Just before the release of her new Slow Phaser (QRO review) and Sea-to-Sea tour, QRO talked with Nicole Atkins. In the conversation, Atkins discussed the new album & tour, going from major label to indie imprint to PledgeMusic funded, her hometown of Neptune City, post-Sandy, being cited by David Byrne, cool people, lip gloss, “This shit’s amazing!”, and more…
QRO: Are you itching for Slow Phaser to finally come out?
Nicole Atkins: Oh my god, you kidding me?!? Yes!!! I’ve been itching for it to come out for a year.
NA: Yeah that’s our local place. That’s the one place we can afford to bring out all the stops before we go on tour and make money… [laughs]
QRO: There’s even a reference to The Bowery (QRO venue review) in Phaser’s “What Do You Know”…
NA: That’s about a lot of things, about how I feel and how I feel about other people’s opinions of me. And that one line, writing about a certain person, “I don’t care what you think about me / That’s between you, the birds & The Bowery…”
Like, you gotta take it to the street man, fuck off!
QRO: And that kicks off to a pretty long coast-to-coast tour. Are you looking forward to getting back out onto the road – or dreading living on the road?
NA: I can’t wait!
Every time I’m home, I’m like, ‘I need to be on the road,’ and every time I’m away, I’m like, ‘I miss home…’ But I just can’t wait to play these songs for people, with my band. We’ve just been pulling away in Asbury Park, playing them, being like, ‘Oh my god, this so the best!’ We can’t wait to party with people.
QRO: How was making Slow Phaser?
NA: Crazy, actually. It happened right after Hurricane Sandy hit. That’s where I lived – no matter what, everything crazy happening in my life, personally, there was always that constant of the boardwalk, my family’s house, and my neighbor’s and friend’s houses, I always thought I could go back to. And seeing that destroyed or in disrepair, it’s like, ‘Holy shit!’ There is no constant.
Tore [Johansson] did my first record, when I was on a major label, a lot of money was involved. He did call me, he was like, “Let’s make another record. How’s your family’s house?” I was like, ‘Well, we don’t have water for a while,’ so disrepair. He’s like, ‘Come here; let’s make a record.’ I told him I didn’t have any money, and he said don’t worry about it.
And I went there, and I made my record with him, and I had a place to live. And I called my friend Sam, who was in the band The Parlor Mob that just broke up, so we both had a place to go.
Having your mainstay constant go away, it’s just kind of makes you look in the mirror, ‘Hey, let’s just play! Let’s just make music!’ It’s not like, ‘Oh, we need to have a single’ – we didn’t need anything other than to make something to make us feel okay.
QRO: Did it just sort of end up that the rest of the people who were on the record, other than you and Sam, were from Sweden?
NA: It was Tore, and his friend Martin [Gjerstad] who did my string arrangement, and this guy Olaf (Johansson) from The Cardigans, who have their studio down below. We’d always be like tracking stuff and be like, ‘Oh, those pesky Cardigans, making drum noises…’ [laughs]
I wrote a bunch of the songs that I knew was going to be on the record that I didn’t know where I was going to make it yet with Jim Sclavunos from The Bad Seeds. Trying to just come into my life as an adult. He gave me a lot of confidence to do that, but I didn’t know where I was going to do the record. And when I got together with Tore, he was just like, ‘I need this song,’ and I played her a song I did with Jim, and I played a song I did on my own, and I played a song I tried to write for the label at the time, and he was like, “Fuck that song – give it to Bon Jovi! When you sound like you, that’s the best!” That’s nice to hear from you…
I did a record with him when I was on a major. It was kind of a real time to go from a music scene, listening to other people’s music, accepting their music, be honored to be a part of it, to feeling, knowing that I make music that is good on its own; it’s my own thing.
Nicole Atkins & The Sea playing “Love Surreal” live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 25th, 2008:
QRO: When in the whole process did you think to finance it via PledgeMusic?
NA: That was always thought about. When I was getting off the new label, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m on an indie label – they get it.’ Then they switched over to being a nü-metal label. ‘Oh, this isn’t working…’
So I could get on a different label, or I could just do it myself. The whole time I was even on Columbia, I was doing it by myself all along. Doing it yourself – it’s a lot of money, and it’s a lot of time, but in the middle of recording Slow Phaser in Sweden, I was reading the David Byrne book, How Music Works. I came onto a page where he was talking about me! It was how labels work, ‘This is how labels work,’ financials & blah-blah-blah, ‘And then there’s people like Nicole Atkins, who did this on a major, made a great record, and they’re considered a failure for a label standard, but if she had all her ownership, it wouldn’t be failure at all.’ And I was like, ‘Oh shit, man – I should really do this!’ [laughs]
And when it was all said & done, I sent it to the labels, and David Macias from Thirty Tigers, ‘I just got your record, but give me a couple weeks to get back to you,’ he called me back that night, ‘This record is fucking awesome!’ I talked to my family, ‘Should I do this?’ It really seemed great.
I’ve always really been into the business aspect, too. While I never thought that I had my own voice, I was always promoting shows – the first show I ever promoted was for Regina Spektor, and me, and Langhorne Slim, and The Avett Brothers, at the back of a buffalo wing restaurant on Avenue B. I can’t say I’ve been good at it, but I’ve always enjoyed it.
In a long-about way, this is what I’ve been meant to do.
QRO: Last fall I talked with Mike Doughty (QRO interview), who financed his reworking of his Soul Coughing songs via PledgeMusic…
NA: I love Mike! I saw his campaign, and I was like, ‘Whoa – Mike Doughty!’ Mike Doughty’s been around a lot longer than me. Not to call him a ‘codger’ or anything…
I knew I would raise money for my label, but I didn’t know what it would be given to me, personally. Seeing like, after the record was all said and done, after everything I’d been through, creatively and personally, seeing every single person that pledged and seeing their name, what they got, a picture on the thing. Knowing that there’s all these people all over the world who want to pay for me to actually get this album done. I can’t even put that into words, how that feels.
Every time I write a song, I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I love this song,’ and I’m so enamored by it. And then you have to think, ‘Well, will anybody like it?’ It kind of took away that fear that anybody would like it or not.
QRO: Are you at all afraid now, now that you’ve made the record, that you have to live up to the expectations of the people who pledged money for it?
NA: I don’t know if I’ve ever lived up to expectations. [laughs] I know that they actually want me to do it.
I feel like, I don’t want to say I went past my own expectations, I just really, looking back, I see all these things before you start a record or do anything serious, ‘Is this worthwhile? Is this okay?’ Just, when you have a little song, and it comes to you, and you fall in love with it, that you wake up in the middle of the night, and you put it on your phone, and work on it all day, or all month, or for three months, or for a year. Looking back, a year or two later, and seeing it done, all of those things that you wanted it to be, it is. And you don’t get that when you’re doing it – you get it when you’re done. I hope I can keep remembering, ‘Hey man, all those things that you want to happen, artistically, they’re gonna be done.’ Maybe I shouldn’t get that – maybe it should be a constant anxiety… [laughs]
I never wanted to be ‘famous;’ never wanted to make a living off of music. I just want the music to be great, something that I would actually wanna listen to, or a show that I would actually wanna see. And getting the shows ready, and looking back on the record that I made, and I can definitely say, ‘I fucking did that!’
QRO: How is your hometown of Neptune now, after Sandy?
NA: My town was really, really hit. We have a river in front, we had an ocean in the back. It was swamped. The insurance wasn’t good. FEMA tried, and they weren’t good. There’s just a lot of older people in my town that are seventy or eighty years old, who are having to rebuild the house, when they should be in retirement. It’s awful. Our town got hit really hard.
That’s another reason I like doing PledgeMusic – I could help, and I could also work on my music at the same time. It really was a win-win.
QRO: And who are the “Cool People” [of the Slow Phaser song]? How are you not cool?!?
NA: [laughs] Cool people…
I mean, do you think you’re cool?
QRO: [laughs] No, but I think you’re cooler than me…
NA: [laughs] Well, I think you’re cooler than me…
I was doing a lot of shows with a bunch of people, we did a lot of tours with people that sold a lot of tickets, and that were cool, did cool music. Hanging out with people that made money off music, and were cool. I wrote “Cool People” as a very honest account of – I like to talk, but I’m a pretty shy person. [laughs] I’m a pretty shy poor person. I wrote that as an honest account of feeling shy.
QRO: On the other hand, has anyone ever told you, “Girl, You Look Amazing” [another Slow Phaser song]?
NA: No – “Girl, You Look Amazing” was written in a dream. Trying to figure out what that was written about, about the direct opposite of how I felt, anyway. ‘Cause I never really felt that way…
QRO: Watch – after the record comes out, multiple people are going to try to use that line on you…
NA: You what’s funny? Since the song’s been done, and my friends have heard the record, anything that is amazing, we’re like, “This shit’s amazing!” “You look amazing!”
QRO: Who is in your band for this upcoming tour?
NA: I’m just gonna name it ‘Nicole Atkins’. Because I’ve named my band things for the tour, but it’s funny, the people that are in my band right now are my immediate friends, and they’ve been for a long time. My drummer, Sam, who came down and did the record in Sweden, “Stop naming you band things! I’m here for you! I’m here for ‘The Nicole Atkins Band’.”
I don’t want to name the band ‘The Nicole Atkins Band’, ‘cause it’ll sound like ‘The Dave Matthews Band’… We’re just gonna name it ‘Nicole Atkins’. If I play solo, it’s gonna say, ‘Nicole Atkins (solo)’, but otherwise, be ready for a rock show.
Nicole Atkins (solo) playing “Monterey Honey” live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on February 9th, 2011:
QRO: But who is in your band for this tour?
NA: Sam and Dave (Rosen, guitar; Dave Sherman, keys), those are my friends from Asbury, and this guy Zach (Westfall, bass), who just moved to Asbury from San Francisco.
And this really, really awesome songwriter/musician named Davey Horne, that’s from Scotland. Just got his visa, and we picked him up, and he’s already been thrown into the mix.
QRO: Were you at all worried that the visa wasn’t going to clear?
NA: No. I wanted him to clear, because I wanted him to open up for us. ‘Cause he just made my favorite record, probably, of the last ten years. So if he can play guitar for me as well, that’d be fine, but other than that, I got it covered. It did clear for the shows; it’s double-double.
By the way, his name is Davey Horne, with an ‘e’ – like ‘horny’…
NA: That was my basement drinking bar, back in the day, it just used to do a Dylanfest for his birthday, and then it grew into something bigger. That started out as a bunch of bands hanging out & drinking & playing Bob Dylan songs once a year.
QRO: For those events, how do people get to pick which songs that they’re going to do?
NA: They pick the songs that they’re gonna do, and then they get told otherwise…
QRO: [laughs] I always imagine a fight over who gets to do the most popular ones…
NA: Yeah, there’s some fights, sometimes…
QRO: I noticed that you’re playing South-by-Southwest – what do you think of ‘industry festivals’ like that?
NA: I don’t know… I always love South-by-Southwest. It’s a way to do a bunch of shows, tax your voice out, but also have so much fun. And once in a while, your friends from Jersey make the pilgrimage to hang out with you. It’s always fun for me.
QRO: I saw you last at Bowery Electric, which was part of pseudo-industry fest, CBGB Festival (QRO recap).
NA: That was our first show with the new shit.
QRO: Being from the New York area, have you ever had to play a CMJ show at a place that you wouldn’t want to play normally?
NA: I’ve had to play a lot of places I wouldn’t want to play normally. CMJ is out where I’m from. I’ve had to play a thousand percent places that I wouldn’t want to play, and a thousand percent of places that I would want to play, and two million in between. I’m just glad to actually have any place to play…
QRO: When you play outdoors, does the wind ever blow your hair into your face, or even into your mouth?
NA: Oh yeah – that’s why you should never wear lip gloss. Don’t wear lip gloss, dude…
QRO: How do you fight ‘tour burnout’?
NA: Sleep. Sleep as much as you can, in the back seat of the van.
QRO: Do you ever have to do driving, or since it’s ‘your tour’?
NA: No, I always drive. I’m really good at whipping that shit around.
My poor van is also my home car. So I’m really good at it.
QRO: Oh – so is it tough, then, to let other people drive it?
NA: Oh no, luckily the people from Jersey that are involved with me are really good at driving the van.
Nicole Atkins & The Black Sea playing “Hotel Plaster” live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on February 9th, 2011: