Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meet Nicole Atkins

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.

Ken: Wow.

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!


Mac said...

Cool feature. Good interview & the music sounds great! More of this sort of thing!

Mark B. Spiegel said...

>>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.<<

Wow, she's got some awesome taste. (It's interesting to me that those are bands that are generally better-liked by guys, not women; in fact, I went to one of the 2005 Cream reunion concerts at the Garden and the audience had to be at least 90% male.) The song she does in the Conan video actually sounds a lot like something Arther Lee (from "Love") might have written. I hadn't known Lee's music but I recently went to a live interview with Jac Holzman (who founded Elektra records) and he spent so much time talking about Arthur Lee (whom he signed) that I had to check out his music, and it was fabulous... Sad story there with that guy.

Mark B. Spiegel said...

P.S... For any of you who don't know the music of Arthur Lee, here he is just a couple of years before he died:


And here's Holzman talking about him:

Mark B. Spiegel said...

Hey, sorry, I couldn't resist; one more spectacularly beautiful Arthur Lee song:

Ian said...

With no disrespect intended toward Ms. Atkins (whom I'm sure is a lovely person), I don't think she's an especially good singer. To each his own, I guess.

Randy said...

Ken, Love the new feature. Give Ali Harter a look when you get a chance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H038BbnBVCg

RCP said...

Looking forward to Part II tomorrow - and to future interviews.

BRinLA said...

Nicole is pretty good thanks for sharing. You also may want to youtube these two amazing singers. First is a young lady by the name of Katie Melua she is from the UK and she is huge over there. I have seen her here in LA a few times and she is amazing in concert. Definitly one of the best live voices I have ever seen in concert. Also you may want to search Kina Grannis a singer from Orange County who is also very good.

Mark Little said...

Nice girl, decent voice, but she doesn't bring anything near Roy Orbison to the song. If she's not playing her own stuff she should choose things that will showcase her strengths.

I often wonder what the touring life does to performers - I think it turned Bob Dylan into something even stranger than his original self. For an attractive woman, endless nights of being hit on by creeps all over the world. Kudos to her for putting in the work.

Paul Duca said...

It was gracious of her to continue the interview, once you told her you were going to go inside her asshole....:)

Mac said...

BTW, I've just pitched "Inside The Actor's Asshole" to Mark Burnett and he's pretty excited - reckons we can cut out the film crew and get it all with one fibre-optic camera.

Pamela Atherton said...

Ken... I love this idea. I am so glad you are adding this to your stable of posts.

It's a great way to introduce us to new people, and that's always a good thing.

Looking forward to reading more of them...

YEKIMI said...

The only problem I could see with "Inside The Actor's Asshole" would be that, with some of them, their head may be in the way.

Pat Reeder said...

She's quite good, but my tastes run more toward jazz and standards these days. I'll put in a blatant plug for my favorite singer, Laura Ainsworth, who also happens to be my wife. This is from her debut CD, "Keep It To Yourself," a rendition of "Skylark" with jazz guitarist Chris Derose, who works a lot with Michael Feinstein and Willie Nelson:


BTW, unlike most of the CD that was done with a full band, that was cut live in a single take with no post-production, as a sort of thumb-in-the-eye to the age of AutoTune.

Laura's also a featured artist this month at AllAboutJazz.com. If you'd like to download a free MP3 of her steamy new version of Cole Porter's "Love For Sale," just go here:


Kirk said...

"I know so little about music I could be a mentor on AMERICAN IDOL" Funny.

She grew up in Asbury Park but didn't mention Bruce Springsteen as an influence. She's a rebel.

Michael said...

Ken, thanks for the recommendation. I just downloaded her album from Amazon.

Cap'n Bob said...

Pretty girl and interesting interview, but I don't find her voice to be exceptional.

pumpkinhead said...

Since several people commented negatively on her singing, I just thought I would say that I watched the first video and did not care for her singing at all, but decided to give her a second chance with the second video, and found that she was really good in that one. The first video must have had something "off" about it - bad recording, bad song choice, don't know - but it does her a disservice. I hope people will give the second video a listen. Much, much better.

Harold X said...

Great new feature, Ken: you recommend something, and everybody piles on about how it's not all that good.

Let 'em get their own damned blogs.

In the meantime: I've seen far less enlightening interviews done by professionals.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but she would not make my top 100 female singers - to each his own though.

"Inside the Actor's Asshole"...what are you, 10 years old?

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Ken, this was great.

It's great that iTunes and the internet opened up the number of bands and writers/singers we can hear, but I miss now and then the days of radio. Back then, I heard a great song and bought it. NOW, music lovers have to find the next Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell.

It helps when somebody has heard of bands and singers and helps me discover them, thanks.

By the way, I have the album by Love and Arthur Lee, Forever Changes. I think at one point, Rolling Stone placed it at number 40 among the top 500 rock albums. And Nicole likes them...wow. That's like loving Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks."

A_Homer said...

I've been reading this blog since a long time, and really loved your takes on everything from improv class to working on past great shows, reviews of current television shows and of course, Friday questions, as well baseball or when you provide some parts of your upcoming books. They all have you in the center, and your experiences.
So while I appreciate a blog keeping "fresh", I feel if you want to parallel what it was that interested an audience in Lipton's otherwise unsufferable program, it would be to stick to actors, writers or maybe directors even. Because your readers probably then arrive with some shared knowledge of their work, and also read your blog via your success and insights from a particular field. It's more win-win, as you would continue to have great insights in the field the interviewees try to produce their craft (and hopefully art) within.
As some commenters rush to point out bluntly enough, it's your blog so feel free to write on young musicians or whomever you like. But it doesn't feel like the same thing to discuss the virtues of (both great) Cream or Arthur Lee suddenly here. Still reading though.

Anonymous said...

The song she does in the Conan video actually sounds a lot like something Arther Lee (from "Love") might have written. I hadn't known Lee's music but I recently went to a live interview with Jac Holzman (who founded Elektra records) and he spent so much time talking about Arthur Lee (whom he signed) that I had to check out his music, and it was fabulous.
Car movers Panchkula

Supervenient Man said...

That "Cry Cry Cry" was good stuff.

My favorite "Crying" cover: the Club de Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive. Yowza.