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Published: 2016/10/25
by Matt Inman

Nicole Atkins Channels Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead

Tonight, Nicole Atkins will play New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, marking the first show in the city in three years for the New Jersey native. The singer-songwriter will be revealing much of her new album, Goodnight, Rhonda Lee, which she recently recorded in Fort Worth, TX’s Niles City Sound studio with former White Denim bandmates and Leon Bridges producers Austin Jenkins and Josh Block (and is now available for pre-order via PldgeMusic). Atkins says she wanted to take advantage of the spacing and old-school feel of the duo’s work with Bridges, and the results can be heard in new single “A Little Crazy,” which was released last week and can be heard further below.

Prior to the show, Atkins spoke about her new album and the three years she spent writing it—years filled with marriage, a stint of sobriety and a move from Asbury Park to Nashville—along with her love/hate relationship with the places she’s lived, her relationships and collaborations with the Jersey boys of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and the influence of the Grateful Dead on her new music.

Let’s talk about the new album. You started a PledgeMusic campaign, what has been your experience with that?

It’s doing really well. We did this without knowing who’s putting the record out yet. We didn’t want to wait on recording music, because it took three years to write it, and the guys from Niles City down in Fort Worth, they were available at very specific times. We thought we could get our fans to help us be able to do this now rather than wait another year, and it’s going really well. We do one of our first private house shows tomorrow, so that should be interesting.

What’s the plan for that?

My keyboard player and me are going to go and do it. We took a bunch of requests and we’re going to play some fun cover songs. Hopefully it will be cool. They usually tend to feed us pretty well at those things.

Have you done something like PledgeMusic before?

Yeah I did PledgeMusic for my third record and it went really well. I was able to put the record out myself and pay for all the videos and radio and PR, just through fans funding the record. That was really cool. We also did a Kickstarter to buy my van, on my second record. My fans are really generous and sweet. Every time I do it I think it’s not going to work, and then it does. I gotta start being more positive.

Have all the album’s songs been recorded yet?

Yeah we recorded it in four days, live to tape, and mixed it in three days, to tape, too. We did it in a cool, efficient, live, old-school way. The band was Robert Ellis and his band, and Austin and Josh from Niles City that did Leon Bridges’ album and were from the band White Denim. So we just worked from 10 a.m. to midnight every day with little breaks, going through all the songs and doing take after take until we found one we thought was the one. There weren’t many overdubs or anything.

Did you know these guys before?

No. I was a fan of the Leon Bridges record, ‘cause I loved the way it sounded. It sounded so old—you turned it on and you couldn’t tell it wasn’t an old record, and that’s what I really wanted. I wanted to make a record that sounded like a mix of Roy Orbison and Janis Joplin, but me. I wanted it to have that sound of the air in the room. I didn’t want any of it to sound clean.

So my friend was tour managing Leon Bridges, and I was going through one of those pit of despair moments—like, “Nobody’s gonna make my record”—and he asked if I had talked to Austin. I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me. It turned out he was a fan of my first record, so we had a lot of long, really lovely conversations, and we were so on the same page, artistically. So within a month, we just banged it out in like a week. It was crazy. I can’t believe it worked. I panicked before I went there. I had never met these people before—“What if this is horrible?” But just from the first song we did, it was like, “Finally. Finally we made some good choices.” [Laughs]

Did you have all the songs written already or was anything done in the studio?

Some lyric tweaks were done in the studio as we were going, but no—I took three years off and worked on writing. I did a lot of co-writes in Nashville, wrote a lot with my friend Jill [Tracy] from the Bad Seeds, and I also am a host on SiriusXM. They asked me to interview Chris Isaak, because I used to tour with him. I hadn’t seen him in like seven years, but I interviewed him and he said we should write some songs together. So I flew out to San Francisco and we wrote two songs that kind of became the cornerstone for the album: the song “A Little Crazy” that I sang on the show Roadies, and we also did this song, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,” that ended up being the album title track. That’s what the whole album is about, becoming more of the woman that you want to be. Other than this crazy, depressed little kite blowing in the wind. I took all that time, and for every song that was on the album I had like ten songs written. It was a cool way to do it that I had never done before. I’ve always been like, “Alright, I have 10 songs, let’s record the album.” I really wanted to have each song have its place as part of the bigger picture.

Did you have more music just because you had been writing for three years or was it more of a fruitful time for you as a songwriter?

It was a fruitful time, and I quit drinking for a while. I was just making stuff all the time. I really wanted to hone in on a specific sound. I write a lot of different types of songs. My last record was kind of a prog-rock record, and some songs are like indie or pop. For this, the two main favorite artists that I love and feel like my singing style sounds a bit like—Roy and Joplin—I wanted to make a record that sounded like a marriage of those two styles. It took a while but I think I nailed it.

Speaking of the last album, how do you think that this music compares to that and the ones before?

I think in tone, this record is more similar to the first record, Neptune City. But it’s more Memphis sounding and raw, kind of European. There’s not a lot of density; there’s a lot of room in this record, musically. That was a big thing I wanted to achieve, the space between the notes. That helped a lot with the story. Compared to the last record, which was really, “How do I make this prog-rock pop record?” I don’t think that record sounds like anything I’ve ever made. Every record sounds pretty different from each other. But live—once you put a setlist together and you pick the two or three songs from each album and put it together—you see how it all fits. It’s all part of the same record collection, you know? You get like a Peter Gabriel record on the same shelf as you’d have a Fleetwood Mac record.

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