The ready comparisons are to Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, to k.d. lang raised on Springsteen. Nicole Atkins’ commanding voice – bold yet duskily intimate – is a conduit for emotions both intense and vulnerable (exhibit A: “A Little Crazy”; exhibit B: a cover of Orbison’s “Crying”). Her new album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, arrives this July (Single Lock Records, pre-order here).
Nicole and her bandmates are on tour this month with the Old 97’s, whose new album, Graveyard Whistling (ATO), is a glorious study in contrasts. The pedal steel’s melancholic undertone in “All Who Wander,” for instance, is juxtaposed against the script-flipping “Good With God,” a song of locomotive power in which Brandi Carlile lends her voice as the titular character. Bassist Murry Hammond takes the vocal reins in the ominous yet upbeat “Nobody.” Rhett Miller’s wordplay is itself a fine art form – in “Jesus Loves You,” the narrator tries to reason with his Bible-carrying crush: “He’s got the whole world in his hands / I’ve got Lone Star in cans … Jesus loves you more than I do / just because he doesn’t know you – not like I do.” The album release show at Irving Plaza was raucous, sweaty rock ‘n roll, with Nicole joining in on two songs, “Good With God” and “Four-Leaf Clover,” doubling both the vocal prowess and hair-flipping on stage.
Before Nicole’s opening set, P&W sat down with the Jersey-raised, Nashville-based artist. We chatted road life (if you have a nine-hour drive ahead, just think “that’s three Bravehearts,” and it’s not so bad) and working with Leon Bridges’ producers (“the most wonderful recording experience”).
You’re about a week into this spring tour – how’s it going so far?
Really well! I’ve known Rhett for a long time and these guys are great. They’re really friendly people. Their fans are nice and actually interested in checking out the opener, which is rare.
Are there cities you’re especially looking forward to on this tour?
We were in Cambridge the last two nights. The Sinclair is such a nice venue and walking around Harvard Square was fun. I’m looking forward to Thalia Hall in Chicago. Also Louisville — we’re playing Headliners. I usually play the smaller venues there, so that will be fun. I love Louisville.
What are your tips and strategies for road life?
Headphones and Luna bars (cherry pie, key lime, lemon).
When you’re spending a lot of time in a van, it’s important to check in with yourself and make sure you don’t take too much stuff personally. I’ve been using an app called Calm. It has a lot of guided meditations on it – for anxiety or kindness to yourself or a body scan. You can do five minutes or ten minutes or fifteen. Everyone should have it. And it’s great for getting to sleep, too. A lot of the times we’re sharing a room – so when there’s three people in a room, it’s nice to be able to put your headphones on and do some sleep meditation.
Do you rotate driving duties or do you have a tour manager who helps drive?
Not for this one. My husband’s a tour manager, but he’s out with another band right now – but this one is easy since we’re opening — it’s just the three of us. We rotate — whoever is tired gets the back.
How do you pass time on the road – do you take turns DJing?
We DJ and we talk about classic rock and older bands. I watch a lot of old wrestling videos. I’m really into 90’s wrestling — it’s a good way to pass time. Another great way to pass time if you know you have a three-hour drive: Watch Braveheart and know that you’ll be there by the end of the movie.
It’s like a different version of an hourglass.
Totally. So if you have a nine-hour drive ahead, you think: “That’s three Bravehearts. That’s not so bad.”
Let’s talk about your new album. The title track [“Goodnight, Rhonda Lee”] is really beautiful – I’ve had it on repeat today.
Thank you! I wrote that one with Chris Isaak. He had the chorus sitting around, and it was “say goodnight to the band.” The day before I went to record the album, I was in Detroit and I bought a new notebook. I said, “I’m going to figure out this song.” My party girl persona’s nickname was “Rhonda Lee.” Like, “Uh oh, Rhonda Lee is out.” And I thought – what if we say, “Goodnight, Rhonda Lee?”
You anticipated my next question: “Who is this mysterious Rhonda Lee?”
Rhonda Lee started out as my bowling alias. I liked how “Rho” looked on the bowling screen: “Rhonda’s gonna roll.” It then became my nickname when I got too drunk. My parents would say things like “we’re having dinner tonight – do not bring Rhonda Lee.” [laughs] I grew up in a beach town [Asbury Park, NJ]. In summertime, there’s a lot of day drinking.
For this album, you worked with the folks who produced Leon Bridges’ Coming Home [Austin Jenkins, Josh Block, and Chris Vivion]. Was this your first time working with them?
Yes, and it was the most wonderful recording experience I’ve ever had. My friend Trey was my tour manager at the time and I was feeling like nobody wanted to record my album, but I had all the songs ready to go. It took three years to write and I was feeling a little lost at sea.
Trey said, “Why don’t you call Austin [Jenkins]?” And I thought, “Austin’s going to the Grammy’s – he doesn’t want to talk to me.” But he took my call, and he was super nice and turned out to be a fan of my first record [Neptune City].
I told Austin I wanted a Muscle Shoals sound, this Roy Orbison-sounding record. And he said “that’s exactly what we made this studio [Nile City Sound] to do.”
So I flew to there [to Ft. Worth, TX], and Robert Ellis and his band were the backing band. We recorded everything live in four days.
That must have been an intense four days.
It really was, but it was so fun – I was never tired. I’d get there at 10, finish at 1, and think “that was great!” That never happens.
I’d love to hear the origin story of your and Rhett [Miller]’s friendship and collaboration – I know you co-wrote the last song on Graveyard Whistling, “Those Were the Days.”
I had that song sitting around for years. Rhett was at City Winery in Nashville and he said “do you want to come sing with me?” I said “yes,” and we were sitting backstage and I said, “how about we write a song together?” I had that song lying around and it sounds a bit like an Old 97’s song. We finished it right before we went on stage. I didn’t think he would use it for the record. It’s one of the first times I’ve had a co-write on someone’s album, and it’s really nice because they’re a band I grew up loving.
I met Rhett years ago when I was on Columbia. My A&R person wanted me to write with him. So we met and he was super nice, but nothing came of the writing at the time. And then I was singing with A.C. Newman [of New Pornographers] at a Bell House benefit show. Carl [A.C.] said, “How about me, you, and Rhett get together and do this Seekers song.” They’re an Australian band that sounds like The Mamas and the Papas. It’s a great song – kind of super-religious, but the girl sounds like Mama Cass, so it’s right up my alley. And so we did the song and then hung out, and we became friends after that.
What albums are you digging right now?
There’s an album from Crybaby that came out in 2011. I saw Kristen Stewart’s new movie, “Personal Shopper” – it’s a ghost movie. There’s a song in the movie that made me think “holy crap” – I Shazam-ed it, and it’s Crybaby. They only have this one album. It’s very romantic, 50’s, Last Shadow Puppets-y. So I’m listening to that a lot.
I also like the new Timber Timbre record – it sounds like Nick Cave. And there’s a band from Nashville called Creamer – kind of a Queen sound.
And now I have a lot of new music to check out! Do you have much time to read while you’re on the road?
I read a lot. I just picked up The Importance of Silence [note: we weren’t sure of the title, but it’s a fiction novel – and Google is failing me]. I’m also starting Todd Barry’s [the comedian] Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg.
Any other thoughts about the new album that you’d like to share?
It feels great to be a little bit older and get to do something I’m actually good at. [laughs] The PledgeMusic experience has been great. The landscape is changing and the DIY model frees us up to create what we want, rather than feel like we need to do what’s popular.
Article: Vivian Wang