Nicole Atkins: Q&A
Quarantined Artists: Online Q&As and on-air conversations with musicians dealing with life in Covid-19 lockdown.
Like many artists with releases scheduled during the early days of the pandemic shutdown, Nicole Atkins faced a hard decision with her fifth album, Italian Ice, originally slated to come out on April 17 via Single Lock Records. Her national tour dates were scuttled for the spring and the album's release was pushed to May 29—which, as it turns out, might be more intuitive timing given the album's summery, swoonworthy songs that shimmer with Atkins' reminiscences of growing up around New Jersey's shore towns.
With an all-star backing band and collaborators that include Spoon's Britt Daniel, Hamilton Leithauser, My Morning Jacket's Carl Broemel, Seth Avett, Jim Sclavunos and David "Moose" Sherman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, FUV's own Binky Griptite, and Muscle Shoals rhythm section stalwarts Spooner Oldham and David Hood, Atkins brought her breezy New Jersey spirit to Alabama, recording in the iconic Muscle Shoals Studio. That studio's classic sound ripples through Italian Ice, which Atkins co-produced with Ben Tanner, Alabama Shakes' keyboard player and co-founder of the Single Lock label, but there are other surprising influences too. Atkins calls it "an acid trip through my record collection."
During stay-at-home days in Nashville, Atkins has been busy with her "Secret Subscription Club" via Patreon and weekly livestream series, Saturdays at 7 p.m. ET, called "Alone We're All Together." The livestream, which has included guests like Leithauser, AJ Haynes of Seratones, and Dean Ween, is also archived on Atkins' YouTube page.
Ahead of the album's release, Atkins chatted with WFUV for our ongoing Quarantined Artists Q&A series about getting through this very challenging period and the prescient lyrics scattered throughout Italian Ice, a warm gathering of friends and a celebration of Jersey tenacity.
"AM Gold," which kicks off your new album, Italian Ice, seems written for this era that we're living in, touching on life taken for granted, isolation, and people needing people. The song is meant to be about the climate emergency, but does it mean much more to you now?
As this whole pandemic was unfolding and finally became reality over here I gotta admit, the lyrics in “AM Gold” came roaring in my head and I was like “Jesus! Yikes!” But I think the events of the world over the last few years now—fire, flood, racism, being a country divided, a world in trouble, and having this news always screamed at you in every form on the media—this song was my response to just kinda say enough already. We gotta get back to basics and remember that we need each other and now, with the world having the scariest and most unprecedented change that anyone has ever seen happen right now, and having to be isolated, we’re reminded more than ever that we need each other.
You're living in Nashville these days, and recorded this album at Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama. But Italian Ice is very much a New Jersey album, reflecting the boardwalk culture of the shore towns and tough Jersey hustle. What was the initial spark for you and how does it resurrect all that you love or miss (or don't miss) about Jersey?
My love of the Jersey boardwalk and my family there, it’s what makes me who I am and I take that with me wherever I go. When I decided to record at Muscle Shoals Sound, my first thought was that I wanted to bring that boardwalk sound and feeling into the room down there. The whole point of this album was to try and cheer myself up, and nothing makes me feel better than the shore and the boardwalk in the summertime. It was my goal with the album's sound to give everyone who listens a transportive experience, so they could feel like they were there in Asbury Park or Point Pleasant beach, having a romantic and memorable moment.
You co-produced the record with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and worked with some amazing folks, like Britt Daniel, Seth Avett, Carl Broemel, Hamilton Leithauser, Binky Griptite, Erin Rae, and Muscle Shoals legends Spooner Oldham and David Hood. What was working at Muscle Shoals like? And how did this eclectic collection of friends shape your vision of the album as it evolved?
Working in Muscle Shoals is very peaceful. There's not much going on down there so it was really easy to have some coffee by the river in the morning and then head to the studio and get to work. The studio was also really kind to us because it's a museum during the day and they let us keep our gear set up. It just felt really homey to work in that studio.
The space was cozy and had all of the colors that my brain responds to in their decor. It also felt like a good fire under my ass to think of all of the incredible "desert island" records that were made there and just know that I was going to 100% commit to trying to make a desert island record of my own at this place. I put together everyone in the band for this album because they were all friends of mine that I’ve worked with in some capacity throughout my career.
In my opinion, they are the best at what they do and as cool as they come to hang with. On paper I don’t think a Bad Seed, a Dap King, some Swampers, and Midlake’s drummer and an incredible jazz pianist would make a lot of sense to most people, but to me it made sense because I wanted this album to sound the most like me and those guys are important to me. They inspire me greatly and even kinda scare me sometimes—and I like being scared.
Working with Oldham and Hood, who've worked with just about every legend, from Aretha Franklin to Neil Young, must have been so satisfying. How did you meet them and what was it like in the studio with them?
I met Spooner and David at Spooner’s 75th birthday party at the Shoals Theater a couple years ago. I’m friends with his daughter Roxanne, and Binky Griptite was in town writing songs with me. She rolled up and told me about the party and asked if I wanted to sing a couple songs at it. I brought Spooner a couple of puppets for his birthday gift because we’d never met and I thought it would be cute as he wrote “I'm Your Puppet." Those two guys and everyone else were so sweet and inclusive and I was really glad I didn’t know David played bass in Traffic because I probably would’ve gotten shy; Traffic is one of my most favorite bands ever.
Anyway, in the studio they are just super creative, focused, and fun and they had wonderful stories to share. Their energy was just infectious and it was a lot more than just making an album for me. Those five days I was privy to some really deep moments from some of my heroes and we felt like a band. I’m really honored to call those guys good friends now and continue to make new music with them.
Both your single "Domino" and the track "Forever" are gorgeous, like a snapshot of what you'd hear in an intimate New York club in the '80s alongside early Madonna, Prince, ESG, and Cyndi Lauper. What is the link between both songs?
The songs "Domino" and "Forever" were two of the bigger pop songs on the album, and I didn’t want to fight that, so Ben and I shaped the sound into the theme of the album which is boomboxes on the beach in the summertime in Jerz. Blasting music with the windows down and driving down Ocean Avenue. Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Blondie, to me they all were influenced by those great crooners and rock 'n' rollers back in the fifties and sixties. Me here now, I’m inspired by aaaaallll of that because that’s the sound of where I grew up.
There's also a lovely backstory to "Forever."
At Spooner’s birthday show at the Shoals Theater I went outside to have a cigarette with Kelvin Hollie, Little Richard’s guy, who was playing guitar for the show. He asked me how I met my husband because my husband is from Scotland. I told him that he used to be my tour manager and we were friends at first, but one day I smelled him and he smelled like forever and that was that. Kelvin laughed and said, “Well you better make a song out of that now.” So I did.
"Never Going Home Again," which has a vibe that made me think of Bobbie Gentry, is a song about wild things you've experienced on tour. Like falling into a sinkhole! What happened?
Ugh, yeah, to keep it brief, I was walking to my hotel from a gig down in Knoxville and this restaurant in front of the hotel had a ten foot sinkhole uncovered and unlit in the parking lot. One second I’m talking to my keyboard player and the next I’m waking up in the bottom of a hole. He had to just get in and help me out. I cut my head and hit my butt about two centimeters from my tailbone. On a positive note, it changed my life in a great way. Just knowing that you could maybe die at any moment really made me grateful and cured a lot of my anxieties, socially and regarding my art. Gotta live while you’re alive. I got very lucky.
Where are you spending lockdown? How are you taking care of your own health, both physical and mental, and connecting with loved ones?
I’m getting pretty used to weird shit happening all the time so I’m staying busy and keeping it on the positive tip as much as I can. We live in Nashville and my husband is a tour manager so his work has been cancelled as well. I’m just putting all my time and energy into making paintings, making fun live shows for my Patreon subscribers, and cool little video things for Italian Ice so it can live online until we can bring it to the road again. Mostly making other people happy keeps me happy, so being home and figuring out fun ways to entertain and lift other people’s spirits is my weekly goal.
Selfishly, I’m also really enjoying staying up very late and sleeping in. I think the more people can make their homes a safe place to ride this out, and also do whatever you can within your space to keep your head up and happy and engaged, the easier all of this uncertainty will be. Just try not to think of the future. Take it day by day.
On the other side of this crisis, how do you think the world might (and should) be different? Is there a lyric from Italian Ice that you've been reflecting on a lot lately?
I just keep thinking how everything changes and it’s up to us personally how we react and can flow with the change. I could probably pick so many lyrics from this album (yikes!) for this moment (unintentional, I’m not a doom psychic!) but the one ringing the most true for me right now is the final song on the record, “In The Splinters.” I wrote it about living through Hurricane Sandy and having it destroy our homes and our hearts, and reshape the landscape, and getting through it. And we did get through it, but it was hard. One of the lines is: “I stand in the splinters, a stranger in my own skin/You tried your best to knock me down/But someone came along and built me up again.”
It’s a reminder to have faith in the midst of hard change. Just have some hope and faith and you’ll be all right. That’s a much better zone to keep your head in than fear. F**k fear.
- Nicole Atkins
April 13, 2020