When New Jersey songbird Nicole Atkins first met Tore Johansson, the producer of her 2007 debut disc Neptune City, it wasn’t exactly a match made in harmonic heaven. While the album turned out an ethereal, dark textured masterpiece—with the singer’s shivery Roy Orbison trill wandering ghostlike through dank catacombs of sound—she admits in retrospect that they hit upon something magical at the time. “But I don’t think we really knew what that was, because Tore was going through a tough time personally, and so was I,” recalls Atkins, who made said album for Columbia. “And we didn’t know each other. I was on a major label; there were all these expectations, and it was very anxiety-ridden.”
Future collaborations didn’t seem written in the stars. But Atkins and Johansson recently worked together again on her third outing, Slow Phaser, on her own Oh’Mercy! imprint. And when she looks back on all the obstacles she had to surmount to track it, she sighs, “I’m not angry or bitter, just because I know that I would not have made this record if things had turned out differently. When bad things happen to you, you hope that they’ll happen in order to let you be in a better place. And fortunately, that’s what happened to me.” And the story is a strange one.
The dark spell started when Columbia honcho Rick Rubin tinkered with Neptune City’s panoramic, picture-perfect sound before it was released. She found the experience more frustrating than anything else. “And all I really have to say about [Rubin] is, he just didn’t get it,” she says with PC precision. “He didn’t get me, he didn’t get my music, he had other fish to fry. And when he was telling me that he didn’t get my new stuff, and that he wanted me to back to the drawing board so many times, I was like ‘You know what? I don’t want to back to your drawing board—just let me go, let me just do my own thing.’” She got her wish.
Then Atkins pared her approach down even further on her 2010, Phil Palazzolo-helmed sophomore set Mondo Amore, settling into a serpentine, R&B/garage groove that raised her mausoleum-reverb voice from its resting place into relatively sunny daylight. That was made for Razor & Tie. “And I left that label, too,” she snorts, derisively. “I was going to make another record for them, but they kept dictating what they wanted me to write. And I was trying to please them, but then I realized that I was writing what I thought they wanted, and I thought ‘Wow. I’m going to put out a record that I’m not going to like. And for what? Just to make money? I’ve got talents. I’ve got a college degree—I could go work somewhere else to make money.’”
Indeed. Atkins studied illustration in college, and was making a decent living at it when she moved to New York from her hometown of—you guessed it—Neptune City, N.J. and wound up inking with Columbia for an introductory 2006 EP, Bleeding Diamonds, with her backing band The Sea. Post-Mondo, however, she floundered, while—it can be argued—slink-pop diva Lana Del Rey essentially purloined the entire Neptune City schematic for her eerily-Atkins-ish Born to Die. Again, the vocalist remains politically correct. She wasn’t angry about the apparent shtick-stealing, she says. “I was actually more pissed about how many people would come up to me and say that, because it made me feel like ‘Okay, I think you’re meaning to give me a compliment, but then it just reminds me that I’m poor!’ But I don’t want to trash her, because it’s really hard in this industry—as a woman, and as an artist—to be successful. So I say more power to her. And if my sound on my first record inspired anybody, great. I hope the kind of sounds I make inspires lots of people!”
Just when she was at her lowest, Atkins stumbled down a serendipitous path of good luck. A friend of hers employed at Sun Studios was heading overseas to Sweden to oversee a Sun compilation there. He invited her along, suggesting she meet up with Johansson again in his native Malmo. She did. “And it really felt…felt different,” she remembers. “So much time had passed, it was like ‘Wow! My old friend!’ And we wrote ‘Who Killed the Moonlight’ and ‘It’s Only Chemistry’ together.” She pauses for effect. “In one day!”
This pair of cuts ended up opening Slow Phaser. “Moonlight” undulates on a minimal bassline and billowy guitar chords, then segues into a smartly oblique, slightly off-kilter chorus that’s pure Neptune City. The organ/banjo sing-along “Chemistry” taps into the same carnival/calliope vibe of Atkins’ early experiment “Brooklyn’s On Fire!” yet feels more relaxed, like a chameleon finally growing comfortable in its original skin color. But Atkins still had more hurdles to leap. She had co-written some songs with Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos, plus a few on her own, but had no money to pay for studio time and no prospective label. Then Hurricane Sandy hit her family home on the Jersey shore. Hard. The entire first floor was flooded, and the house was without power for 18 days.
And that’s when Johansson e-mailed his protégé with a remarkable offer. He heard about her troubles—lack of finances—and invited her back to Sweden to his studio live/work space to complete her third album. Gratis. “He said ‘Just get a plane ticket and forget about it—little did Columbia know that they’d be getting two for one!’” she says. “And he just meant that he got paid really well for that first record. So he not only gave me a new start, he gave me a place to live at the time. And he sat me down and said ‘The best thing about your writing is when you sound like you. So don’t worry about anything—just sound like you.’ So the whole process of making records changed for me, because I was doing it with my friend, for myself.”
Before her two-month Swedish residency, Atkins had spent two weeks toying with a side project at a friend’s loft in L.A., located directly above a porn studio. When a shoot was on, they couldn’t use the bathroom, let alone leave the building. So she listened to his extensive prog-rock collection and became fascinated with Peter Gabriel’s genre-defying, post-Genesis solo bow. In Malmo, she played it for Johansson, who listened quietly, then revealed that Gabriel’s classic was the first record he had purchased with his own money as a kid. They had a new aesthetic template. With Johansson on bass, Cardigans guitarist Lars-Olof Johansson, keyboardist Martin Gjerstad and Atkins’ Asbury Park buddy Sam Bey on drums, they realized that adventurous vision.
Slow Phaser—named for a studio process Johansson frequently relied on—sweeps down into sinister pall, like the creepy-relationship dissection “Red Ropes” or the deceptively chiming, heretical chant “Sin Song” (in which she chirps “My God is a holy shit/ My God is a son of a bitch”), then flutters upward into the jazzy “Girl You Look Amazing,” a synth-poppy processional called “Cool People” and a Gabriel-surreal sonic experiment called “What Do You Know?” that shifts tempos with psychedelic aplomb. Ironically, the most Neptune City-ish track is the feathery melody “The Worst Hangover,” about the destruction wreaked by Sandy upon Neptune City itself. To piece all these disparate thoughts and sounds together, she consulted her songs, poetry, journals and two years’ worth of song snippets recorded on her iPhone. To launch Oh’Mercy!, she ran a resoundingly successful PledgeMusic drive.
Did Atkins, in effect, get the magic back? She laughs. “I don’t even know if I had the magic before this!” she replies. “But with Slow Phaser, I really feel like I found my own voice. And it really made me thankful that I have this musical family that goes beyond people just needing to make money. I have a musical family of people that really just want to make art with me. And that’s priceless.”