US-based singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins recently finished recording a new studio album at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama. The record, which is titled Forever, is presently tipped for a 2020 release.

Nicole Atkins is currently touring in support of her 2017 album Goodnight Rhonda Lee. Despite this, Atkins has far from been resting on her laurels since the release of the aforementioned record, having been working on projects with a whole raft of her esteemed colleagues, friends and collaborators including Mark Lanegan and Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds. Each of these creative outlets allowing Atkins to showcase a different side of her artistry. With all of her different musical avenues, Atkins eclectic sound is best described as genre-defying.

National Rock Review recently caught up with the Nashville based artist at her show in Newcastle to talk about life on the road, her forthcoming new album, working with Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds and her plans for the rest of the year.

So you are out on the road across the UK, you are a few dates into this run and you are here at the Cluny in Newcastle tonight. How have the show’s been going so far?

The shows have been great – really nicely well attended. I’ve been 10 years of playing to nobody so that’s a nice change. I was like, oh, I think my life is starting to change – so that’s good. Like I think we played to 15 people here the last time I was here and there’s like 70 pre-sold. So I’m like yes, tiny victories. And yeah, it’s just been great. And like the band that I have with me, they’re all good old friends and new friends.

You know, our van broke down and so that really sucked. Because that’s basically like the difference between, oh I can afford to do this tour and bring a band and to now like, oh shit. Yeah, but we will figure it out, something always happens. You know, I’m bummed for not playing Switzerland because people there have disposable income. It would just be like, yes, here you go.

And so I understand that you’ve just got back from recording a new album at Muscle Shoals Sound with members of Spoon and The Bad Seeds, The Swampers and The Dap Kings. Can you share with us a little bit about that project?

Well, I sang at Spooner Oldham’s, 75th birthday party, and it was last minute. His daughter Roxanne was in Nashville just visiting two days before that – they were doing a big concert at the Shoal’s Theater for him. And Binky from the Dap Kings was visiting me because we were co-writing some songs for his solo record and she was like, yeah, we’re doing a party for my dad – you should come. And I was like, well, what women are singing and she’s like Candi Staton was supposed to do it, but she couldn’t do it. And I was like, I’ll do it. And she’s like, you want to do it? And it was like, yeah. And so I did it. But I was really glad that I didn’t watch the documentary because I knew the history of the Shoals but not that deeply.

Like if I knew that David Hood was in traffic, I probably would’ve gotten really shy. So I wasn’t shy and everybody was just so warm and cool. Me and Charlie Hodges and William Bell were just like swapping pet pictures and taking selfies, you know like it was just so fun. And then after, the guys from my label saw me sing with them. They were just like, shit, you should throw down and you should do a record here.

And then I asked Ben from Alabama Shakes, you know, you were going to co-produce the record together. And I said, is it okay? You know, people can never put me in a category – they are like it’s so hard to classify you, you know? But I like making music with a lot of different types of people and I make music with Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds and I make music with Binky from the Dap Kings and me and Britt from Spoon just started writing songs together.

And so I was like, how about we just bring all these people together? And that’s my wheelhouse. You know, it’s just like this is like a person with a record collection that doesn’t just have one genre, you know. So it all worked out and it’s not going to come out until probably around this time next year, but it’s just the timing where everybody was available. So it was really cool. Like everybody just got along so well and by the fifth night, David Hood was like, this was so special. You know, he’s like this was one of the funnest things I’ve done in so long.

Spooner was getting us to sign his lead sheet. And then Britt Daniel sent a thank you email that was really nicely worded and well written. I read it to the guys and they’re like, damn, we’re assholes – I’d never send that. And now after that everybody’s mailing cards to each other. So it’s like, it was just really special and it’s like no matter what happens, it’s going to be this really cool piece of time and musicality that’s lacking in records that get released these days.

I think it’s always like we get to worry about the single, we’ve got to worry about what’s cool and I feel like I’ve spent enough time not being cool or making money so I can do whatever I want now because I haven’t had another job since. So that’s good enough for me.

You have to make music that you are happy with as an artist because you can chase that commercial goal forever.

Yeah, it’s like, I don’t know, you rarely, rarely get it. I’ve had so many hits that, you know, it’s just, it becomes, it’s just a losing game. You’ve got to do it for fun you know because that shows through the record too. And Rhonda Lee – the last record, even though it was like a record about me quitting drinking, it still sounds really fun. 

I think at the same time when you’re not chasing that commercial sort of mainstream sound that your music has got a chance of becoming timeless because otherwise, it’s always going to sound dated if you are chasing current trends.

Totally, yeah. I mean I’ve always been a fan of older music anyway, so it’s like really the only kind of music I’m interested in making, you know, for my stuff. And then I figured with Jim Sclavunos and my stuff, that’s where I get my dark yah-yahs out. So it’s like each of my side projects has a vehicle for certain moods.

You just mentioned there your sound is quite eclectic and it’s often being referred to as genre-defying. Do you prefer not to be able to be put inside of one box musically?

No, I think it’s too limiting. I like being able to like go and sing with Mavis Staples and then go open for the Bad Seeds. Like that’s badass. 

Where do you find inspiration for songwriting?

Just through life. You know, I listen to a lot of music and there are just certain sounds and I’m like, ooh. Like there’s one new song on the record that like I heard this Bobby Vinton Song on like the Fifties at Five on satellite radio and I was like, it was just so eerie and haunting. It sounded like a car driving at night, you know where you’re going to definitely crash, but like your dressed like Jackson Pollock. This is some, you know, fifties creep factor or just, you know, just life. You’ve got to live your life and that’s why I always take other tours. I’ve opened for lots of people. I always want to do co-writes. I always want to do weird shit because that’s how I find inspiration.

Like Hamilton Lighthauser from The Walkmen. He was playing at a residency at The Carlyle. We didn’t know each other, but he has one of my favourite voices, he sounds like a pirate crooner. And so I wrote to him like, do you need a duet singer or backup singer for your residency? He was like, hell yeah. So I flew myself up there and I knew I wasn’t gonna make any money from the show cause I just offered.

But I remember, you know The Carlyle, is like such an old school, New York fancy place and we all felt like we’re all like 40, but we’re like afraid that like they’re going to yell at us kids. Because it was like wealth like you couldn’t imagine. The dog sitters had sitters for their dog sitters – it was crazy. Like I washed my hands in the bathroom and I was like, hey, what’s up to a woman? She was just like, fuck you. But, I remember I forgot to pour my Red Bull in a glass and so I’m sitting with a can of Red Bull, like behind the piano, everybody can see me and I’m like sitting behind the piano at The Carlyle with a can of diet Red Bull. And I was like, fucking inspiration, you know. It’s every little thing in life – it’s hard to turn off.

Obviously, you just mentioned, you’ve been working with Jim Sclavunos from the Bad seeds. You just put out a new song, which is “A Man Like Me”. Could you tell us a little bit about that song and kind of the idea behind it?

Yeah, I mentioned when I was going through a breakup with this guy in Brooklyn. And he was just so removed from it and he was like, why do you even care about this guy that’s obviously a piece of shit? And I was just like, you’re right like you’ve totally helped me get through it because I was just devastated. I’m like, the guy wasn’t even that great, but I remember seeing him with his, (he got back together with his ex-wife) and I saw them on the train. I almost walked into the same subway car and I was like, oh shit. And you know, it’s just like really? And I was telling Jim about it and like, you know, just about like how much of a liar this guy is. And so like, we wrote the song about that.

But it was also about like – I said to Jim, I was like, how do I get guys in the music industry to treat me equal, like its such a boys club? You know, and he’s telling me how it’s always been kind of like the mafia, you know, like everybody thinks they’re a fucking mafia don, but, you know, it’s like, I want to talk about music and arrangement and cool stuff and fart jokes and like, you know, like include me as one of the dudes. But he was like some female artists have been able to do that like PJ Harvey or Patti Smith, but there’s just, so not many – but they’re all still wearing hot pants in their press photos. And at the time, I could not wear them, but I can now since I quit drinking – who knew 40 years old and you finally wear shorts. So that’s what the song was about too. It’s always like, the songs are always about more than one thing.

Besides Jim, you’ve just recently done a duet with Mark Lanegan as well, which is “November Rain”. So I just wanted to know what was it like working with Mark and what made you want to choose that song in particular to cover?

So I had a dream about that song when I was on tour. I dream really hard and I had a dream that I was like standing on the top of a castle with Aaron Lee Tasjan the singer and we were doing this country duet of November Rain – and it just sounded so good. So I woke up in the morning and sang the arrangement into my phone and then I texted him and I was like, can you do this? And he’s like, sure. And we did it in like an afternoon and it turned out like his label wasn’t okay with him being on it. Yeah, maybe he didn’t like the way it sounded.

But anyway, I was kind of put down about it, but I was like, I’m just going to ask my favourite singer in the world and see if he says yeah. Like that’s basically what I’ve been doing this whole year is like you have with the recording, just ask people. They say no, but they’re not going to tell me to fuck off or people aren’t as mean as you think they are. And he was into it and it turned out he had a really big connection with the song cause he’s good friends with Duff McKagan. Like Duff let him sleep at his house for a while. And so we just started talking from that and he’s like, this is beautiful – I’d love to do it. And I waited a few months and he recorded it in LA and send it to me. So, Mark, he’s one of the best singers ever. And like, he’s just so inspiring and like so kind, but also scary.

I understand that when you aren’t writing and recording you’re often found painting and drawing. Do you find your artwork inspires your songwriting or vice versa? And do you prefer one over the other?

It’s always, you never know like something will happen that’s kind of funny. And I’m like, oh, I’m gonna draw a comic of that. One of my friends is like, oh, I’m going to tell this girl how I feel. I’m going to just go scream at a cloud – so I’ll draw that. But then it will work its way into my lyrics too. And I think I started drawing again when I stopped drinking. So like I think that I have a very big need to never be bored. It’s hard. It’s hard to chill, so that’s good.

Have you always known that being a musician was your chosen path or was there ever sort of any of the careers you consider pursuing?

I went to college for art and I thought I would be like a commercial artist. I don’t know what that means, but I just never really had any plans, you know. Like I always, since I was little, I’ve been like performing and they’re like, what do you want to be when you grow up? But I’m like, oh a rockstar and a wrestler, you know, I loved wrestling, I loved horror movies and I love David Lee Roth. And so I just knew that. And I don’t know, after college, like I started playing in an Irish pub from like ten till two every Wednesday and I just started getting more singing jobs than I did any other jobs. I was a bad waitress. I was a great waitress, I just was bad with time management skills.

I just remember in New York we used to take turns to go to the bar next door for this shot and beer special. It was five bucks at the Cherry Tavern. And like, we would rotate that out like five times in the night. I’m like, how the fuck did we count money? But we were young, so we probably weren’t as sloppy as we got older.

Do you have a favourite song to perform live?

I really love doing ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’ just because it makes me feel like Dean Martin, you know, or just I wrote that song when I first moved to Nashville. I went this is cool, this kind of sounds like Neil Diamond or something. And then Jim and I wrote the song together about – I thought it was about an old relationship of mine. 

Jim’s like my dad, if I had a rock dad so I could tell him all the shit that I can’t tell my normal dad because my normal dad would like kill the person, you know? And so I thought it was about that. But then I’m looking back on it three years ago or nine years ago, seven years ago, three years ago and those were all of the times in between records. So it was almost like about writer’s block – it’s weird. So yeah, the meanings of the songs can always change. But I love singing that song because I just really feel it. I feel like, I don’t know, I feel like out of body when I do get to the end.

In terms of your musical tastes, what do you listen to when you’re kind of kicking back at home?

I listen to a lot of Krautrock because it makes me feel focused and I listen to a lot of Django Django – I love that band. It’s like the best to clean your house too, or if you’re in a bad mood, you’re like go! And you know, I love the Beta Band too and Super Furry Animals and like those bands that were supposed to be like The Beatles of our generation and then who killed it, was it Britpop?

And you know, like I love Candi Staton, I listen to her a lot. James Brown Live at the Apollo. I love listening to live shows like Otis Redding Live at the Whiskey. A lot of French punk. I saw this band from Japan that I loved at SXSW called Otoboke Beaver – yeah, they’re the coolest.

Yeah, Minnie Riperton the new Glen Hansard – it’s really good. The Cochemea record on Dap Tone – it’s the sax player’s solo record – it’s really badass. I’ve been listening to Weyes Blood a little bit cause my husband’s working with her when she comes through. He’s their tour manager/front of house. This is really good, it’s like Rufus Wainwright almost. But I guess she’s marketed more towards the hipster kind of thing. But I was like, you’ve got to look beyond that, this is some classic shit.

I just wondered, you know, have you got 2019 mapped out? What’s on the cards for the rest of the year?

I’m going out on tour with Lake Street Dive over the summer, and that should be fun. I love Rachel Price’s voice – it’s going to be like the singer’s tour. It’s going to be lots of hairbrushes weaving around. So I’m doing that and we’re doing Red Rocks with The Avett Brothers, so that should be really cool and then everything’s kind of open-ended. You know, just cause the record’s coming out next year.

So hopefully Jim and I will do some touring. I’ve told him, I’m like since you’re older, can we only do luxury gigs? We’ll see. Like only high paid luxury gigs, some festivals. But yeah, it’s just working on the me and Jim Project until that comes out. I’m sure I’m doing other things and I’m just forgetting.

Nicole Atkins
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Photos: Adam Kennedy

About The Author

Adam Kennedy is an experienced music photographer based in northeast England. He has been shooting concerts for several years, predominantly with the band Vintage Trouble. In 2013, he was one of their tour photographers, covering the UK and Ireland tour including the headline shows and as opening act for The Who. As an accomplished concert photographer, Adam's work has been featured in print such as, Classic Rock Blues Magazine, Guitarist Magazine, Blues in Britain magazine, broadcast on the MDA Telethon on ABC Television in the US, used in billboard advertising for Renaissance Hotels in the US, and featured online via music blogs such as Uber Rock and Guitar Planet. He is also the official photographer at Newcastle Rock and Blues Club.

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