaming Without Pain – New Jersey singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins opens up to SJF

Nicole Atkins released ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’ last summer. The record is a submersion in sonically and soulfully constructed nostalgia with Atkins bringing soul and blues from the ’60s and ’70s, and making it her own. There’s no imitation but rather a reimagining of soul music through Atkins’ musical and personal filter.

Atkins takes the warm ambience that Carole King so effortlessly created in ‘Tapestry’ and brings it to ‘Colors’, spinning an atmosphere so perfect that it brings you to right back to sitting on the floor listening to vinyl on your parent’s old record player.

I met Nicole on the evening of her show at the Seabright Arms last November. With dark eyes, long eyelashes, and draped in a sequin top, Nicole was funny, engaging and honest about ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee.’ The writing and recording process, the influence of Carole King, and the futility of trying to manufacture soulfulness. In Nicole’s words, “It doesn’t come from the dirt, it comes from your soul and your spirit.”

altListening to ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee,’ it feels very much like an album or a journey of introspection, self-reflection and moving forward but in a very kind and understanding way, as if talking to a friend – for instance the title track has the line, “Don’t let it crush you/Change doesn’t happen easily.” Was this a deliberate decision when writing the songs for the record or was it more an unconscious thing?

I didn’t realise I was doing it until after I did it. But that’s how I have always written in my journals, like “Ugh, I hate myself, fuck this etc.” but then at the end, I’ll end it with, “It’s going to be okay.” A bit like giving myself a pep talk. But it definitely wasn’t intentional. I didn’t realise I did that until after it was all written and recorded.

The whole album feels very nostalgic of music in the 60/70s but it also feels very natural not at all like a concept album or an album imitating that period. It reminded me very much of soul and blues music of the 60s but also of Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ particularly on the tracks ‘Colors’, ‘Sleepwalking’ and ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’, both of which have a very warm and familiar feel. Could you talk about the sound of the album and how it came together when writing and recording? If it was a deliberate choice or if it was more that the songs called for this particular sound?

The Carole King thing came totally by accident. It was just the melodies that came into my head. It’s funny though because I was writing this song with this girl that I had met at a show, and I didn’t know much about her. Her name was Louise but I didn’t know her last name. I got to her house and we started writing ‘If I Could’ together, and I played her ‘Listen Up’, and she was like, “Oh my God, you sound like a heavier version of my mom.” And I asked, “Whose your mom?” and she responded with, “Carole King”. And I was like “WHAT!?” And the girl I was writing with was Louise Goffin. The deliberate thing that I went for in terms of sound, was I trying to meld a Roy Orbison meets Frank Sinatra crooning style with a soul groove, and I think we did it.

altWho are your inspirations, musical or non-musical, in your writing, playing and performing? And have these changed since you first started making music?

Lots of music stuff. If I can visualize things. If I can see things in colours, like synesthesia, like landscapes… For instance, when I listen to Pet Sounds I see lots of orange and blue and puffy shapes. With this record, I saw lots of dirt colours and lots of blue, and it felt very natural.

‘If I Could’ is very vague and I couldn’t quite work out what that song is about, which I guess is a good thing.

It’s sad because I wrote that with Louise Goffin the day I found out my friend Terry had got brain cancer again. I talked to his brother the day I was writing ‘Listen Up’. All those songs were written that day but it was kinda like a word to him to say, “if I could make things better I could.” But really it’s whatever you want the song to be about. These songs are like hookers.

‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’ was recorded in Texas but has a very soul and blues orientated mood and sound about it; a sound you wouldn’t expect to come out of Fort Worth. Can you talk about to what extent your physical environment influences the music being made?

I personally don’t think physical environment has anything to do with the kind of music you make. I think it’s up to the individual. Because people could be like, “I went to Muscle Shoals to get that special soul vibe.” But if you don’t have soul players playing with you or if you’re not writing songs that are from your soul, you’re not going to get music that sounds like that. It doesn’t come from the dirt, it comes from your soul and your spirt. I remember when I spoke to Austin Jenkins, who plays guitar on the record, I felt like I’d known him for a million years. I was so depressed before I met him, and when I talked to him on the phone I knew that in my heart that everything was going to be okay. I totally trust him. Robert Ellis also played all over the record. We actually met the day we started to recording in Fort Worth. I was actually saying to my husband before we started recording, “What if this isn’t right? What if these people don’t jive?” and he said, “Can’t think that now. No going back.” And thank God it l did, and it all turned out okay. But he (Robert Ellis) is a genius and a beast. I only want to work with those types people in the studio. It was the best time I had in my life. Everything happened so fast and everybody was present and engaged the whole time. We recorded it in five days. Four days for tracking, a day for strings and horns. But then when it was done everybody was super depressed because it was like “Go, go, go!” and then nothing. I can remember every New Year’s Day when I was in high school, and in college, I wanted to jump off my parent’s roof. It is such a bad come down. It is why you’ve got to temper the excitement and try to stay in the middle. My goal is emotional mediocrity.

alt‘Listen Up’ is the song that drew me to the album, and you as an artist. It is an incredibly honest and vulnerable song filled with self-affirmation – I’ve been listening to it quite a lot recently as it keeps me rooted in who I am, not the mistakes I have made. For me, it feels very much the center-piece of the record – about self-reflection but also self-forgiveness.

I wrote that with my friends Ryan Spraker and Vincent John who plays with the Lee Fields and The Expressions, and we kept talking about how we love Janis Joplin and we also love Carole King, Aretha Franklin, and we just wanted to see how do we make all those things work. And all of my lyrics were from a time when I screwed up everything, and it just came out very naturally. I then I just kept wanting to say, “Listen up”, so I was like I can’t be like “Listen up people to my song” (laughs). But you can listen up to a friend or someone whose giving you advice about how to not ruin your life.  I have this one friend at home who every day or every week there’s a problem. Like “This person at work did this to me, and my friend here did this to me, and my boyfriend did this.” And it’s like, when all of those people have problems with you, maybe you should look at yourself. It’s boring but you feel for that person because why can’t you accept your part of it. You are looking at all of the places and listening to your inner dialogue when maybe you should listen to other people. The depression cycle, the spin. It’s crazy.

altYou said in one interview that you felt that as a woman who had a drinking problem you were judged a lot more harshly than if you had been a man with a similar problem.

It’s almost like alcoholism is manly; it’s okay, you know. But with women it’s seen as… sloppy. There’s a stigma with women. I can’t speak for all women, but we want to look good. We wear make-up, we present ourselves a certain way. We’re held to such a high standard of looks and how we act, and it sucks that there’s a lot people that don’t get help when they need it because they’re ashamed. I am glad I’m not anymore, you know. Because life is short, and fuck it, I don’t care what people think. Women hide it a lot. I know the women in my life, and when I would drink too much, we would hide things. We would hide bottles. Didn’t want anyone to see. Everybody knew. I remember saying to Jim Sclavunos, “Remember that time when I was secretly drinking wine in the studio” and he said, “Your teeth were red the whole time. There was nothing secret about it.” I think the more we talk about it, the less difficult it will become because it is just part of life. It’s just like someone being allergic to strawberries. Like depression. I mean who knew that if you are active about it, it’s something you can rid of, not something you have to live with. The worst feeling I ever had go through my head or thought go through my head was… when I was in my depression and alcoholism, I was thinking absolutely no will understand the way I feel, I can’t tell anyone about this, and when I felt that way I was like “Holy shit!” That was the darkest feeling I have ever had. But at some point, survival mode took over. It was like “This isn’t true, this your brain trying to kill you, and now how do we fix it.”

What song or lyric are you most proud of from the album?

I think the one I wrote with Jim Sclavunos on ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’. “You asked me once what good is love when hurt is just around the bend.” I mean the whole song to be honest. “You and I are not like that legendary bird that arises from ash/ We burn and crash.” I am very proud of that.

‘Sleepwalking’ is one of my favourite songs from the record. It reminds me of old Motown records; with a groovy and infectious sound which makes you want to dance but then when you just sit with the lyrics you suddenly realise how sad the song actually is. Would you be able to talk about the process of writing and recording the track?

We had the melody going and then the groove going, and it was just what I wanted to write about that day. Thinking about the death of your dreams, and you don’t want that to happen. It wasn’t deliberate. We were just jamming on that groove in the living room and the words just want came out.

Finally, what do you hope listeners will take away from the album?

I hope that it will be their favourite album in the whole world. That they’ll listen to it until the day they die, and they’ll pass it down to their kids and grandkids. Take that! (laughs).

Writer/interviewer: Emily Frances Algar



Sun 25th February – Glasgow, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut

Mon 26th February  – Manchester, The Castle

Weds 28th February – Dublin, The Soundhouse

Fri 2nd March  – Londo,n Omeara

Sun 4th March – Bristol, The Louisiana