By Stacey Brook
Nicole Atkins’ music has always leaned heavily on early 70s psychedelia and heaping doses of gutteral blues and leaping, honeyed soul, but her latest album Mondo Amore is also infused with compositional experimentation that makes for an exhilarating concert experience. Songs like album opener “Vultures” sweep you out and back in fits of lull and crash, like a blustering sea storm. On “Heavy Boots,” Atkins’ cryptic lyrics and coppery voice, at once coy, seductive, and pleading, simultaneously lift your breath to the top of your chest, and pull your heart down like a thousand anchors. And when Atkins finally unleashes the full power of her Joplin wail on “The Tower,” you aren’t ready for the blinding light it shines. You need a pair of cataract glasses to see this woman live.
Part quick-witted Jersey girl, part North Carolina flower child, and part savvy, social Brooklynite, singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins curses, loves, and leads in equal measure. A high priestess of what the soul-driven chanteuse has termed, “psychedelic crooner blues,” Atkins’ latest album, released by Razor and Tie, documents the breakup that prompted her most recent exile from her home state of New Jersey, back into the arms of McCarren Park. The album also marks her newfound freedom from her old label Columbia Records, and the formation of new backing band, The Black Sea, whose musical dexterity adds a darker, denser hue and effortless fluidity to Atkins’ brooding compositions.
Before a recent show at Music Hall of Williamsburg, I asked the singer about the new album, her early influences, and life in Brooklyn.
SB—How long have you been writing and performing music? NA—I picked up the guitar when I was 12 after I got the Led Zeppelin box set, and I started writing my own songs when I was 21 and graduated college. I was always in everyone else’s bands when I was in school in North Carolina. I was only able to write my own songs when I graduated and moved back to New Jersey and realized that nobody lived there anymore. I had to find something to do.
What was the inspiration for that first set of songs? I mostly wrote about a bunch of my friends who were on drugs. North Carolinian sensitive drug addicts and the women who love them.
Much of Mondo Amore was about your most recent breakup. Were they difficult to write??All of the songs on this record took a long time to figure out what they wanted to be. The hardest one to write though, was probably “Vultures,” the first song. It was just one rhythmic chant.
It doesn’t even have a chorus. It’s got so many parts, that it’s more like a little mini-movie than a song. Also, it wasn’t about a boy. It was about the way different people’s parents bring them up to fear different things. Whether you grew up to fear getting sick all the time, or not having money, or the government. How you could work so long and so hard for something, whether it be a career or love, and how it could not work out for you. Instead of getting super depressing, I had to put that last verse in the end, saying “Keep looking up.” It’s me talking to myself at that time. Most of these things are just me talking to myself.
Are you an optimistic person? Yeah, definitely, cause if I wasn’t, shit would just get mad dark. If you put a record out and then you get dropped [from your label]—most people that’s happened to kind of stop making music. But I think that’s more of an ego thing than an art thing. If you love what you do, you’re going to do it regardless.
When you were dropped from Columbia Records, how did you approach that challenge? They just wanted me to keep writing more songs, and I already knew I had the record I wanted to make. So, when I got the phone call, it was kind of like, “Sweet, what’s next?” And then I went back to Jersey and bought myself a bottle of champagne.
Were you ever worried about revealing too much of yourself on such personal albums? No, because I don’t write straight-forward lyrics. If it sounds like it’s about one thing, it’s usually about eight other things.
Is the symbolism in your lyrics influenced by anything in particular? I grew up across the street from a river, and down the street from the beach, so there’s always water. Water and fog themes. Bird themes. Just because it was what I was around. A lot of death themes. The Sicilian side of my family is obsessed with death and dying. It’s all they talk about—it’s fascinating. They romanticize terrible situations. And I guess that’s why it’s pretty easy to keep light about dark shit.
Who were the first musicians you liked growing up? The first musician I ever became ridiculously attached to was Steve Winwood. And as far as non-solo stuff, Traffic was my first favorite band. But the first music I got attached to was Michael Jackson, and, when I was old enough to think for myself, it was Cream. Cream’s “Wheels of Fire,” and Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die,” were my two favorite records.
Where does the soul influence come from? I just love soul music. At my family’s house, it was just a pretty steady stream of old country music, and soul music, and doo-wop. You know, all that Jersey shit. Frankie Valley. But Roy Orbison and Jay Black and the Americans, The Righteous Brothers—those were our main people around the house. My dad and mom were also really into Frank Zappa, which was weird because you wouldn’t look at them and think they would be. A boy made me a mix tape in the 9th grade, and there was a Frank Zappa song on it. My dad pulled over the car and was like, “Ooh, where’d you get this?”
How did you find your new band members? Irina (Yalkowsky) my guitar player and I have been friends for eight years. We both moved to New York around the same time. And years later, right around the same time, we both broke up with long-time boyfriends, as well as both of us breaking up with our bands. I told her I wanted to start a solo project and she was like, “I want to play in your band!” She brought the bass player (Jeremy Kay) along, who brought along our drummer (Ezra Oklan). And once we got in a room together, it was the easiest musical situation I had ever been in because, when you play with people—especially with drummers—you’re always telling them “Oh, this should be slower, this should be this, this should be that.” And with these guys I don’t really have to say anything—they just kind of do it.
Are there any particular places in Williamsburg you frequent? Pinkerton. It’s a wine and beer bar that’s on N. 6th and Havemeyer. It’s just such a chill place, and the owner’s super nice. And down the street from that is a pizza place called Best Pizza, and that place is the jam. The owners are all from the Bronx, and they listen to 90’s hip-hop all day and drink Four Lokos. I love that place, and I love Marlow & Sons for food, when I can afford it.
You have a very distinct sartorial style—sort of boho 70’s goth chic. Do you shop in the ‘hood? I don’t really shop—I’m more into trading. Although, I go to Artist and Fleas every weekend. My guitar player has a booth there selling vintage. She also has a friend named Jackie who sells there for her line called Queen of Hearts, and she makes all of these awesome stone and leather pieces. She made me a couple of pieces, so I always wear them on tour.
What do you want people to take away from your music? Warmth and understanding??I guess that’s what I found in writing it, just as far as the sounds and the keys and the tones and the arrangements. It’s melancholy, but it has this weight or fog—this sound that kind of holds you. And it’s not accusatory or blaming, it’s seeing things from both sides, which was the coolest thing. It made me feel very mature.
Nicole Atkins and The Black Sea’s next local gig will be at Webster Hall in NYC, on September 29th.