Interview with Nicole Atkins
Sometimes interviews are conducted within pretty firm start/stop timeframes and sometimes those parameters are a little more lax because your interviewee's Scottish van driver is outside endlessly looping Times Square for hours looking for a parking space. While I certainly felt for the parking predicament that was transpiring, it did afford me the opportunity to have a bit of a lengthier chat with this talented indie psych-rock singer-songwriter. With a gigantic voice and a flair for the theatrical, Nicole Atkins has produced a handful of albums that demand attention and defy categorization. Her newest release, Slow Phaser, continues in this tradition and pushes her already expansive creative boundries out even farther.
As a NoiseTrade exclusive, Nicole compiled A Nightmare Before Summer, a compilation featuring a couple new songs from Slow Phaser, a couple songs from her previous releases Neptune City and Mondo Amore, and "Running In Place," a beautiful unreleased demo from 2009.
I spoke with Nicole during a busy day in the heart of New York City and she couldn't have been nicer or more transperant in her answers. We dug into Slow Phaser, her songwriting process, her transition from major label to independent production, and the connection to her fans through her successful crowd-funding venture.
NoiseTrade: For Slow Phaser, you returned to Sweden and worked with Tore Johansson, who produced your debut album Neptune City. What drove the decision to work with him again?
Nicole Atkins: Hurricane Sandy, actually. I was doing some demos with my friend who runs Sun Studio in Memphis and he got a call to go to Sweden to work on a compilation. He asked if I wanted to go and mentioned I could meet up with Tore again. We met up and Tore asked me “What song ideas do you have? Are you still having crazy dreams?” I have really, really vivid crazy dreams and I was shocked that he had remembered that. I played him a song that I had written at my label’s request to “write a hit song” and he said “Oh cool, you wrote a hit song. That should be for Bon Jovi. Play me a song that’s more ‘you’.” I did and we just kind of went from there.
Almost a year later, Hurricane Sandy hit and Tore emailed me asking about me and my family and how we were. He also asked me about doing a record again. At this time, I didn’t have a label or any money and he said “Your plane ticket’s covered. Let’s make a record.”He gave me a place to live and eventually, a record. This time we weren’t recording as “producer and artist,” but more as friends. We just played. Whenever I thought about “home” – what Hurricane Sandy had done to my “home” – Tore just encouraged me to play.
NoiseTrade: Being that your last album Mondo Amore was recorded independently after you left Columbia Records, what did you learn from that recording experience that you brought into this one?
Nicole: For that record, I was deeply embedded in an awful break-up and I was concentrating more on the style of what I wanted the music to sound like, more so than what I really wanted to say. I wanted it to sound like the music I listen to, the psychedelic rock that I love.
With the new one, I just wanted to be unafraid to say what I felt and be able to just play. I love musical theater and I always come from that place. Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the best rock records of all time, you know? I got to play Judas in high school – beard and everything – and that taught me how to be a singer. Theatrics weren’t smiled upon when I was on Columbia and things get reviewed – “she’s too theatrical, she’s too loud.” I would listen to all of that and think I should quieter or whatever. After everything that happened, I just got to the studio in Sweden and all the little things on my voice recorder and in my head made sense. I learned to just have fun on this one.
NoiseTrade: In one of the most accurate album description I’ve ever heard, you’ve described the sound of Slow Phaser as “dark, desert disco rock.” Was that one of the ideas swirling around going into the recording process or did it just start to develop as you went along?
Nicole: Yeah, my friend heard the record and described it as “dark, desert disco rock with Fraggles.” That all just happened as we were recording it. A song like “Who Killed the Moonlight,” I brought it in one way and then Tore put a disco beat under it and then I was thinking of Ennio Morricone modulations and big choruses… None of it makes sense individually but it all came together.
NoiseTrade: Speaking of the disco elements –the danceable drums, bouncing basslines, handclaps – were there any specific bands or albums that you were drawing inspiration from during the writing process?
Nicole: There’s only really like two albums that I heard while I was writing that may have inspired some of the direction of the songs. Maybe some Peter Gabriel, but for the most part it was very self-indulgent. Even when I was writing with other people, we really just talked about my personal life and wrote about it.
NoiseTrade: You’ve got some really cool gang vocal moments on this record – for example, the call-and-response sections in “It’s Only Chemistry” and the gothic choir in “Red Ropes.” Do you hear those elements in your head as you’re writing these songs or do they just pop-up once you’re in the studio?
Nicole: The first song I did with Tore was “It’s Only Chemistry” and he came up with the gang vocals on that. It’s funny because they’re all Swedish and I thought they sounded like trolls (laughs). I love Hobbit-rock! “Red Ropes” was a song I wrote with Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grinderman), and when Tore sent back the mix with the choir in it, I was like “Whoa!” It totally made that song.
NoiseTrade: There is an interesting relationship between the energy in the instrumentation and the restraint in the tempos that allows the listener to still catch all the lyrics. Is that an intentional goal for you as a songwriter?
Nicole: Yes, it totally was. I told Tore that my first record was so dense and such a wall-of-sound – which I loved - but this time, I really wanted what I had to say to take the forefront. For example, I wanted four instruments to be doing the most important things they could be doing and not need anything else. I didn’t want any core instrument to be unimportant. Also, Jim was influential in me not going for it, vocally-speaking, all the time. He talked to me about occasionally laying back and not always trying to impress with the prowess, so to speak.
NoiseTrade: Congratulations on having a crowd-funding success story with Slow Phaser. How was that overall experience for you and how did it shape your relationship to your fans?
Nicole: It’s beyond amazing! What it has given me is something way more than just the ability to put my record out. Even on a confidence level, it’s about knowing that there are people who want to hear your record, and not just a label wanting to put it out. It’s about more than being commercially viable, it’s being emotionally viable - not just for yourself, but for your fans.