Interview: Nicole Atkins Talks Her Love of New Jersey Music Scene on New Album

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Photo Courtesy of Nicole Atkins

By Lea Tatoris, WERS Live Mix Coordinator

Before her at-home performance on Weekend Live for 88.9, Nicole Atkins spoke to Live Mix Coordinator Lea Tatoris about their shared love of New Jersey, how the New Jersey music scene heavily influenced this new album, and all of the collaborations that went on behind the scenes of her album Italian Ice

A couple of weeks ago, you released your new single, “Domino,” which sounds really different from all of your other songs. I just want to know, what was the process of making this song like?

Nicole Atkins: This is definitely a different song than I’m used to making. Over the summer when we were touring, we started listening to a lot of like French electro songs, like French disco. It’s great music to drive to (laughs). I was making a record, I have a side-band with the drummer from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Jim Sclavunos. And so we were recording with this guy Dexter Green in Nashville, and he’s like, “What are you listening to?”, and I was like, “I don’t know, French electric disco?” He was like, “Send me some” and so I did and he got hooked on it. And I was like, “Can we write a song together that sounds still in my style but sounds like this?”And he was like, “We can try!” Like a week later he sent me the drum and bass track and I sang over it and we wrote words, and it all just came together. At first, I was like, I don’t know if this [is it], because [on] most of my songs I’m used to singing a lot. And I was like, “Well, I’m not really singing that much,” and my band and Britt from Spoon were like, “This song is the jam! Go with it!” And I was like, “All right!”

And now I just love it. When we play it live, no one knows the song yet. When we play it live, everybody just starts shaking their butts. And I’m like, “Yes! We have a butt-shaker.”

(Laughs) I wouldn’t have guessed that you were inspired by French electric disco. So that’s cool to know!

NA: Yeah, I listen to lots of different stuff. You have so many hours to drive from venue to venue that you end up listening to lots of stuff. And that was the summer of French disco.

Yeah! And your new album, Italian Ice, that’s going to be coming out on May 29th now?

NA: Yes, yeah, we pushed it back a month.

Because of touring?

NA: Because of touring and because of the hopes that people will buy it from the record shops.

On this album, you collaborated with a bunch of cool people like you said. Jim Sclavunos from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Binky Griptite from the Dap-Kings, McKenzie Smith from St. Vincent, and a lot of others. But I just wanna know, how did this band come together in the first place?

NA: So the band came together originally when I sang at Spooner Oldham’s birthday party, his 75th birthday party. I’m friends with his daughter Roxanne, she was like, “Oh, will you sing at my dad’s party?” And I was like, “Oh my god, your dad is Spooner Oldham!”, who played on all the Aretha Franklin songs and a kajillion others. We just got along really well; Me, him, and David Hood. After the show, they mentioned to the guys in my label, because they’re in Muscle Shoals as well, they were like, “We should make a record with Nicole." And so they pitched it to me, and I was like, “That would be awesome.” The thing that I mostly wanted to do was, you know, I didn’t want to make a Muscle Shoals tribute record. I still wanted to make a Nicole Atkins record. The people that are on the record are all people that I’ve collaborated with over the last ten years. Like Jim [Sclavunos] and I have a band and Moose, that plays piano, he and I write a lot together. And then Britt from Spoon and I were writing songs together and Binky [Griptite] and I have always played shows together. So I just brought everyone in from my world and combined them, and none of them knew each other, except for Moose and Jim. Everybody just clicked instantly.

I was so nervous the week before we left to go. “What if this is terrible? What if they don’t jive?” And they did. So I could have saved myself some sleepless nights, had I been a psychic.

Even from the sound of the album, it sounds like everyone got along really well.

NA: Yeah, it sounds like people having a lot of fun. Which we did.

Would you say that working with such different musicians bent the genre a bit, or influenced any of that?

NA: Well, I mean, I think it’s that way, but flip it. I’ve always worked with lots of different types of artists because I’ve listened to a lot of different types of music. And so, that was how I pulled it together for the theme of this record. The theme is actually "radio," and how I grew up on the Jersey Shore. You know, we had the radio stations coming in from Philly and the radio stations coming in from New York and playing Blondie and the Ramones and you know, the alternative radio. And then my parents' radio in their car was always tuned to the oldies station with Cousin Brucie. So it’s like a mixture of all of those different styles and that’s what boardwalk music is. You know, because everyone is on the beach with their boomboxes, just listening to the radio. So it’s like, summertime radio music.

Yeah, for sure, that’s a really interesting theme!

NA: Thanks! I was like, it makes sense to me, and that’s the thing for people who haven’t been to the Jersey Shore or didn’t grow up on the Jersey Shore when I did, I wanted them to have a taste of that.

No pun intended that I called it “Italian Ice.” I just realized that (laughs). That’s a great marketing name right there!

I kind of want to know more about the motivation behind “Italian Ice,” because you’ve written about New Jersey in the past and your first album was even called “Neptune City,” where you grew up. But what made you focus on growing up in New Jersey for this record?

NA: You know, I feel like that’s just been a constant source of inspiration for my writing, just where I grew up. Just ‘cause I caught the tail end of the boardwalk scene at Asbury Park before it got desolate and bombed out. I just remember being three years old and going to the Fun House and the rides and all of the lights, and it was such a thrilling experience. Then, to grow up with it being so bombed out and desolate, that kind of made me go into like, this imagination zone where I would just create things in my mind to not be where I was. The landscape that I grew in let me really dream about fantasy things in normal things.

Yeah, that’s beautiful. I just love the way you sing about New Jersey. It really brings me hope in a way.

NA: Oh good! I feel like that’s a special bond people from New Jersey have. We all move to other places but we’re the only people I know that are always talking about where we’re from.

You know, my friends from Ohio aren’t like, “Oh man, back in Dayton!” New Jersey people, we have this built-in romance for where we’re from. We’re just born with that.

I definitely think it’s refreshing too, because I feel like a lot of times when New Jersey–even when Bruce Springsteen sings about it, he just sings about wanting to leave.

NA: (Laughs) Yeah! I feel like everybody feels that way, but it’s such a magical place that you kind of take it with you wherever you go and you kind of bring those feelings to the new places you're at. With that boardwalk sound that Springsteen really nailed, and you know, there was a scene of bands like Southside Johnny, all of them, that is a genre of music I think that–even though Bruce is an icon–that genre of music is really underrepresented as a style. That’s the style of music I do. It’s just, I have twenty or so years underneath them that I have a lot more different musical styles to add to it. From things that happened after the ‘70s. You know, when Bruce is romanticizing the ‘50s, I’m romanticizing the ‘70s and the ‘50s and the ‘90s. It’s all in there. It’s not nostalgic because it’s not just aping the past, it’s bringing the past with you into the future.

I just have one more question about your single, “Captain.” You’ve said you’ve worked with Britt Daniels from Spoon in the past, but what was it like collaborating on this single together?

NA: I wrote that song with my friend Carl from My Morning Jacket, and we did it a week before I went in to record the album. I thought I had all the songs that I knew I was going to record, and we just did that song really quick. I found it on my phone and I wrote the lyrics about my husband, who’s a tour manager and he’s always taking care of everybody. When people have friends or family like that, it’s like, “Relax! Let me take care of you for a bit”..And when Britt wrote–he wrote a song with me called “These Old Roses”–and when he found out I was doing it at Muscle Shoals, I was like, “Yeah, I’m doing it here. Do you wanna come?” And he was like, “Yes!”

He’s just been very supportive and sweet. He’s like, “Do you want me to play guitar? Do you want me to sing on anything?” He’s one of my favorite rock voices of my time. [It was] just really nice to be able to sing with him, and also to see that our voices fit together because I’ve just been listening to Spoon since they started. So, very cool, I was very happy.

I know you had to postpone your upcoming tour, unfortunately, as well as a lot of other musicians affected by COVID-19.

NA: Yeah, we’re all in the same boat!

What have you been doing in the meantime to keep the music going?

NA: Oh, you know, just laying in bed and taking the feathers out of my pillow. No, I’m just kidding (laughs). Actually, if it wasn’t for the sickness and dying part of what’s going on, I’d really be enjoying myself and I kind of am enjoying myself. I’m just trying to keep it positive and use this time at home to go over parts of what we were going to do on our show for the tour and just make it even better: Rework a backdrop and lighting situations and make more art and painting. Just trying to keep myself entertained and happy and keep those around me entertained and happy. You know, it’s kind of nice to be home right now.

Yeah, it is! I think it's very important to be home right now.

NA: Especially when the weather is nice! I’m like, “Oh, this isn't so bad! I’m gonna sleep in and paint later!” But I was saying to a friend that tours as well, I was like, “If we were doing this for the money, we would have quit ten years ago.” We really do this for the touring. We just love setting out to see all of our friends all over the world, and ham it out for a couple of hours. I know that, within a week or two, I’m going to start to miss it a lot. But it’ll come back, it’ll just take time.

And then, when we’re grandpa’s age, we can say, “When I lived through the plague!” We’ll have a good story for the memoir.

Exactly! (laughs) I’m glad to hear that you’re still focusing on touring. It’s a tough time for everyone and people who rely on live music, but I think there are definitely ways to get through this.

NA: There’s a silver lining in this for sure. It’s that people are just seeing pleasures in the simple things and not being like, "Go go go go go" all the time. And just realizing that, even being an artist, you don’t realize how much just a song that you don't even think matters, if you just play it on Instagram, you can make someone’s day. You know, I never met my neighbor before, because we’re always on tour, so I brought him over some stew and he was really cool! It’s just like, as my mom says, “It’s nice to be nice.” So, it’s just nice to be nice right now!

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