Nicole Atkins is a timeless artist whose songwriting and voice spans generations. Often compared to Roy Orbison, who she grew up admiring, Atkins burst onto the music scene in 2007 with her debut album “Neptune City.” For that, she and her band were featured on “Late Night with David Letterman” and lauded by Rolling Stone Magazine in their “Top 10 Artists To Watch.”
Since then, Atkins has released “Mondo Amore” (2011) and “Slow Phaser” (2013) which both received critical acclaim. Now, three years after her last album, Atkins is set to release her latest, entitled “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,” featuring two songs co-written with Chris Isaak.
To put it together, Atkins has gone DIY and resorted to crowdfunding website PledgeMusic, which fellow New Jersey native and friend Bruce Springsteen aided in a big way by posting it on his Facebook page. It’s not the first time Atkins has resorted to crowdfunding — doing so a few years ago to help get a tour van.
Recently, The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito chatted with Atkins about her new album, her friendship with Springsteen, her move to Nashville and hanging out with a Chicago character known as ‘Vodka Dave’ while in Chicago and her upcoming show at City Winery November 25.
CA) How is has the response been to the new album?
ATKINS) It’s been great. I can’t wait until it’s released. It’s the best album I’ve made. It sounds like an old record that I’d have in my record collection.
CA) When will it come out?
ATKINS) In 2017. We have the single “A Little Crazy” out now. We’ll probably release a few singles before to get it going.
CA) You did a PledgeMusic campaign to help fund this album and in the past did a KickStarter. Do you think that gives your fans a sense of ownership or create special bond?
ATKINS) I feel like it makes everything more inclusive with the fans. The first campaign we did was to help get a tour van. It was like a call to fans where we said ‘We’ll make you all this cool stuff if you help us buy this van.’ Everybody really had fun with it it. With the Pledge campaign, it was to help me specifically to make this record. People who donated would get videos of us making the record where they could see the arrangement of the strings and the horns, so it was really neat. We also gave them snippets of the songs. I think back to when I was in high school and would wait until the new Wilco CD came out. I’d have it on my calendar but would have no idea what it would sound like. If they had something where I could look behind the scenes like we’re doing right now, I’d be so stoked.
CA) This album took awhile, 3 years.
ATKINS) Yeah, it took a long time.
CA) Was it because of the songwriting process or were you also taking a break?
ATKINS) I went through a bunch of stuff. I got married, I moved, I quit drinking. It was a lot and the songs that I was writing before I got married changed when I met my husband and when I quit drinking, my mind cleared up a lot. So I had all these other ideas and feelings to deal with. And it wasn’t just a cut and dry ‘I quit drinking forever.’ It was a constant back and forth with a lot of feelings and emotions.
CA) You’ve been living in Nashville now for a bout a year. How has that been?
ATKINS) Yeah, it’s been a year. It’s so different from the Jersey Shore. Everybody is a musician and you get a lot property for your buck. And you’re constantly involved in music. There’s a great music scene in Jersey, but everybody works normal jobs too. Here I’ll be sitting around if I don’t have a gig and someone will call and say, ‘What are you doing, can you come and sing tonight?’ It’s great.
CA) Speaking of Jersey, it sounds like you’ve developed a pretty cool relationship with Bruce Springsteen, who helped with your Pledge campaign.
ATKINS) Yes, he really came through at the 25th hour. He used to go to a friend’s bar and said that he wanted to meet me after my first record came out. I was literally in sweat pants and cowboy boots, having dinner with my parents when my friend called and said, ‘You have to get over here, Bruce is here and he wants to meet you.’ I just went in my sweat pants. My dad told me that ‘He’ll think that’s cool.’ So I went and we talked about bands and he talked to me about when he was first coming up. He’s just such a down to earth guy, you don’t feel like you’re talking to this unattainable legend. You feel like you’re talking to a really great dude that happens to be Bruce Springsteen.
CA) Speaking of big stars, it seems like you’re on the cusp of becoming a huge national star yourself.
ATKINS) I hope so. It’s a struggle. One day you feel like, ‘Oh my God, it’s happening’ and the next it feels like it’s over. It’s a roller coaster but I’m very grateful. I’ve been doing a lot of this very DIY for the last 5 years and I have a great fan base that cares, so I’ve been able to do this for a living. That’s so amazing. National fame would be amazing but for now I can roll with this. It’s workable.
CA) The first time you were on national television was on “Late Night with David Letterman”, correct?
ATKINS) Yes. I was on his show after the first album and again before he went off the air.
CA) I remember the first time you were on. You really hit it out of the ballpark and blew him away.
ATKINS) Thanks. We waited so long for that record to come out. It kept being pushed back because of layoffs at Columbia Records. So by the time it came out when we were on the show I told my band ‘Alright, we’re going to play this like we’re going to die right after.’ [Laughter]
CA) I always hear comparisons of you to Roy Orbison. Is that something you embrace or does it annoy you?
ATKINS) No, I think it’s the best compliment of all-time for me. He is my all-time favorite singer and favorite writer, since I was a kid. My grandmother, all she listened to was Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. My uncle listened to Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. So any time that I get comparisons to any of them, I feel like I must be doing something right.
CA) You also worked a decent amount with Chris Isaak. What was that like?
ATKINS) That actually really helped the shaping of this record. I got a gig a little over a year ago as a host on Sirius XM’s Spectrum channel. Chris Isaak took me and my band with him on tour after our first record. He was so nice to us and taught us how to tour. We all became friends, it was so cool. So, I hadn’t seen him in about seven years and then my manager at Sirius told me he was coming in and asked if I wanted to interview him. So we met again and hit it off like no time had passed. He said we should write together. So the first one we wrote was “A Little Crazy” and we also wrote “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” which is the title of the album. Then I tried to shape the rest of the album like an old-school Roy Orbison or Dusty Springfield way. I had hundreds of songs over the years but really shaped the ones that were like my life for the past year into that type of style and sound.
CA) You’ve developed relationships with Bruce Springsteen and Chris Isaak. Who would you say is at the top of your list to work with in the future?
ATKINS) I’d love to work with Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. Jack White, I think everything he does comes from a very cool place. I worked with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and would love to work with him again. The drummer from the Bad Seeds, Jim Sclavunos, is on my new record. I’d love to work with PJ Harvey. Also Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, who I hope both have a speedy recovery health-wise. I’d love to work with Mavis Staples again, that was amazing. Wilco, I’d love to work with them. When I first started writing songs in 2001 I used to sneak into Wilco concerts and would sneak backstage and give Jeff Tweedy my demo, which was probably really annoying but he was really nice about it. That was about the time American Idol started and my dad tried to get me to audition. He said he’d pay off my student loans if I got on but I told him that while it sounds very enticing, if I got on that show I’d never be able to open for Wilco. [Laughter]. Another person I’d love to work with is Robert Plant.
CA) It sounds like you’ve spent a decent amount of time in Chicago —
ATKINS) I haven’t been to Chicago in a few years but I did spend a lot of time in Chicago. It was cool. There was a guy who we called Vodka Dave who lived in a hotel. He was a huge, huge fan of the band. He had a vodka company and then a rum company and actually supported a lot of our tours. He’d put us up and take us to the Hala Kahiki Lounge, which is the coolest place ever.
CA) You’ll be back in Chicago November 25.
ATKINS) Yes, the day after Thanksgiving. It will be a nice reprieve from the crazy Thanksgiving dinner at my house. It will be just me solo. It’s a lot different than what I do with the band. When I’m with the band it’s a full-on rock show. For this, I’ll have my electric guitar and my vocal effects mic which I use for the string parts. It has an echo and is really unique.
Nicole Atkins plays City Winery November 25. For ticket information, click here.