Nicole Atkins is one to watch – and I’ve found out why first hand.
The singer/songwriter New Jersey native has been on tour in Europe with her band, the Sea, and I was lucky enough to catch her show while she was in London.
First of all the venue, the Soho Review Bar (formerly the Raymond Review Bar), a place that some might consider seedy due to it’s erotic nature, was a brilliant room to watch a live performance. Just what I like – intimate, dark, the red interior was a plus and the sound was exceptional.
By the time Nicole started her set, the room was full with an expectant audience. She looked a million dollars, wearing a short white and black dress, she sounded great and her banter in between songs was friendly and humorous. At one point she invited people to go up toward the stage to watch – and a few did get up from their seats to sway along to songs that she played from her album, ‘Neptune City’.
The band was tight, and members on stage were Gillian Rivers (violin), Daniel “Cashmere” Chen (keyboard), Derek Layes (bass), Dan Mintzer (drums) and Dave Hollinghurst (guitar). Special guest Russell Simins from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sat in on tambourine at one point.
Stand out songs of the night were “Brooklyn’s On Fire”, “The Way It Is”, “Party’s Over”, “Maybe Tonight” and their outstanding cover of the Doors’ “Crystal Ship”.
While in England, Nicole was able to squeeze in a phone interview with me for Band Weblogs the day before her show in Soho.
Jenny May: Do you have a favorite place to write music?
Nicole Atkins: I do. When the melodies of my songs come to me it’s usually when I’m sitting, but moving, so usually in the car or in a train is when they happen. But I really like to finish my songs in my parents’ living room at home. At least when they’re upstairs – but as long as they’re not in the room!
Are your parents musicians?
No. They like rock music, but none of them are musicians. We grew up with like, Frank Zappa as our ‘children’s music’.
Do you tend to write on guitar?
I write everything based on the vocal melody, and then I just put chords to that. It’s more fun and easier for me because instruments are limited, but on vocals, it’s not limited at all so I just layer everything through vocal melodies for every part.
What was the first guitar that you bought, do you remember?
I never bought one. My mom’s little brother, he passed away when he was thirteen and when I was thirteen I found his Yamaha Acoustic learners guitar in the attic. It was kind of a big deal. My mom was kind of reluctant for me to play it because she thought that I would break it, you know, because she got kind of sad when she would see it. Then I just kept going into the attic, I got this Grateful Dead guitar book, and taught myself how to play a bunch of Dead songs. So then after awhile they got really okay with it.
Do you still play it?
No. It’s a learner so it’s very short, and it’s actually harder to play than my guitar now!
And what are you playing now?
Now acoustic, I’m playing a Martin, and electric, I’m playing a Hagstrom Viking. It’s great.
I saw a video of you on YouTube singing “Be My Baby” – that was really good. It’s funny because that was the first song that I ever sang on stage with a band.
Nice. I love that song and I love singing that when my parents’ friends come to our shows ’cause you know, they have no idea what the hell I’m singing about, but when I start singing that, it’s just like, yeah!
I know what you mean. Ha ha.
What are some of your favorite cover songs to play?
Three that we’re liking right now is “Crystal Ship” by the Doors, “Pissing In a River” from Patti Smith and “Under The Milky Way” by The Church.
I’m not sure if I’m familiar with The Church.
It’s a really pretty song.
I’ll have to look it up. I’m going to your show tomorrow night in Soho, London. Are you going to play that one?
Good. No we’re not…we’re still choosing, so maybe we will.
I was reading through your Myspace messages and noticed that your fan base is missing you in the States.
Yeah. Ha ha.
How do you stay in touch with them while you’re on tour?
Well, I always put out bulletins and I put up blogs of what’s going on out here, and little videos and stuff. So, I keep them fully abreast on the happenings.
I’m sure they appreciate that.
They do, and it’s always weird for me because I’m like, oh, they care!
I saw that video of you performing in Norway.
That was really fun. That was like, the funnest press thing that I’ve ever had to do.
It sounded great.
Yeah we met a bunch of people afterwards that were like super stoked on it. Like all these older people were like, “you have a very nice voice”. I was like, yeah!
How do you prepare for a show each night?
I don’t really do anything, I just kind of do brief vocal warm ups and just hang out with my band or my friends and then just go up and do it. I don’t really get into the mode until maybe 15 seconds before I sing the first note.
I would imagine that makes life easier for you.
It does. If you ever think it, you know, it will be weird and unnatural.
Some singers have all these rituals where they don’t talk or they don’t do certain things…
Yeah, I mean, unless I’m sick, you know, then I won’t talk. I always get on stage and I pick out the eight people that seem kind of skeptical or uneasy or unhappy in a crowd and kind of focus on them, kind of change their mood. I make them my personal mission.
Nice. I did read that you were sick on the road. Did you drink tea, or…
I’m always sick on the road. I just realized I’ve got the weakest immune system in the world. I do everything. I’m like a walking science project.
Ha ha. Is there any one thing that’s tended to work better for you?
Yeah…eight hours of sleep.
How did the David Letterman performance go (“The Way It Is”)? How was that for you?
That was the best day of my life. That was the day my record came out and it had been pushed back so much, I mean, it was, ahhh, finally we did it. It came off really, really well.
It was funny, the way he kept holding your hand at the end.
Yeah, he wouldn’t let go of my hand. It was cool, though, he liked us.
You could tell he liked you.
It was cool.
With your “Neptune City” single, it gives me the chills when I listen to it. What was the recording environment like in the studio?
We were in a barn in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere in Sweden and it was during the middle of winter. I recorded that song almost a year before I recorded it for the album and it’s one of those songs, that every time I sing it, I get the same feeling as I did when I first heard it. It was one of those things that…it was so much bigger than me.
What brought you to Sweden to record?
The producer lived there so it was much easier for me to go there alone then for him to come to New Jersey.
Did you enjoy it?
I didn’t. At all. I love making my records, and I love the music part of it, but it was the middle of winter so it got dark out at like 2 o’clock everyday. And I was in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know anybody so it was very isolating…which might have been good because I was able to really focus on the music, but at the same time it probably didn’t do too well for my mental stability. I was very happy when I got home.
How long were you out there for?
A month and a half. Not too bad, but very, very isolating.
What normally is a good recording setting for you?
My idea of a good recording setting is very off the cuff, and very intimate, but it never really gets to work out that way now a days.
Is there a certain studio that you would like to work in that you haven’t yet?
Abbey Road. Who wouldn’t?
With your upcoming release, “Maybe Tonight”, I love it, the video is fun…
Do you have any input with the making of your videos?
Yes, I have full input. The video director (Josh Forbes) said let’s do this like you’re walking on your way to get ready for a late night TV show. I was like, oh, let’s get some circus freaks, you know, because I grew up on the boardwalk. There was a very big carnival culture. So he ended up getting us Vaudeville Cirque, which was way past my expectations, and we improvised everything and did it as we were, and it was just so much fun.
It looks really fun, and it definitely comes across.
It was. I choreographed it too.
That’s really good to know. Had you had experience with choreographing before?
No, I just did a lot of theatre.
Do you want to do more videos, directing, that sort of thing?
Oh yeah, I have tons of video ideas. It’s kind of a passion of mine to make up stories for a film.
Do you have a favorite festival that you like to play?
I’ve never really played any except for Austin City Limits. The one I’m looking forward to the most is All Points West. It’s in Jersey City and it’s with Radiohead. It’s an hour from my house too, so it’s really nice.
You’re playing Bonnaroo as well?
I’m really looking forward to that too, cause we get to play that with our good friends The Avett Brothers, that I went to college with.
Not only are you a singer and musician, but you’re an artist as well. Did you do the cover art for your album, ‘Neptune City’?
No I got my friend Nick to do it. He basically draws how I would draw if I wasn’t lazy and if I had the time!
Are you going to continue doing your art along with your music?
Yes, I always do. Comics and stuff. I put together a zine that goes to our fans so that we can actually mail them the comics and stuff like that. The comics will probably be ready in the fall.