I got to the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/The National show @ Bowery early and discovered a wonderful singer/songwriter named Nicole Atkins. Not knowing anything about her or her band The Sea, I instantly took to the music and her album, Party's Over. Her sound is reminiscent of the 50s-60s, Brill building singer-songwriter era. Add in some country tendencies and dreamlike visions and you get the feeling. It’s the kind of music you would hear in head if you visited an abandoned amusement park. You have happy memories, but also sadness that it's not there anymore.
So I talked to her and she agreed to do lunch with me. I know, there are worst fates. We went to Burger Joint at the Le Parker Meridian (No. 9 best burger in America according to GQ). It's my pleasure to welcome Nicole Atkins to this space.
So what did you pick up first, the paint brush or the guitar?
The paint brush. I started painting when I was four. I didn't start playing guitar until I was 13, and didn't start writing songs until I went to college in North Carolina. It was more of a southern influence to writesongs than in Neptune, NJ.
Why did you pick up the guitar?
When I was thirteen, I found one in my parent's attic. It was my mother's brother, who passed away when he was very young.
Yes, it's a Yamaha learner's guitar. It’s really small.
You must have stuck out in Neptune, NJ being a guitar player. Neptune is not known for its singer-songwriter community.
Asbury Park is which is right next door. Then there's Rumson with Bon Jovi. It was funny because my psychology teacher told my friend that I have my own genre of personality. You got your soccer chicks, your smart girls and your Nicole Atkins – your weirdo guitar playing hippie people.
When you picked up the guitar, it must have opened up a world of different music and influences.
I got into Jethro Tull because of acoustic guitar, which is really weird, but it made me very happy.
When you went to UNC Charlotte, that must have been the perfect venue for your creative endeavors.
Actually, no. There was nothing there. I was in the art department and the funding was cut. There werea bunch of kids from Chapel Hill who were super into indie rock. Stuff I never heard of like Superchunk and Cherry Valance. So it turned me onto southern indie rock. Then I met a group of people who were super into the alt-country scene like Uncle Tupelo and they all played guitar and had these giant sing-a-longs. I also found my first boyfriend and I thought he wrote "Sunken Treasure" from Wilco because I had never heard of them before. He played it for me and I was like "You're amazing." So I’m like "I'm going to write songs." Then I started seeing Wilco a bunch of times. It all started to make sense -- song-writing seemed like an easy and palatable thing to do.
So when you graduated college, did you say, "I'm going to be a singer-songwriter" or "I'm going to make a living be a painter."
It's funny because my senior project was becoming a big dilemma. I talked to my art teacher while I was preparing for a big show and I said, "My heart's not into it. I wanna do music but I haven't started yet." He said something like "Shut up and you’ll figure it out. Just do the painting." So when I graduated, my art school friend Camillo also lived in Jersey and he played guitar. We would play Zepplin and Nick Drake songs together. We got together and said, "Okay, we're back home. Nobody is around in New Jersey. Let's start writing songs." We wrote a song that day and within a week, I wrote eight more songs.
I tried to do the freelance illustration thing and I didn't like it. It just took to fucking long. I didn’t want to spend time drawing a king holding a computer. That just not interesting to me. So I concentrated on the song thing and I painted murals to supplement my income.
I made three albums before this current one with my other band. Those were total Big Star, 70s southern rock albums. I feel like Party's Over is the first album I've made. It's more like a demo and it will probably be re-recorded at some point. It started out with three songs I made with my friend David Muller who was drumming for Fischerspooner. It just sounded so like me the way he produced it. So I said, "This is an album were starting here." It made me shove the other records I made under my bed.
What made you decide to get away from the alt-country, southern rock sound into a more singer-songwriter style?
I had a friend who was super into garage rock. He turned me onto the Left Bank, Love, Flaming Groovies and the Zombies. Then when I moved to New York, there was a record label called Rainbow Courts and I loved their line-up. They had Outrageous Cherry and The Three Pretends. So I went to the guys office and said, "I wanna work for you." So I worked for him as a label manager. At this time, I started writing a bunch of Americana songs, and I felt "Why can't I make songs like this?" I moved back to North Carolina for a bit. I was singing in this indie rock band called the Virginia Reel.We were kinda of like Pavement but with female backup singers. All of sudden, the songs I had been writing made sense. It was a mix of Americana, 60s and indie rock. The band was like "we don’t want to go in that direction." So I moved back to New York.
What was the recording process like for this album.
It was pretty funny. It was me, David, a ProTools rig, a Casio keyboard and a mini recorder. That wasit. We recorded in my parents living room, they have this little bar area – very 70s looking with wood paneling on the walls.
We then eat our burgers. Note to future interviewees: just because I took Nicole to Burger Joint doesn't mean you'll be going there as well.
Okay, we left off at recording in your parents' bar area.
I would give the song to David and we would put it to a click track. When we thought the song was cool, we would add layers to it. Other times, he would say, "This part sucks." So I go rewrite it in my bedroom. It was funny, because my old Sicilian grandfather would come in with his Budweiser and open the door and say, "What's up?" We would be in the middle of recording and we would tell him to be quiet. He would say, "Don't you tell me when to shut up."
We also recorded the drum parts in David's apartment in Manhattan and a couple of tracks at the Dietch Space in Brooklyn.
It was very different then I thought it would be. I thought it was going to be three songs, then we discovered it had a storyline. It's about a person who’s not me, but maybe I am in the back of my mind.
What drew me to your music that it has a 50s-60s vibe to it, but it's not kitschy. Was that a conscience decision?
No, my whole thing was that I was listening to songs my mom listened to, but you can listen to them today like The Ronettes and Roy Orbison. There's nothing kitschy about their songs. They're classic. So I wanted to capture that sensibility.
What's the song-writing process for you? Do you have to sit yourself down or do you write whenever and where ever?
I don't really sit down. I get a melody in my head. It mostly comes from driving because I don't have a radio in my car ... and showering.
You need to get a car with a shower in it.
I should. The melody would come and I would tape it on my cell phone. Then I'll put some fake words to it. Then I'll iron it out with some cords on the guitar or piano. Eventually it would become something. The lyrics just kind of happen. When it's finished, I say, "Oh, the song is about that." It's kind of freaky.
So why's the party over?
The original concept of the album was that I was obsessed with my own death. First, it was complete anxiety and paranoia. Then my friend was making light of it, so it became a joke among us. I would say, "I'm writing ten songs about me dying." David would say, "That's awesome!" So they are all about my impending death. *smiling*
When we were thinking of the press for the album, we came up the line "Flirting with disaster, Nicole Atkins ... The Party's Over bitch!"
So how did you hook up with the other band members to create The Sea?
I put a couple of songs on myspace after David moved to Spain. Dan the keyboard player found me and e-mailed me saying, "I don't know if you have a band, but if you do, I wanna be in it." The drummer from his old band, Moonraker, came aboard. They came in and knew all three songs on the website, so I’m like, "Fuck yeah!" I found the bassist Johnny playing upright at a restaurant in Brooklyn, so we got drunk and I asked if he wanted to be in my band. It was funny because Billy, my old bass player in my country band was Ryan Adams’ old bass player. Johnny was also Ryan Adams’ bass player after Billy left. So the next time around I’ll have his next bass player.
The promoter in New Jersey called me the day before the show and my name was the first name in the rolodex. He said, "I know it's weird but there will be a shit load of kids there." It was totally awesome, but she was a total bitch. I ended up jumping off the stage, going through the crowd and leading a bunch of kids to the back to where I was selling my CDs. I sold like 50 CDs that night. I had the kids right down their mailing address so I could send them mix CDs of cool music like Pavement and bands that they should be listening to.
You got your song played on the radio recently.
Jonathan Clark from 104.3 does a show called Out of the Box. He came to a Rainbow Court showcase and I gave him my CD. He e-mailed me a couple of days later telling me to tune into the show on Sunday night. So he played me between Franz Ferdinand and Oasis.
The MusicSnobbery.com Top 5 Questions:
What was your first concert you ever saw?
With my parents it was The Monkees and Herman's Hermits. Without them it was The Sundays and Madder Rose.
What album changed your life?
Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die and Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted.
What song do you wish you wrote?
"Crying" by Roy Orbison or "Ava Maria"
What other bands names did you consider before settling on your current one?
I had Go-Go To Sleep. Then it was going to be Me and The Sea. I have some good names for some side projects. I have this all-girl metal band I'm starting and we're thinking of Künt, then my other band in Jersey is called Emotallica.
What will your future greatest hits album be called?
I never really thought about it. *After much thought, I gave her a suggestion and she went with it* Cassingles
The pictures above are from her gig tonight with Earlimart at Mercury Lounge. You can catch her and her peops at Delancey on Oct. 8 and, a show I highly suggest you attend, Nov. 2 with Dios (Malos) at Maxwell's in Hoboken.