Pop Singer Nicole Atkins Talks About Her New Album And Writing Music In A Porn Studio
No other singer/songwriter has probably worked as hard as Nicole Atkins.
The New Jersey pop artist just released her first album in three years, Slow Phaser, on her own label after years of dealing with majors and indies who didn't share her musical vision.
It seems to have paid off: Slow Phaser impeccably showcases Atkins' wide array of musical influences, from the dark discotheque vibe of album opener "Who Killed the Moonlight?" to the old country twang of "Sin Song," to the lush, layered harmonies of album closer "Above As Below." The songs are anchored by Atkins' low and sultry voice, which sounds similar to Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.
Atkins and her band are in the middle of a nationwide tour that will make a stop on March 5 at the Bootleg Theater. Atkins tells us that she's going to bring a great performance which, in her words, promises to be "like a fully crafted theatrical disco psych rock show."
LAist talked to Atkins while she and her band were at a Subway somewhere in the frigid winter wasteland of Montana ("I've never been more excited to eat at a Subway in my life," she says). She talked to us about starting a record label, discovering Peter Gabriel while living above a porn studio and how Hurricane Sandy shaped her music.
Tell me how you've evolved as a musician over the years since your first album, Neptune City, came out. I believe I've become a better songwriter, a more confident songwriter and able to put together a more fully formed rock band that sounds like a unit rather than just a bunch of random people playing my songs. I think I've just evolved more by putting on an actual show. Slow Phaser doesn't seem like, "here's a song, here's a song, here's a song," it feels like a real album to me.
You created your own record label, Oh'Mercy!, after stints on major and indie record labels in the past. You also funded much of the album through fan support. How has that experience been for you? It was really humbling to know that I have fans that wanted to contribute and help me put out my own record. I just got so sick of creatively going back and forth between a major label and an indie label, trying to shape the way that I make music with someone with musical tastes that I find questionable to begin with trying to tell me what to write. And I was writing those kinds of songs and I just stopped for a second and I realized that I was about to put out a record that I didn't want to listen to.
I was told for a long time that if I was able to do something that I didn't necessarily like but it could get me in front of a lot of people, then I would be able to do whatever I wanted. To be out playing a song that you don't like that much for the rest of your career is not something I can get down with. So I decided to start my own label. It's a lot of work, but it's really rewarding work. I don't really get to sleep much, but it's good for the betterment of the music, because I respect the kind of music I listen to so much and the way it's made that I just don't want to compromise that.
Tell me about the process of creating Slow Phaser. What were your biggest musical inspirations for the album? I actually spent a lot of time in L.A. with a friend of mine. But before that, I spent some time in London and then Brooklyn writing with Jim Sclavunos from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, we co-wrote a bunch of songs for a good part of a year. Then I went out to L.A. to spend some time with my friend, and he turned me on to a bunch of prog rock, like a bunch of Italian Disco and '70s prog rock records and that was really a catalyst, like that first Peter Gabriel record, he played it for me.
I was living in a porn studio, and we got kind of stuck in there for two weeks because when they were shooting a scene you couldn't go to the bathroom or use the kitchen. So we got kind of stuck in the loft of a porn studio listening to music, writing music, listening to that first Peter Gabriel record and realizing that these are pop songs, but these are fucking weird pop songs. They tell a really beautiful melodic story that dip and dive into weird pockets of sounds, and it blew my mind and made me realize that that's always what I've been trying and wanting to do.
And when I got to Sweden to make the record right after that, I said to the producer Tore [Johansson], "Listen to this first Peter Gabriel record," and he's like, "This is one of my favorite records of all time. This is exactly the kind of world that your writing has always lived in."
Oh yeah, speaking of Tore Johansson, he also produced your first album, Neptune City. What was it like working with him again? Well at first I just considered him a motherfucker, we just fought the whole time. But this time around, when I was visiting friends in Sweden, I visited him and we caught up and wrote ["Who Killed the Moonlight?"] and it was just like, "Wow." Originally, I wrote the chorus as a Kurt Vile bummer-folk song and we started working on it and he put that disco shit underneath it and it just sounded like that late '70s cocaine disco, not poppy disco. It sounded like really dark and sinister shit.
It just felt like two friends making music, we didn't have that dynamic before. After Hurricane Sandy, he emailed me and said he was sorry about what happened to my town and offered me to come out and make my record for free. He gave me a place to live and make my record and we just spent the winter in the snow, just geeking the fuck out and trying to push the weird sounds that were in my head as far as possible without—not to say without editing them, but not being afraid of the sounds that were a little bit weirder and more theatrical.
You mentioned Hurricane Sandy, and I understand it had a huge impact on you when you made the record. Hurricane Sandy just blanketed the themes throughout the record, even in "Girl You Look Amazing," [with lyrics like,] "The empty mind in the gutter, you're discovering all the things you missed," it just had so many triple and quadruple meanings after that.
I've never been more focused on making a record before this one. I mean, I was always focused on my other ones, but I've never felt so consumed by it and focused on it. After losing part of your house, your neighbor's house and all of these buildings and landmarks that you grew up with that you always thought would be there, you realize that the only thing that lasts is the art that you make or the songs that you make or the output that you do that can exist in the air and not really need a specific ground to stand on.
Atkins and her band will be playing at the Bootleg on March 5 with Arc Iris. The show starts at 9 p.m. and is 21 and over. More info can be found here.