Words and Feelings: A Conversation with Nicole Atkins

Nicole Atkins released her fourth full length record, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, on Florence, Alabama’s Single Lock Records in 2017. It’s been critically adored and for good reason—with the effort she managed to create her own unique version of Soul that is rooted in the Americana to which fans of the North Alabama tastemaking label have grown accustomed. 

Before returning to Birmingham for the first time in five years, she spoke about that unique sound, getting sober, Nashville, her relationship with John Paul White, Single Lock Records and one wild night at The Nick.

Blake Ells: You went in a little bit of a different direction with Goodnight Rhonda Lee. It’s a bit of a new sound for you. What inspired that?

Nicole Atkins: I always experiment with all of my records; with different sounds and what I’m listening to at the time. I’ve had quite a few friends that listen to a lot of prog rock. It’s kind of my own version of Prog Rock. On my first record, when I started making the songs, my friend in town had a studio and he was always like, “All of your song sound like they were written for a 1960s musical.” So I stacked all of the backup vocals—because I couldn’t play lead guitar—and the label said, “Oh, she sounds like a girl group.”

I kind of wanted to get back to that, but to do a record in a very focused way, where the sound was more consistent and more aligned to what we sound like live as a band. I had a friend that I met while I was getting sober, and he said, “Girl, you’re Soul here. You’ve got to make a Soul record.”

So I worked for a few years to write my version of Soul music, not just regurgitate other people that have come before. I would take a Country song and put a Bobby “Blue” Bland groove underneath of it. So yeah, I worked for a few years to try to make it happen.

BE: How long have you been sober?

NA: It’s been over a year now. It was a year in February. 

BE: Do you feel like that made you better as a songwriter and performer?

NA: I grew up on the Jersey Shore. It’s a hard partying town. That’s just what everybody does. That’s what my family does. It was inhibiting my creativity because it was basically just making me depressed. “Maybe if I cut this out, I won’t be so depressed anymore.”

It definitely helped.

BE: That Soul sound also has an Americana sound. It’s something really unique that you did with this record. Did that influence come from your time in the Carolinas?

NA: That’s when I got turned on to songwriting. It’s a funny story; I was just telling my friend about this because she’s a lot younger than me. Remember when “Americana” was called “Alt-Country?”

BE: Yeah! And you actually wrote with Old 97s back in the day, right?

NA: Yeah, I wrote a song with Rhett [Miller] for the last Old 97s record. I had no idea he was going to put it on there; I thought we were just writing for fun because we had both quit drinking and we were both trying to bide our time before a show. But yeah, that was cool. That was a little college trophy.

Do you remember Sassy magazine?

BE: Yeah.

NA: Well, you’re a guy, so probably not. But Sassy magazine was a cool magazine for girls back in the ‘90s. And they had this article on, “Let’s introduce you to Alt-Country.” It was an article on, like, Flat Duo Jets and Whiskeytown. Wilco. The Jayhawks. And I read about it and I went out and got a Jayhawks record. I was in a band with another girl where we sang harmony. It opened me up to a whole different kind of music that was kind of Punk Rock and Country.  So when I was down in Charlotte, that’s all that me and my good group of friends used to do—sit out on the porch and play songs. 

BE: I grew up listening to Punk Rock, too, and now I listen to a lot of what we call Americana. What is that connection? What is that attraction?

NA: I don’t know. I think it’s youthful rebellion and wanting to get some anger out. Punk Rock wants to express that through feelings, and Americana wants to express that through words. 

The stuff I listen to the most, though, are ‘60s Rock records. 

BE: So that’s what you were into when you were in Jersey?

NA: That’s what I’ve been into since I was 3.The first thing I ever remember seeing was The Who’s Tommy on HBO when I was three and just being floored. 

BE: How did you connect with Single Lock for this record?

NA: When I first moved to Nashville, I got an offer to play at the venue—116 E. Mobile St. I thought that was weird because I’ve been touring for ten years and I’ve never played there. 

So I went down and I played a gig there and the guy that was running the venue was just the nicest guy you’ve ever met. It was almost off-putting. I’m from Jersey; I’m like, “What the [expletive] is wrong with this guy? He’s so nice.”

The next time we played, they threw this party for us at Billy Reid with snacks and stuff. It was all just so nice. 

He was talking to me and he says, “John Paul [White] has a label here. He started it all himself at Thirty Tigers and he wanted it all to be even more independent. They have their own distribution.” And yada yada yada. And I was like, “Whoa.” I was on Thirty Tigers, too, and I’m a friend and a fan of John Paul, and I couldn’t believe that he was able to do all of that. So I gave them a copy of a record and asked if they could pass it on to them.

They ended up coming to Nashville and having dinner with me. We all got along with them really well. I’ve been in every kind of label situation; from majors to indies to self-release. This has been the most—it’s a unique and actually pleasurable experience in the music industry. And that’s kind of rare.

Birmingham Stages: I know record deals work much differently these days, but is that a relationship that you hope to continue as you begin looking toward another record?

NA: Yeah, for sure.

Birmingham Stages: How did you end up in Nashville? Was it just easier doing what you do from Nashville? A convenience thing?

NA: Well, I married a guy from Scotland who was actually my tour manager. I had to move out of Brooklyn because I just couldn’t afford it anymore. The entire neighborhood of Williamsburg—which we all moved to because it was so cheap—became…you had to be super rich to live there. So I was living back in New Jersey, and I love the Jersey Shore, but Ryan had moved over from Scotland and was adopting all of my old hometown friends. He started working with this band—J.D. McPherson as FOH and tour manager. We became really good friends with them and they were all moving to Nashville. 

So I was like, “Okay, we’re all in our mid-thirties and we’re all going to move to a new town and make new friends together. Let’s try that out.”

We have a yard now. I’ve never had a yard. I mean, my parents have a yard. I’ve lived in New York for most of my adult life, and I’ve always only had a tiny little apartment. My parents won’t come visit because my dad says we have snakes in our yard. 

BE: You’re closing in on 40 now. Any reflections on life at such a milestone?

NA: When I was younger, I thought, “Forty. Oh my God. People that are 40 are so old.”

In my first band, I was 25 and they were all 35. And I was like, “Jesus Christ. They’re ancient!” 

It’s weird; I think age is pretty relative now. I definitely feel healthier than I’ve ever felt. I feel more creative than I’ve ever felt. And I still look pretty young thanks to bulletproof Italian genes.

It’s a cliché, but I wish I was thinking and feeling like I do now back when I was 25. When you’re younger, you torture yourself so much with self-doubt and bad decisions. And you get older and you think back and wonder, “I can’t believe that I spent so much time worrying about something that matters so little to me now if at all.”

BE: Do you remember the last time you were in Birmingham?

NA: Oh God, yeah I do. The last time I was there was 2013 and we were playing at The Nick. I’ve had some crazy times at The Nick.

BE: I assume those were much less sober times.

NA: Oh hell no. Yeah…they were…the woman that runs it would give us whiskey after whiskey, and we’re all like, “Yeah!”

It was someone in the opening band’s birthday and we had a dance party after the show. This great band was opening for us called Arc Iris and we switched the letters around on the marquee to say Narc Virus. And I remember shouting at them, “Ya bunch of [expletive] narcs! Get out of here!”

BE: Did you headline that night or did Narc Virus?

NA: It was our show. Narc Virus opened for us [laughs].

Nicole Atkins comes to Saturn on Wednesday, April 18. Indianola and Daniel Elias + Exotic Dangers open. Doors are at 7 p.m and the show begins at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $12 and can be purchased at http://www.saturnbirmingham.com.

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