Interview: Nicole Atkins
It seems more than any other state, New Jersey shares something inherently special with its musicians, as if there’s not much else to do except eat pork roll and visit neon-yellow Wawas at 3 in the morning, and we hold a special pride for our musicians that some may even call obsessive. Even Bon Jovi —I personally don’t care for him, and yet it seems the rest of the state loves him. Patti Smith only lived here for a few years, and none of those as a musician, but yet we somehow claimed her.
However, it seemed we were lacking something for the longest time until Nicole Atkins came along, and everything that is raw and true about our state lies within in her music, and in return, it’s as if her music courses throughout our veins. Originating from Neptune City, what makes Atkins unique is that she doesn’t need to wear lavish costumes or play piano on top of a 20ft bedazzled shoe to get your attention. It’s music at its most genuine and truest form; something almost only she understands today. There’s no silly affected delivery, no foolish quavering vocal trails fit for a diva, and after all, that’s what music is supposed to be, pure undiluted emotion, not how many pages you can fill up in a tabloid.
As brilliant as her debut Neptune City was, reaching almost operatic lengths, and simultaneously playing like both an ode and a goodbye to her old home, as she has said, something sounded off. The music, lyrics, influences, and emotions were all hers, but the polished veneer on top of it all wasn’t, sounding rather like the product of those around her. But after a switch of labels, as well as a switch of backing bands, her second album, Mondo Amore, plays like the record she wanted to make from the beginning, still taking those great ambitious strides, while playing rawer and bluesier than ever before. Her music has always sounded like it’s meant to be heard live, and while it must have been a pain to transfer the songs of Neptune City from studio to stage, Mondo Amore is, perhaps, the closest you’ll get aside from actually seeing Nicole Atkins & the Black Sea live.
It’s an amazing album, with songs like “The Tower” putting a twist on the idea of a Orbison’s buildup, taking it even further, and farther, and “Cry Cry Cry” does what kids from NJ do best: take an immense amount of influence from the soul of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia, and do it like only we know how, rawer and harder. It’s an absolute honour to present this interview today, and I thank Nicole Atkins for it and for giving New Jersey someone to look up to again. -Cody
Neotomic: Would you consider Mondo Amore a concept album, in the same way all of the song on the Band’s Brown Album had one overlying theme, and were all of the songs purposely written as one, or were the emotions from the subject matter so strong it pervaded all of your writing?
Nicole Atkins: I think it’s more the latter. What was going on in my life at the time was so intense that there really wasn’t any room in my head or heart to write about anything else other than the matters at hand. So in a way it would seem like a concept album but it’s more of a group of songs steeped in loss, confusion and acceptance that were all written at one specific point in my life. They were all written within 8 months. Sometimes for albums I go back and use older songs that I never put out before but I didn’t do that with this one. This is a document.
N: Is the concept album, or just a strong, full album as prevalent as it once was?
NA: I think that depends on what kind of music you’re listening to. Most of the “music,” that is popular in the mainstream is more about image, character, and dance moves. So singles are a good vehicle for that. But there are still an enormous amount of musicians and bands making real albums with real music and soul in them. You just probably won’t see them on TV.
N: Even the faster songs off the new record seem to be very emotionally motivated. Does something need to have a strong emotional connection for you to write about it, or could you write a hundred songs on Frankenberry if you had to?
NA: For me to be able to finish any song that comes to mind it needs to kind of emotionally devastate me inside in order for me to fall in love with it and finish it and put it out there. Sure I totally write a hundred songs about Franken Berry but I’d probably be stoned and singing them for my friends for laughs. I fucking love that cereal! But yeah, fast songs or slow songs, there’s no difference for me, they’re both gonna be heavy.
N: Do you believe a song should come from somewhere deep within or a strong memory for it to be genuine for yourself?
NA: I think there are many genuine sources songs. For me it always starts with a memory or experience but that always triggers some sort of lucid associations. Like an emotional collage. There are a lot of lighter thoughts or loving thoughts that are very sincere as well. They for me are just harder to write. Not because I don’t feel those things. It’s just very hard to write a love song that is happy without sounding like you fart rainbows. But I’m working on it.
N: Can the harder sound of the album be seen as a sort of meditative release for you, like Lennon’s scream therapy on Plastic Ono?
NA: I love your references. The harder sounds on this album are more of a reflection of the type of music I listen to. I listen to a lot of 70s metal and I wanted to use those sounds as a bed for these songs because I was upset and I wanted to get loud. I needed to shake some shit off of me.
N: Besides your new album being even better than your last, you successfully dodged the infamous sophomore slump. What do you believe is necessary to avoid such a slump?
NA: Well thank you very much. I’m glad you think that. I really don’t know how to answer that. I think on a basic level, you have your whole life to write your first album and then only maybe less than a year to write your follow up to that. I’d say in order to avoid putting yourself through all that pressure is just to be consistent in your writing. Keep writing while you’re touring your first record. Be aware of what’s going on.
N: While you now live in New York, you hail from the Jersey Shore. It seems all musicians, certainly yourself, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and even Frank Sinatra as well as the Four Seasons, seem to have a grittier sound. Do you believe in a New Jersey sound, and if so, what is responsible for such a distinct sound?
NA: I think the Jersey Shore sound is pretty renowned. There is a simple reason for us Jersey musicians having a grittier sound. It’s because we are scrappy and romantic as hell in equal measure. That’s just how you are when you are brought up in Jerz.
N: New Jerseyans living near Asbury Park, or at least the musicians, seem to share in a downtrodden romanticism with their home, much akin to Lou Reed’s with New York. Does a romanticism exists within the Asbury Park area, and if so, does it exist naturally, or have the musicians created it themselves?
NA: It’s a mixture of both. The Asbury boardwalk was the most beautiful place to be in the 1920s. After the riots burnt the whole thing down, what remained was a ghost town of burnt out amusement parks and cracked facades of mermaids and dragons. What also remained was a rock and roll scene made of legend and now a new scene with no matter what kind of genre of music you’re playing it has an underlying punk rock spirit. So the romanticism of Asbury is something that has existed for a very long time and the new musicians that live there are now creating their own folklore.
N: When living at the Jersey Shore, did you share what can only be described as the locals’ sheer “hatred” of bennies [tourists]?
NA: Hate is a strong word but let’s just say I find myself annoyed with the parking situations, yet utterly fascinated by the fashion choices.
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10 Jun The Lawn at White River State Park Indianapolis, IN
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