While standing at the base of Hunter Mountain shortly after Nicole Atkins’ Mountain Jam set I received a text that simply read, “At the bar”. After nearly three days of music and mayhem in the Catskills of NY, a stripped down interview at the bar was exactly what I needed, and apparently what Nicole needed, too.
A fun and relaxing two days of catching up and performing with old friends, like The Avett Brothers, had turned into a long, hurried day that began a little too bright and early for this blue-eyed siren. Nicole dragged herself out of bed at 7am that Sunday morning to “re-learn” the electric guitar parts of the songs she was going to perform later that afternoon. While Nicole writes and arranges each part of her songs, she leaves the playing of those parts to her band, The Black Sea. Unfortunately, her guitarist Irina was unable to make the trip to Hunter as she was still recovering at home from pneumonia. Prior to stepping on stage, Atkins was feeling a bit disorganized and unsure of how the set would come across to the audience. I assured her that while Irina’s absence may have changed the “feel” of the set, her flawless vocal performance and funny commentary (“this song is about punching a girl in the face“) between songs worked perfectly together and came off naturally to the audience. She let out a sigh of relief and said, “Good, I was worried!”
Nicole, who grew up in Neptune, NJ, wasn’t raised on radio pop and that was evident by the list of both well-known and obscure artists she rattled off as we discussed her musical influences. At the tender age of 12, Atkins picked up a guitar and began to play and write songs. While not musicians themselves, her parents always made sure to include music in her upbringing. Nicole fell in love with the music that echoed through her childhood, including the gritty blues of Joe Cocker and the psychedelic rock of Steve Winwood (she was quick to clarify Traffic-era Winwood, not cheesy-pop-era Winwood). She quickly developed a style of her own that was rooted in rock-storytelling, and found inspiration from hometown surroundings like the Shark River.
After playing gigs at local coffee houses during her high school years, Atkins left Neptune and headed South to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Illustration at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Nicole immediately immersed herself in Charlotte’s music scene, making friends with the local best-of-the-best, including members of The Avett Brothers, and joined various bands. Atkins smiled as she reminisced about her time in NC, “I basically paid thousands of dollars of tuition to play in bands.” Her musical tastes quickly expanded to include the country-folk-rock sounds of artists like Townes Van Zandt, Uncle Tupelo/Wilco, and Wiskytown/Ryan Adams. With these sounds came fresh ideas and a melding of old and new styles. In the years that followed, she returned home and commuted between NJ and NYC to continue to play and bring her new sound to the city.
Years passed and Nicole gained the attention of a few record labels in NYC. After a bidding war in 2006, Nicole signed with the major record label Columbia, and released her first album, Neptune City, a year later. After two years of touring and promoting Neptune City with her band The Sea, the money ran out and Atkins left Columbia as a solo artist again. On most accounts, the story read that Columbia cut ties and The Sea walked out on Nicole. However, Atkins quickly dispelled what may be written about that chapter in her career. “My band didn’t walk out on me,” she stated frankly. “I just couldn’t pay them, so they had to find something else to do. I was trying to figure out what to do after all of that happened. Some people suggested that I go back to school, and I was like, “and do what?” All I wanted to do was make my music, and that’s what I did.” A difficult break-up with her then-boyfriend soon followed, but she stayed committed to her music and reached out to other artists who would ultimately help her rise from the ashes.
Between 2009 and 2010, Atkins signed with a smaller independent record label, Razor & Tie, and began recording her second album, Mondo Amore. She wanted to produce an album that was completely about the songs and the story, rather than about “selling the sexuality” of being a female singer/songwriter. In an effort to combat what Atkins calls this “Anti-Cobain” attitude of women in today’s music industry, she enlisted a guitarist, bassist, and drummer to help her tell her story. “I can’t do this on my own. I need my band in order to get out the message.” Her new band, The Black Sea, helped her create what Nicole called a “slide rock epic album that plays out like a mafia movie soundtrack”. Mondo Amore took a departure from the string and piano based tones of Neptune City, and replaced them with Irina’s haunting guitar riffs. “Basically [Irina] turns my country songs into these psychedelic freak-out songs, and it works,” Nicole added with a big smile. When asked if the writing and recording process with Razor & Tie allows her more artistic freedom than with Columbia, she responded, “It really just depends. For the most part while I was at Columbia I had a great support system. But, this one woman was working with us at Columbia and she came to me one day and said, ‘Hey, you just went through a really bad break-up. You should use that for your next song’.” Nicole laughed and gave me a look that said “are you f**king kidding me, lady!” Anyone who pays attention to Nicole for even 5 minutes could predict that she doesn’t work that way. Atkins marches to the beat of her own drum, on her own time, and with her own rules.
Mondo Amore, which loosely chronicles some of the lessons learned from the dissolution of her personal and professional relationships, was released in February of this year. Nicole Atkins and The Black Sea immediately hit the road to promote and celebrate the album. However, touring funds and resources were not as fluid as they were when she was signed with Columbia. But this Jersey girl wouldn’t let that stop her. She called on the generosity of her fans to help supplement the cost of a touring van in exchange for hand-painted tote bags and access to her personal art webpage to view her paintings and illustrations. And guess what? It worked. She raised enough money to buy a van to cart around her band and equipment from venue to venue. “I painted 52 tote bags!,” she said through a laugh as she began scrolling through pictures of each of them in her phone. “Can you believe that!? The cool thing though is that the music has given me an intro back into my drawing and painting.” While she admits that drawing and painting don’t pay the bills, her artistic talents have helped fund a dream that has been in the works for a long time now. It is safe to say that she is the driving force behind her own professional fate. Money’s tight so she works her ass off to make sure good things happen. She takes time to connect with her fans and goes out of her way to make new ones. When she’s on tour, she sublets her apartment and crashes with family and friends to save money. Does this sound like the life and attitude of an entitled trust-fund baby? I don’t think so. She is a pure American dream.
If I could go back and witness the evolution of Atkins’ sounds and style, I would pay special attention to when and where she developed the soulful, rich tones of her voice. While her speaking voice is soft and demure on stage, her powerful singing voice is hauntingly beautiful and evokes instant emotion in her audience. Her lyrics are raw, honest, and cathartic, so much so that her audience finds their own stories being played out in her songs. Combine the voice with her songwriting brilliance, and you have a musical experience that stares you down and dares you not to feel, not to remember, and not to fall in love with her.
Per Nicole’s suggestion, we ended our interview with a shot of Maker’s and ventured off to the artists tent where vendors were giving away free Merrill shoes. Free shoes!? I suppose when you make a mountain full of people happy with just the sound of your voice and the words in your soul, you deserve at least a free pair of shoes. I thanked her and let myself out, surely not worthy of backstage schwag. My admiration for Nicole’s creativity and talent definitely grew that afternoon, but I was even more taken back and appreciative of how candid she was with me. Her ability to stay genuine yet persistent during her career has undoubtedly allowed her to create the life she’s dreamed of ever since she first picked up that guitar 20 years ago.
Thank you Nicole for your time and conversation at the bar. It’s going to be tough to top that interview!