Nicole Atkins has just come from a live broadcast in another room to take the call and make a confession that while it’s not her first rodeo – the New Jersey-raised singer who now lives in Nashville released her first album in 2007 – she still has a few things to work out with technology, online broadcasts and live performance.
“I totally gotta figure out a different way that I that I can sing the songs and not do my own lights at the same time,” she says ruefully. “I keep dropping them and breaking them.”
Working the switches and her instrument at the same time? Singing from the lighting rig?
Actually, it’s better than that. “I’m just singing and dancing and spinning this disco light around.”
Well, The Great Confinement has forced us all to learn new skills, new tricks.
Though in truth it’s some old tricks, some very old tricks, that have made Atkins’ name. The 41-year-old may have begun with indie rock but she has an uncanny knack of channelling, whenever she needs them, soul and blues and country and rock and pop like she had been going through puberty in the mid-1960s and absorbed everything.
You could think of it as walking along the Jersey Boardwalk, picking up whatever was spilling from the bars, her 2017 album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, packed with horns and husky soul and songs that made you check their engine numbers to confirm they weren’t refashioned originals.
Even so, you might still be surprised to see the name Bobby Vinton appear in her own press material, the ‘60s pop figure whose best known song is Blue Velvet cited as an influence on Atkins’ latest album, Italian Ice. Now Vinton isn’t someone likely to get mentioned much since the arrival of colour TV, unless you’re talking to David Lynch, but then a big sweeping teen drama ballad like Atkins’ new These Old Roses that could easily have been done by Vinton (or Bobby Vee or Bobby Rydell - or well-quiffed boys not called Bobby) doesn’t appear often now either.
“I wish it did,” she says. “That kind of music I grew up with. My family are all Italian Americans, on my mom’s side of the family, so that kind of music still to this day is on in their car. When I used to DJ at bars, young kids would be with their parents and they would want a Katy Perry song but if you play a song from the ‘50s they would never say turn it off. Everybody likes that kind of music. I feel like if I don’t do it, it might go away so I try in all my songs to use a little bit of that style.”
And there is no place here for any claim that this was some low point in throwaway popular music either. Just think about the layers, musical lyrical and personal within some of those songs: Italian Americans (or, in the case of Vinton, Poles) who had to be re-moulded and renamed to be like your average middle American; subtle political, social and sexual messages would be underpinning some tracks; two minute pop songs drawing from operatic and folk roots.
The natural extension of that layering is Atkins’ In The Splinters which starts like a bag of nails hidden inside a big sweet cake but feels like the kind of empowerment ballad Connie Frances or Brenda Lee needed more of.
“Since I started writing music and producing it with that sound, that’s always been the first thing that I try to do: let’s make music for unhappy people that sounds happy,” Atkins says. “Or if you’re writing about heavy stuff, like this record is about the state of the world, which was insane before the pandemic, it has to be danceable or smoothable.
“I think it’s important too when you’re writing about tragedy or heavy things for part of it to have hope.”
She has been writing about personally heavy things for a while, that last album drawing heavily from the experience of giving up drinking for example, but it’s not entirely a drive for confession.
“I’m not much for small talk,” Atkins says. “That’s how I find out who are my real friends: I go to a party and boom boom boom, and whoever doesn’t walk away [is a keeper]. I don’t really [tolerate] too much small talk. If I get to a point where I can’t handle it anymore I just gotta go to the bathroom all of a sudden.”
How tolerant is Atkins more generally? For example, how much will she allow for the not particularly bright, the anti-vaxxers and paelos, the Trumpians and racism/climate/economic denialists?
“I’m all for disassociation and making up fantasies in your mind to help yourself get over things that might be had to deal with, for sure. I envy them in a way, because it’s hard to be involved and feel a lot of empathy all the time. But you can really only show people a good way to be by doing it. I try not to personalise it too much, that’s their trip, but I’m a learner and since I don’t assume I know everything, that keeps me kinda free.”
Atkins said a few years ago that she had lost the excitement about the things happening in her career and life and she had to “work on myself”. Some people sound like they’re reading from a press statement drafted for them, Atkins doesn’t.
“I remember thinking about even before doing press for Goodnight Rhonda Lee, if I wanted to discuss myself getting sober or not, but I couldn’t really say was about anything else, because it wasn’t,” she says. “It was the hardest time in my life and the songs were written in the midst of several relapses and were kind of like the only thing good coming out of my body and my mind at that time.
“With this record, it was kind of the first record that I’d written that wasn’t in a time of personal conflict, within myself. It was more me seeing what was coming at me and my family and my friends, from outside, from things beyond our control, and trying to create something out of those situations that would make me personally feel better.”
She needed to go through the personal rehabilitation before being ready to go down these roads though.
“For sure. Even like with Hurricane Sandy, which In The Splinters is about, coming off of that from years away. The tornado that just hit here in Nashville, I remember thinking ‘man, I’m really glad I went through the hurricane’ because at the time, and for years, it messed me up so bad.
“Thinking about how everything you grew up knowing is now changed forever. It’s still there, but it’s changed. And that feels okay now. It’s time, it’s time that teaches you those things, and you put them in your little soul bank and the reminder that when bad things happen you are not going to disappear. You’re not gonna lose your mind; you can get through things.”
What brought that Hurricane Sandy experience to her mind again when writing the song?
“It’s been waiting for the right moment. I wrote the music for that song in 2010 and I always loved the chords and the melody but I never had words for it. When I was singing it to myself it always sounded a bit too dramatic, almost like kind of Broadway - it still sounds kind of Broadway but it sounded too Broadway-ish then,” Atkins explains. “Then I became friends with Hamilton Leithauser, from The Walkmen, and I heard him sing and I could imagine him singing my song in his voice, so I asked him to help me write the song.
“When I said ‘On any other night/I’d wish the world would end/But much to my surprise/I’m swept away again’ he came at me with this line ‘I stand, all slanted now/A statue on one leg’ and it was like boom! It all just kind of fit. Like what does that mean? Holy crap, that reminds me of how Hurricane Sandy affected my life. And I was thinking about childhood memories like my parents used to have parties and at 4am their friend Bobby would always play piano and play that Southside Johnny song I Don’t Want To Go Home, and I figured, hey I should have my own version of that, make it like a big bar room, spinning a pint glass around-type singalong song, about weather tragedies.”
Of course what will make it a perfect circle is if Atkins finds herself in 20 years at a party where at 4am someone called Bobby – because there’s always someone called Bobby - starts playing In The Splinters while the kids look on from upstairs.
They don’t write them like that anymore? Not true, obviously.
Nicole Atkins’ Italian Ice is out now.