I’m introducing a new feature – occasionally interviewing talented people you may not know but should. Think of it as the blog equivalent of James Lipton’s INSIDE THE ACTOR’S ASSHOLE.
Today’s guest is singer-songwriter, Nicole Atkins. I’ve mentioned her before. Great soulful voice who’s been compared to Roy Orbison (and not by me… by real music people who actually know this shit!). She’s recorded a couple of albums. Mondo Amore, her latest, gets five stars from me (a rating system I’ve just made up on the spot). You can hear it and get it here. She’s also toured extensively, appeared on Letterman, Ferguson, Conan & Jools Holland, and starred in an American Express commercial.
Here’s a sample of her work, a cover of the Roy Orbison classic, “Crying”. I think her drummer might be Silent Bob.
Whenever I read celebrity interviews they always take place over a posh lunch and the subject picks at their Waldorf salad. We did this over the phone. I have no idea what she was eating. For all I know – White Castle.
Anyway, here’s the interview:
Ken: How does a recording artist break through these days? It used to be you’d play, get discovered, make a record, it would become a big hit on the radio, and then you were the next Madonna. But now radio doesn’t have the same audience or influence, MTV is no longer showing videos, what do you do?
Nicole: You tour yourself to the bone. That’s what we’ve been doing. I just finished touring. I probably did over two hundred shows this year.
Nicole: Yeah, I’m tired. But I wouldn’t trade it, though. I love it. I’ve never felt really at home anywhere except for a Holiday Inn Express.
Ken: Who were some of your influences growing up?
Nicole: Stevie Winwood with Traffic, Derek & the Dominos, and Cream. And then as I got older I really got into the band Love with Arthur Lee.
Ken: A weird guy he was.
Nicole: Oh, I know. I always tend to gravitate towards scary-genius men… in real life as well. (THEN) Cass Elliott, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash. Echo & the Bunnymen was always a huge band for me. Right now I’m on a strict diet of Mark Lanegan and Pulp.
Ken: Let’s talk about writing. I’m always fascinated by the creative process. I know so little about music I could be a mentor on AMERICAN IDOL. But how do you write a song? Do you write the melody first, or the lyrics, the theme, the chords?
Nicole: Well, they’re all kind of happening simultaneously. I do a little bit of writing every morning or every night. Sometimes it’s just free writing, or journaling, or a line will come into my head, like inspired by a book I read.
But the melodies are a little trickier. I can’t just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song right now”. They just come to me. And some months they come like rain. Two or three a day or three good ones a week out of nowhere. Usually when I’m walking or showering. Or in a dream. Like right before I wake up, laying in bed, beating myself up about sleeping too late, and slip back into that limbo-like state. Then it’ll come to me and I’m like, “Awesome! I’m working right now!” Trains are a good one, too.
Ken: Yeah, well… we don’t have many trains out here.
Nicole: Right. Basically, I’ll get a melody that comes into my head and I record it into my phone. My last Blackberry I lost one night in a cab. And it had 42 song ideas in it.
Ken: You're kidding? Yikes!
Nicole: I went through two months thinking I lost months and months of song ideas. And then about a week and a half ago, a cab driver called me. He found my Blackberry wedged into the seat of his cab.
Ken: That’s amazing. But I thought you were going to say you turned on the radio and heard Kellie Pickler singing one of your songs. What about the lyrics? Are they very personal?
Nicole: Yeah. Most of them are just me talking to myself telling me what I need to do.
Ken: Do you get different creative results writing songs in Ashbury Park (where you grew up) or Brooklyn (where you now live) or on the road? Is there a certain kind of vibe you get being in certain places?
Nicole: Not really. I write country songs in Brooklyn and Lou Reed-type sounding songs in Texas. It has no rhyme or reason. Although I do notice I’m more comfortable finishing my songs in my parents’ house in my childhood bedroom. When they’re not there. I have a hard time working on songs in my own home.
But I try to approach it as a job. Every morning, there’s this coffee shop in Brooklyn called “the Shop” – it’s actually a motorcycle shop but it’s a coffee shop too, and I just go there and try to write every morning for a couple of hours. Even if I have no idea what I’m going to do I just write about nothing.
Ken: Writers need that discipline. And you never know. Sometimes that "nothing" eventually turns into "something". It's all part of the process.
Nicole: And it’s weird – the Shop has this certain smell of gasoline. I grew up, my family are landscapers, so a really familiar smell to me is lawnmower gasoline, so when I found this place I was like, “Oh, I need to work here!”
More with Nicole tomorrow: How she got her American Express commercial, did she ever try out for AMERICAN IDOL, craziest gigs, thoughts on yodeling, and more!