brent johnson speaks with the supremely talented and supremely underrated New Jersey-bred singer-songwriter …
Maybe you’ve never heard Nicole Atkins’ music. Maybe you don’t know what you’re missing:
A singer whose voice is both powerful and heartbreaking, capable of rumbling through low notes one second and belting out siren-like wails the next.
A songwriter whose tunes are catchy and eclectic, jumping from torch ballad to driving rock to acoustic folk to eerie pop.
A performer whose witty banter and alluring hand gestures captivate a crowd.
In short, you’re missing one of modern music’s most under-appreciated artists.
Massive mainstream success has eluded the 33-year-old from Neptune, N.J. But so what? She has a rabid cult following and a pair of gem albums to her credit: 2007’s Neptune City and 2011’s Mondo Amore.
And in New Jersey? She’s a living legend around her home state’s lauded club scene.
Atkins lives in Brooklyn now, part of up that borough’s indie rock movement. But she and her band, The Black Sea, return to the Garden State on Saturday night for her annual hometown show at the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
In preparation, Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Atkins about studying art in college, why she’d like to sing like Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, and the new album she’s recording with a secret new guest.
Pop-Break: This show at the Pony has become a yearly thing for you. What does it mean to keep playing that stage?
Nicole Atkins: The Stone Pony is the first place I’d ever really been when I was younger. We’d go there for matinee hardcore shows. My entire family all lived in Neptune and Asbury Park. It’s kind of like: We have to play a show there once a year, you know? [laughs]
The Stone Pony is such a rock ‘n’ roll bar. Venues across the whole country that are the same size — The Stone Pony is the most rock ‘n’ roll of them all.
PB: When did you start singing?
NA: I’ve been singing my whole life. But it wasn’t until I was maybe 12 or 13 that I started playing guitar and listening to Joe Cocker and Traffic. Those kind of British blues bands got me into wanting to start a band and write my own songs. Then I got really into the whole Brit rock psychedelic scene — Echo & The Bunnymen, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I was always really inspired by old British blues and some of the darker noir British rock.
PB: You have such a powerful voice, but you also have great control of it. Did you ever take lessons?
NA: I took a few lessons a year ago when I was losing my voice on tour, but no, not really. But definitely the voice teacher I had on tour, she was a blessing. She taught me how to do a lot of things — preservation.
PB: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
NA: The first real song I wrote was called — oh God — it was called ‘Down Here At The Bottom.’
PB: Was it any good?
NA: Oh yeah, it was the best song in the world. [laughs]
PB: Is there a song you’ve written that you’re most proud of?
NA: There’s a lot of them. I would say my top four would be: ‘The Way It Is’ and ‘Neptune City’ and ‘The Tower’ and ‘Bleeding Diamonds.’ But I’m really proud of all of them — it just depends on what day it is.
PB: My favorite song of yours is ‘Hotel Plaster’ from your last record, Mondo Amore. What was the genesis of that?
NA: That was just about me being on tour all the time and kind of having a breakdown of my relationship at home. Trying to explain all the things to do with your next girlfriend that you didn’t do with me. [laughs] Being out on the road isn’t all hunky-dory fun. It’s very lonely. It can be lonely — when you’re staying in a shitty hotel, missing your boyfriend at home.
PB: In the lyric, you sing: “Take me back to the rocking horse.” What is that?
NA: That’s The Stone Pony. [laughs] I just wanted a different word for it.
PB: You wrote that song and a few others on the album with Robert Harrison of the underrated ’90s band Cotton Mather. How did you end up working with him?
NA: I actually worked for his record label that he was on in 2003, but I never met him. I left the label, and he left the label. When I was down at the Austin City Limits Festival, he wrote me a MySpace message. I gave him a shout-out in an interview I was giving when I was on my way down there. He said, “Thanks for the press that my band never got. I checked out your songs, and I really like them.” So we met at the festival and we started working together after that. We became really, really, really close friends and collaborators.
PB: You’ve collaborated with a lot of people — Dan Wilson of Semisonic, New Pornographers frontman A.C. Newman, among others. Was there anyone that made you really nervous?
NA: Well, there’s one I’m making my new record with right now, but I can’t tell you who it is. I was terrified when I went to go meet him. Because he’s in one of my all-time favorite bands. It has been one of the most awesome and beautiful collaborations ever.
PB: How deep into the record are you?
NA: We’re 80 percent done writing it. We’re going to record it in October. He’s going to produce it, as well.
PB: Is there something different about it than Mondo Amore?
NA: It’s completely different. It’s a lot more raw and dark but subtle and semi-electronic. But not in the techno way. I guess I’d call it surf noir.
PB: You studied illustration at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Do you still draw at all?
NA: Sometimes, but just for fun.
PB: Is it weird to think something you went to college for is something you don’t do much anymore?
NA: Not at all. Most of my friends who went to college, none of them are anthropologists. [laughs]
PB: What does one even do with an Anthropology degree?
NA: I have no idea. I have friends who were like, “I’m a sociology major.” Or a philosophy major. Now, most of them work in pharmaceutical sales. [laughs]
If you can go to college for art and still work in art afterwards, you are blessed. Actually, most of my art school friends are musicians. Which is a natural thing. If you think about bands like the Talking Heads, they all met in art school.
But visual art is something I still do with my band, I guess. I design our merchandise and our concepts for albums covers and stuff like that.
PB: So I’m going to ask you a few rapid-fire questions now — some of them to do with New Jersey. One, would you rather have a slice of New Jersey pizza or a New Jersey bagel?
NA: New Jersey pizza.
PB: Mets or Yankees?
NA: Ooh, that’s a tough one. Mets.
PB: Seaside Heights or Point Pleasant?
NA: Point Pleasant.
PB: Most underrated place in New Jersey to take a date?
NA: The Tides Hotel in Asbury Park.
PB: Favorite New Jersey diner?
NA: It’s not there anymore. It used to be the Gold Star in Neptune. But I’d say the Broadway Diner in Red Bank.
PB: Beatles or Stones?
PB: The Kinks or The Who?
NA: The Kinks.
PB: Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
PB: Full House or Saved By The Bell?
NA: Ooh, shit. That’s a draw. But I’d say Full House.
PB: Acoustic guitar or electric guitar?
PB: And finally, the quintessential New Jersey question: Bruce or Bon Jovi?
NA: Bruce Springsteen.
PB: Do you have a favorite Bruce album?
NA: Born To Run has always been my favorite. But I’ve been listening to Nebraska a lot lately. I only really got into Bruce’s music later in life.
PB: Really? In New Jersey, it seems like a requirement to live here — that if you don’t, it’s blasphemy.
NA: When I was little, I’d hear the song ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and cry and not know why. It was really moving. And I really liked ‘I’m On Fire.’ But I never really dove into his music until I was a senior in college.
PB: Have you met him?
NA: Yeah, a few times. He’s great. He’s one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met.
PB: Have you performed with him?
NA: We did a couple benefit shows together.
PB: You have such a tie to the Brooklyn music scene now. What is the difference between that and New Jersey’s music scene?
NA: The Brooklyn music scene is a lot more spread out. I almost feel like from my personal experience, the Brooklyn music scene is — the friends that I have in it anyway — a little bit more electronic-based and a lot more psychedelic and experimental. I think from the people I know in the Jersey music scene, it’s a little bit more classically based — classic instrumentation.
PB: New Jersey seems to produce an endless stream of musicians and actors.
NA: It does.
PB: Why do you think that is?
NA: I think it’s maybe the close proximity to New York and Philly. I just think the fact that we live on the beach makes our lives just so much better, so everybody’s a little more laid back to tell their kids, “Go for it, kiddo.” Also, I think the beach culture lends itself to having a better understanding of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all about the summer and the beach and romance and cars and rock ‘n’ roll and shows. It just feels that way. I think, too, even in the wintertime on the Shore, it’s so desolate and so inspiring for good writing.
PB: Do you have advice for musicians trying to make it in such a strange, new atmosphere for music?
NA: Be prepared to make hundreds of dollars. [laughs] I would jut say write songs that are honest to you. Be as you as possible and original as possible. Make some friends, find some people in your local scene that you look up to and admire, and try to figure out how they got what they got. And don’t just play the same place in New Jersey every week. Spread yourself out — play in Philly and play in Brooklyn as much as possible.
PB: If you had your own music fest — the Nicole Atkins Music Festival — who would you put on the bill?
NA: I would have Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Harry Belafonte, The Avett Brothers, Mark Lanegan, this band called Bear In Heaven, The Antlers, this band called Dungen, Tame Impala, and I’d have Neil Young.
PB: Is there a band you adore but can’t get your friends to listen to no matter how hard you try?
NA: I don’t think so.
PB: For me, it’s always been Roxy Music. My friends always think they’re strange.
NA: I love Roxy Music. Put them on the festival.
PB: If you could borrow someone else’s singing voice for one day, who would it be?
NA: Mark Lanegan.
PB: Why is that?
NA: He has the best voice in the world. It’s so cool.
PB: Do you have a set writing style?
NA: It happens all ways. The biggest point of it is when I’m on tour. There’s a lot of hunting and gathering, where I come up with a melody out of nowhere and record it into my phone — just have all these little scraps and lines that just come to me, sometimes in my sleep. I take a five-mile walk every day, and that’s when a lot of my ideas come. After a few days, I sit down and listen to everything I have and put it all together and try to make sense of me. But then there are other times when a song will come to me all at once. Most of the time, it’s a lot of building the bones and then layering all these different sections and parts of it.
PB: Was there a song of yours that just came out in five minutes, organically?
NA: ‘Neptune City’ did. ‘Maybe Tonight’ did, too.
PB: Is there a song that took forever to finish?
NA: ‘The Tower.’ That took me about three years to write. [laughs]
PB: Why so long?
NA: It started as a concept. I said I wanted to write a song called ‘The Tower,’ and I want it to be rhythmically built up like a tower, and then at the end I want it to all fall down, and I want it to be really melancholy. So it started with the idea of what I wanted first. But nothing came for months. Then, little by little, it started coming out. Then, I was on the treadmill, and two of these melodies that I had that never worked out on their own just snapped together and they stood together. And that was ‘The Tower.’ And I said, “I got it! Ah!”