Catching Up With... Nicole Atkins

Music Features Nicole Atkins
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Some break-up records are about a boy. And some are about a girl. But Nicole Atkins’ new album Mondo Amore is about a boy, a band and a record label. Three years after her Columbia Records debut, she’s rediscovering the joy of independence, recording her new album with the help of fan donations and touring with a soul sister on guitar. Paste interrupted Atkins in the midst of songwriting inspiration.

Paste: Where are you right now?
Atkins: I’m in my apartment. I just wrote a new song, literally five minutes ago. I’m stoked.

Paste: That’s fantastic, what inspired that?
Atkins: I had some time to kill and I was trying to figure out how to play a Smiths song, and…I can’t. I just can’t get the strumming pattern of Johnny Marr down, so I just started playing around and just came up with a song that came together in literally five minutes, and it’s so badass. I’m afraid that it already exists, you know? And the chorus is so catchy that somebody already wrote this.

Paste: So did you write just the tune, or did you write words to it?
Atkins: It’s going to be called “You Are Mine,” but I have a bunch of fake words going right now. So I guess after I get off the phone with you I’m going to write the words.

Paste: Well hopefully you won’t lose it here in the conversation.
Atkins: No no no, I taped everything, and started making notes it’s cool. I just haven’t written a song in like a month, so I’m like “Yay.”

Paste: I want to talk to you about the new record, but first I just kind of want to start back what’s been going on since Neptune City. What’s happened in the last couple of years that’s made you think “Ah, I shouldn’t be doing this with Columbia anymore” and breaking those ties.
Atkins: I think it was when my A&R person—you know, she wasn’t who I originally signed up with—we just creatively didn’t really see eye-to-eye. And when I met with Rick Rubin in August, he was like, “Alright, write me 40 songs by November.” And I was like, “Uhh, shit.” I kind of went insane, and every song I’d give to my A&R lady, she was like, “You need to be up tempo. Try writing a song where you repeat a word over and over again.” It just got to be so maddening that I was like, “This isn’t why I started doing this,” you know? So once that started happening I was like, “I really don’t think this is the right place for me to be.” I like to write the songs that I like to write without thinking of how can I make sure something’s so dumbed down that everybody will get it, you know?

Paste: Yeah, but on the new album, the song “Cry Cry Cry” isn’t dumbed down, but it certainly is up-tempo and repeats a word. Did that come out of that process?

Atkins: It did, and yeah, that was one good thing about it. It was funny because even with that song they were like “Um, it’s ok,” and I was just like “It’s ok? It’s the catchiest song in the world.” And it was cool too, though, how that song came about. They wanted me to try writing with other people, and the guy that I wrote that song with is—do you remember the band Cotton Mather?

Paste: Yeah.

Atkins: They were like my favorite band in the world, and I ended up meeting Robert [Harrison] when I was at the Austin City Limits Festival. I wrote that song with him, and we just really struck up what will probably be a lifelong writing partnership. We write well together.

Paste: Throughout this whole process too, The Sea became The Black Sea with some new players. And now you have a new band?

Atkins: Yeah, but I’m keeping the name The Black Sea because things are just going to get too confusing.

Paste: Well what happened with that? How did that all come to pass?

Atkins: Well the old band, you met them when we came into the Paste session, right?

Paste: Yeah.

Atkins: They were kind of a temporary band just because they all had their own bands in New Jersey. So it was mostly to do that Avett Brothers tour to start the record on, but you know it was kind of known that it wasn’t like a permanent situation. It was kind of like a fill-in thing until I found real band members .

Paste: So tell me about them, who’d you find?

Atkins: Well, the girl that I have playing guitar with me, her name is Irina Yalkowsky. I’ve been friends with her for like eight years. I met her when she was in the East Village and I first moved over here. I always heard, “Yeah Irina is a guitar player,” and I was like “Yeah okay.” Not to be sexist, but you know I’ve never seen a girl shred that way in my life. She was in the Brian Jonestown Massacre doing that tour they were doing around the big movie [Dig!]. And she just plays blues-psychedelic slide guitar like a beast. I’ve never seen anything like it. So her band broke up around the same time mine did. Our lives have always been kind of parallel. You know, we both broke up with our boyfriends at the same time, and we both broke up with our bands at the same time, and after not seeing each other for a few years found each other. So she joined the band, and brought a a rhythm section. They used to be in the band Ambulance LTD, [bassist] Jeremy [Kay] and [drummer] Ezra [Oklan]. It’s a really cool setup now. It doesn’t have as much instrumentation as the original Sea had, but it almost doesn’t need it—like a really really tight little three-piece.

Paste: It’s been three years since the last studio album. I know the album was maybe going to come out last year and it’s kind of gotten pushed to this year. Has that all been just going back-and-forth with Columbia?

Atkins: Well, you know, once me and Columbia parted ways I made the record with my own label without a dime. We finished it in July, and that’s when I signed with Razor and Tie, and so it just made sense timing-wise [to wait until after] the holidays. We didn’t want to come out right before Christmas. It was more of a marketing logistical thing, but I’m kind of glad that it didn’t come out last year. Just because the way that the songs kind of took shape—it took some time, but after going back and reworking them and reworking them, it really turned into exactly what I wanted. So nothing sounds premature.

Paste: Had you recorded some of these songs differently during the process with Columbia?
Atkins: Yeah, just in demos. There’s one song in there called “War is Hell,” and it was funny because Columbia was like “tempos, tempos need to be fast!” So the song was like super-super fast, and once I got into the studio with Phil [Palazzolo], he was like “Let’s pretend that the song is in Twin Peaks and it’s super slow. Just slow it down to a crawl.” And we did it, and it changed the song so much. It made it like “Whoa, this is a serious song,” it’s like a Fonzie ballad, a Fonzie dancing ballad. And then we got Jim James from My Morning Jacket to sing the guy part on it. So it went from this like up-tempo Tom Pettyish pop song to this monster ballad about love gone wrong. And when we demoed the song “Hotel Plaster,” we did it at my friend Jeff’s in his living room because he had Pro Tools. As a joke, we came into his living room studio the next day to listen to it, and he recorded a vocal of himself singing like a vampire to replace my vocal. And it sounded so good I was like, “You sound like Ian McCulloch. This is how you should sing all the time.” And so we ended up putting his vocal on the actual album. What started as a joke ended up turning into “Wow, that’s genius, let’s do that.”

Paste: There are definitely quite a few songs here that feel like breakup songs. Is that a boyfriend, a band and a label all sort of running together there?
Atkins: Yeah, it’s like the ending of life as you know it. Yeah, all those three things happened at the same time, so it was kind of like “Ahhhh,” and it’s funny because most of the songs are about those three things at the same time, so in a lot of breakup records you want to point fingers, but I don’t think that this record is like that at all. I take, you know, 50 percent of the blame as well. Which is kind of my way of getting closure.

Paste: I can’t remember it exactly, but there’s a line referring to somebody’s high expectations, and that can be read definitely as boyfriend, record label, Ric Ruben.
Atkins: Yeah, I mean that song “Vultures,” that’s what it’s all about. It’s like people have high expectations and want to basically take everything and get everything out of you that they can until you are nothing but bones. It’s just about giving everything that you can and sometimes realizing that it’s just not enough.

Paste: So now that you’re though all that, you have a new band, a new record, new record label, kind of moving forward here—what are things like right now?
Atkins: Life is sweet back in the more even-keeled creative phase. I live up in Brooklyn again with my sister, and instead of having a big loft with a bunch of furniture—I actually used to call my place “Naseberry Park the furniture prison”—now it feels like I used to feel back in 2004 when I first started. Everything just feels new and fun again. There’s no pressure.

Paste: So are you about to hit the road on tour? Do you have other bands you’re going to be going out with? What’s the plan?
Atkins: Well we just finished a tour with the Black Keys, which was my first time out with this lineup. So that was really really fun. And we’re going to go out on tour in two weeks. We start at Bowery Ballroom in New York and fly to Vancouver, and so we start from the West Coast, over. And I’m excited. We’re going to do Conan O’Brien too, and we have this really awesome band opening for us—Cotton Jones. They’re going to open the whole tour.

Paste: Will that your first late night TV performance with Conan or have you done that before?
Atkins: Yeah, I did Conan on the last one. I think we’re gonna do “Cry Cry Cry,” though. It’s really fun having another girl in the band, because we’re planning outfits. I’m like “Alright, I’m gonna wear all gold sequins.” She’s like, “I’ll wear silver sequins.” We did a promo yesterday and she was like, “What are you wearing?” And I said, “I’m wearing white,” and she was like “Great, I’ll wear black and we will be nemeses.”

Paste: Have you ever had that before, or has it always been you and the guys?
Atkins: It’s always been me and the guys, which was fine, but it’s definitely nice having another…I’m not really a girly girl to begin with, but neither is Irina. Actually I think we’re more boyish than the guys in our band. But it’s nice, it feels like a band of brothers and sisters.

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