Story and photos by J.J. Shearer
Better late than never.
What Nicole Atkins must be thinking about her long-awaited sophomore album. What I am thinking about finally posting this interview. Let’s just start at the top. Atkins and I meet on an unseasonably mild evening in late-October before her and her band, The Black Sea, make their Cleveland debut at The Beachland Tavern. OK, let me clarify: Atkins has been here before; collectively, her band has not. Every time she plays a show here, the singer/songwriter makes it a point to hit up This Way Out, the tiny vintage store in the basement of the club. Appropriate since the Jersey dame has a knack for immersing herself and audiences in a surreal 1940s-noir-meets-Technicolor-musical world.
On this particular night, I’m supposed to meet Atkins at 8 p.m. but can’t seem to reach her. My buddy and I decide to stop nervously loitering around outside and head down to This Way Out. There’s Atkins and her bandmates, rummaging through racks of clothing and bins of vinyl. The atmosphere and the room are so so vintage, they render even mobile phones useless, explaining my earlier troubles.
She tries on some brown, suede shorts. We make small talk about the 1922 silent film Nosferatu while picking through some LPs. Finally, after about 20 minutes, Atkins is ready to chat about the good (her new band and forthcoming album), the bad (her split with her old band and Columbia Records) and the ugly. Well, maybe not the ugly, which from what little Atkins divulges seems to revolve around a messy breakup, whose shadow looms large over the new material.
[Click here to view Nicole Atkins and The Black Sea's entire 11-song set at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland.]
McCarthy’s Media Menace: How’s the tour going?
Nicole Atkins: Good. Really good. We’ve been opening for the Avetts. It’s weird cuz every tour that we’ve ever done opening for somebody, the crowd has been very sparse or half full, and every single night it’s at almost capacity by the time we go on.
Mx3: But not tonight, though.
Atkins: No. The Avetts’ bass player’s having a baby.
Mx3: So you guys are headlining.
Atkins: Yeah. We just booked some of our own shows in between.
Mx3: Is this the first one without the Avetts?
Atkins: No. Two days ago we did Chicago. It was great. I was surprised to see how many people came out.
Mx3: How many people came out?
Atkins: It was like a little over 200, and it was surprising to me just cuz we don’t have a new record out yet. It’s been a while.
Mx3: That’s a good amount of people.
Atkins: Maybe the word’s gotten out that we’re playing all new songs.
Mx3: When I saw Gliss play down in Atlanta, there were literally like 10, 12 people in the room. And they’d just released their album. I felt so bad.
Atkins: I don’t know how much Gliss has toured, though. Have they toured a lot?
Mx3: They’ve been touring a lot since the album came out. But one of the things I was gonna ask you is the other two bands from that one night here in Cleveland—the Raveonettes and Gliss—they both said Cleveland’s not blacklisted, but they haven’t come back since that October 2007 night. But you keep coming back.
Atkins: Seriously, that was the worst night ever to play a show. We played in front of no one.
Mx3: But you keep coming back, though.
Atkins: Yeah. Yeah… they make us. (laughs)
Mx3: Who makes you? (laughs)
Atkins: My manager. No I’m kidding. I like playing here. Even the last time we played the Tavern—you know cuz the Tavern’s smaller—and there was maybe like, I dunno, 25 or 30 people there but they all had a great time and we had a good time.
Mx3: So I want to talk about the past year because that’s obviously been a big thing for you. Could you summarize it?
Atkins: Got a new band, wrote a new album, got a new apartment, new life, getting a new label, and yeah, basically changing everything.
Mx3: Big transition.
Atkins: Big transition. You know if you asked me this this time last year or the holiday season last year, that was when everything started to shift. I was fighting about creative stuff with my label a lot and all the members of my old band were all moving in different directions with their jobs and their families and stuff. And I was really changing the sound of my music. So if you asked me this question—if I was OK with everything last year—I probably would’ve started crying cuz it was just too much change at once. But now everything’s really leveling out and it feels like I made the right decisions.
Mx3: I want to talk to you about some of those things that happened because now you have a new band. What’s the biggest difference between the new band and the old band besides the name?
Atkins: The old band was a lot more reserved and a lot more rooted in classical and jazz, and this new band is all just pure emotional playing and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a lot grittier and rawer. A lot of the older songs like “Neptune City”—everything just has more of a menacing weight to it now. And we get really loud. And it’s really fun. I mean I love my old band, too, but these are the right people to be playing this kind of music.
Mx3: I could tell even when you were playing before you kind of had an itch to rock out, and maybe the music wasn’t always letting you get to that point.
Atkins: Yeah. I mean when we were doing covers like the Doors and Patti Smith and stuff like that, I felt like I was able to do what I wanted to do, which was to run around and scream and croon and howl and stomp around. That’s why I wrote all the new songs on the record the way they are, because that’s been built into my body since I was really young.
Mx3: Why the Black Sea? Because it’s a little darker?
Atkins: Yeah. I wanted to keep part of the old name just to have that name recognition, but I changed it to the Black Sea just cuz the sound suits it a lot better.
Mx3: So what exactly happened with the old band? It seemed at first it was just Cashmere that left. And then it seemed like they all left.
Atkins: Well, no. Dan left because he got married and didn’t want to tour anymore. You know, really wanted to concentrate on his family. And the other guys were still in, but when people are playing music only to get paid—there’s no money for me to pay people to come to practice, and I needed a band that was willing to be in it with me more, because… there’s just no money.
Mx3: Did you have an intervention?
Atkins: I said, “I love you guys and I have all these new songs. Can you come down to New Jersey once a week to practice with me?” None of them could. If I came up to New York, two of them said they’d practice for free, but I’m not coming up to New York. Chris, my drummer—he lives right behind me, behind my parents’ house. When I was struggling with the decision, he just knocked on my door, and he was like, “I’ve grown up with your music since you were playing acoustic.” I used to babysit him. And he’s like, “I will play drums for you morning, noon and night for free. I will knock on your door and we’ll go get coffee and talk about your songs.” That was the thing, I was in Asbury Park writing new songs and trying to write new songs and had nobody in my band really wanting to even talk about it.
Mx3: That’s got to be discouraging.
Atkins: Everybody’s priorities just shifted. All of them got married at the same time. I’m ready to make albums and go on tour. I’m not planning on getting domestic anytime soon.
Mx3: Did you say your parents babysat your drummer?
Atkins: I babysat my drummer. He’s seven years younger than me. He’s been playing drums since he was three.
Mx3: How old is he?
Atkins: 25, 24. 24.
Mx3: Younger than I am. Starting to feel old right now.
Atkins: Oh, me too. When you used to babysit your bandmates… But then Brad and Tony were always really good friends of mine and they were in a band Sikamor Rooney. They just fell on some hard times trying to find a drummer for a while. I was writing songs with Brad, and I was just like, “Wait a second. Why don’t you guys just be in my band?” And they were like, “Hell yeah.” And coming from a place where we’ve all been friends—I mean me and Chris like basically our whole lives, but Brad and Tony like the last six years—it’s really fun and easy to make music with people you’re good friends with. And it’s hard, too. But the funny thing is, is we all know how to fight, because we know that nothing drastic is gonna happen by fighting.
Mx3: So you can be confrontational without being bitter.
Atkins: You can be argumentative.
Mx3: Would you say Cashmere was a driving force behind some of the sound of Neptune City?
Atkins: No, I think the sound behind Neptune City was my first producer, David, that I made the Party’s Over demos with—him and I created a lot of that sound. Then Tore created that Wall of Sound on the record, my producer. But I mean definitely Cashmere—err, Cashmere—Dan Chen had a really—that style of playing is just built into his DNA. It was perfect for him to play, and he added a lot to it.
Mx3: It seemed very natural for him.
Atkins: Yeah, yeah. I mean I would love to play with Dan again. And we’ve written a couple songs for the new record together.
Mx3: Was “I Wait For You” written with him?
Atkins: No, that was written with this guy Angelo Petraglia that wrote a bunch of the Kings of Leon albums.
Mx3: Oh, really? That song’s been with you guys for a while.
Atkins: Yeah, for a while. It sounds a lot different now.
Mx3: Yeah, I heard it. It sounds completely different. Is it going to be on the new record?
Mx3: Cool. So, new material. Cinematic vs. rock out. We already kind of covered that. But now you’re kind of going a different direction.
Atkins: I think it’s still really cinematic.
Mx3: You think it still has that cinematic sound?
Atkins: Absolutely, yeah.
Mx3: Some of the songs I heard—I’m not sure if they’re still in the mix—like “Hotel Plaster,” that one really did. And “Oh Canada.”
Atkins: Just cuz it’s slow doesn’t mean it’s cinematic, you know?
Mx3: “The Tower,” I’m not sure if that one’s still in the mix.
Atkins: Yeah, that’s still there. All the songs now are like a mix of the first Pretenders album and the dark cabaret pop of Nick Cave or something.
Mx3: When did you originally want this album to be released, because I know—
Atkins: Like last year.
Mx3: Yeah, because I know we talked some a couple times, and you kept changing—
Atkins: I didn’t change shit. [laughs]
Mx3: Obviously it wasn’t your fault, but it seemed like Columbia was lagging.
Atkins: Columbia was really good for me to put my first record out with. Even though a lot, a lot of things got messed up. But all the people I started working with originally weren’t at the company anymore, and my A&R person and I were just constantly not seeing eye to eye. So it was a struggle for both of us. In the end, this is the best decision, to put it out with someone else. I’m hoping that it comes out June. We’re gonna record it in January.
Mx3: Did you find a new label yet?
Atkins: We’re negotiating now.
Mx3: Is it gonna an indie or a major?
Atkins: It’s hopeful—I can’t say anything cuz I don’t wanna jinx it. It’s not a major.
Mx3: Ramseur Records seems like they treat their people right.
Atkins: Oh yeah, I’ve known Dolph [Ramseur] since I was like 20. I went to college with the Avett Brothers. He’s from Concord—err, Cornelius.
Mx3: Paleface and Mo Samalot were talking about him, too, how they can pretty much work at their own pace and do what they want and release when they want. I got the feeling you weren’t going to go with a major again because you’d have to go through all this again probably.
Atkins: The one label that we’re talking to is a bigger indie. It’s an indie with major resources.
Mx3: Which is good. And it seems like a label like Columbia is good for that initial push.
Atkins: Yeah, we jumped a lot of hurdles that most indie bands take years to jump. So that’s good.
Mx3: There are a lot of songs I’ve heard for this new album. Are they all going to make it?
Atkins: It depends what you’ve heard. I don’t know what you’ve heard.
Mx3: I’ve been trying to follow since pretty much Austin City Limits last year…
Atkins: Oh, wow.
Mx3: … when you guys played “The Tower.”
Atkins: And that song “Vultures.” We need to rework “Vultures” cuz I’d like to have that song.
[Just a side note: Atkins and Austin-based band Future Clouds and Radar played a reworked version of this song in their Austin City Limits set leading into South By Southwest earlier this month.]
Mx3: “Teen Creep,” too, was there.
Atkins: Who knows if that’s gonna be on. I don’t think so. I have the album done, and “Teen Creep” isn’t on there. But you never know. We’re gonna record everything I have, and who knows what’s gonna end up. But I already know pretty much…
Mx3: Yeah, because it seemed for a while you were telling me it was going to be more rock-out. It almost seemed like you were working on two different albums. It seemed like it was going in two different directions.
Atkins: Yeah, that was when I talked to you a while ago. Now, everything fits
Mx3: What about the relationships in your songs? It seems like for a songwriter to be effective, there almost has to be a certain amount of misery.
Atkins: Well, I wish that wasn’t the case, you know? There’s a lot of songwriters that write about good things, too. I just didn’t really have a year filled with many of them. My relationship was definitely a thing that got written about a lot.
Mx3: The guy from the Parlor Mob?
Atkins: Yeah. I don’t wanna talk about him.
Mx3: OK. [laughs]
Atkins: We now refer to him as ‘Ronald.’
Mx3: Ronald? What does that mean?
Atkins: I just don’t know who you’re talking about.
Mx3: Oh, OK. [laughs] So when you left Columbia, was it you leaving them, or was it vice versa?
Atkins: Umm, no. It was them making the decision that they didn’t think they heard a single. Or, not that. It all came down to money. My last record cost a lot of money, and they didn’t… I don’t know.
Mx3: That’s a shame because…
Atkins: I didn’t wanna be there anymore, either.
Mx3: It is kind of a shame, though, because it seems a lot of majors aren’t putting the time and resources into bands anymore.
Atkins: No. They’re just like, “Take your pants off and dance, and if it doesn’t work then you gotta go.” And I’m not gonna do that shit.
Mx3: It’s very iTunes-commercial-oriented.
Atkins: Yeah. I think there’s several what would be called commercial singles on this next record. But I don’t know. The person I was working with over there—her and I did not see eye-to-eye on anything.
Atkins: Nothing. And I’m really happy to not have to work with her anymore.
Mx3: Now when you toured, was Columbia backing that?
Atkins: When we toured, Columbia backed all of it. This is our first tour without any tour support.
Mx3: So it’s a little nerve-racking.
Atkins: Actually it’s been really, really cruise-y. It sucks that we’re not gonna make any money. But it’s been really fun and very easy so far. [yells across the room] Right, Tony?
Tony Chick: What?
Atkins: Touring’s been pretty easy, right?
Atkins: So far? Did I just jinx us?
Chick: It’s been a good cruise. I got sick.
Atkins: I got sick, too.
Mx3: But overall, it’s been not that bad without the major backing.
Atkins: Yeah, we just have no money now. The shows have been well-attended and the tour with the Avett Brothers has been great. And I’m in a van with all of my friends. We’re makin’ enough to get by.
Mx3: Well, that’s good. [laughs]
Atkins: That was the one good thing about being able to tour a lot on Columbia. With tour support, we were able to build a fan base.
Mx3: And you took advantage of that while you were there.
Atkins: Yeah, totally.
Mx3: A lot of people are just like whatever.
Atkins: Any band that doesn’t like to tour that’s young—I don’t know why they’re even doing this.
Guitarist Brad York walks in with a big witch’s hat.
Atkins: I thought about that.
Brad York: It’s nine bucks.
Atkins: Yeah, but I don’t know about the pimp fur.
York: You don’t know? I feel like it’s kind of…
Atkins: I don’t know about the fur. Lemme see this. [takes the hat]
Mx3: I could see you in a promotional photo with that.
Atkins: No, not for a photo. For Halloween.
York: That works.
Atkins: It’s so big, though. It’s too big.
York: Like too big on your head?
Atkins: It’ll flop off. Yeah.
York: Well it does have the padding in there. Maybe you can just like…
Atkins: No. I don’t like the pimp fur.
[I discover later from the guys that Atkins concocted the idea to be the Wicked Witch of the West for the band's Halloween show in Nashville. And what about monkeys? Come on. That's an easy one.]
Mx3: Do you still have that one song, “Call Me the Witch”?
Atkins: Yeah, that’s actually…
Mx3: Maybe you should play that and wear that hat with it.
Atkins: No. [laughs]
Atkins: The guy Robert Harrison that I wrote some songs with—like “Hotel Plaster” and “Cry Cry Cry”… “Call Me the Witch” was a song that I don’t think really fits onto this album. So him and I started a side project with the songs that we’re not using for my record called Sir Parker. It’s really awesome.
Atkins: Yeah, it’s him and bunch of really awesome cats from Austin, Texas.
Mx3: Are you fronting it?
Atkins: Yeah, I’m fronting it and he’s singing, too.
Mx3: So it’s kind of like an extension almost.
Atkins: Yeah. Extended family.
Mx3: Does that have any plans to be released?
Atkins: Hopefully, yeah. We’re finishing up the record now. It’s almost done.
Mx3: So that’ll be out probably before…
Atkins: Probably. [chuckles] Well, who knows. These things take time. If you want to put a record out the right way, you need to take time with it and set it up so it comes out at the right time. If you just fling it out there… you know.
Mx3: It’s not like back in the ‘50s when they were just releasing…
Atkins: Yeah, they don’t really have DJs anymore so it’s not like you’re gonna get it in the hands of the right DJ.
Mx3: That’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about, because you’re very big in involvement and you’ve been pushing that radio thing. Can you talk about that?
Atkins: Low-powered FM?
Atkins: Well, I guess when Clear Channel just started taking over all the airwaves, they said that there wasn’t enough spaces on the dial, three spaces down, for small, local 100-watt FM stations. So we’re trying to get a bill passed in Congress to allow them because they did a study to see if it would cause any interference having the stations that close, and it doesn’t. So that’s going through the House now. They just did a preliminary vote and it passed 15-1. Those small local radio stations are perfect for local culture and indie music.
Mx3: It is all the same 40 songs pretty much on every station. I mean, they have a different 40 songs for every station, but…
Atkins: I like how this year though in the Top 40 there’s been some actual cool albums that have gotten into it.
Mx3: Like which ones?
Atkins: Like the Avett Brothers and Neko Case. That’s been pretty exciting. I feel like there’s a lot of good music coming out now that’s getting a little bit more mainstream. At least I hope there is. It feels like there is.
Mx3: There’s a lot of good music out there. It’s just not as easy to break the surface.
Atkins: Not in the mainstream. Definitely on the Internet.
Mx3: And something like the iTunes commercials has really helped.
Atkins: Yeah, I mean commercials are really the way that bands are getting known. A lot of people take a knock at that AMEX commercial, but we got a lot of people that would’ve never heard of us, knowing that song and our music from it.
Mx3: It’s a cool opportunity.
Atkins: It was a great opportunity. And it enabled me to move out of my parents’ house, which was even better. [laughs]
Mx3: I feel like if you weren’t actually making music, you’d be pushing bands. Like I said, I was talking to Mo and Paleface, they said you were a catalyst to help bring them together with all these groups.
Atkins: Yeah, yeah. I introduced them to the Avett Brothers. And Regina to the Avetts, and them and Langhorne. Yeah, I got them altogether in a room one night and had a show in New York, in the back of a buffalo wing restaurant that I worked at. It was great. There was like nine people there.
Mx3: That’s what he was saying—that it was completely dead. Just a couple bummed-out waitresses and a bunch of musicians.
Atkins: Well, the waitresses weren’t bummed-out once everyone started playin’. But yeah, I definitely have a natural knack for that—for helping bands find their way and promoting bands.
Mx3: Paste magazine. You helped them out.
Atkins: Oh yeah, I like to help people I believe in.
Mx3: Record stores and all that.
Atkins: Yeah, lots of things. There’s a social cause in Asbury Park that I’m helping right now. They help local businesses that are the most supportive and fill the needs of lower-income families in Asbury Park. So we’re trying to figure out how we can get more resources pumped into those businesses.
Mx3: Anything else you want to tackle in the activism arena?
Atkins: Oh man. I dunno. But when I figure it out, I’ll let you know. I definitely want to start a music mentorship in Asbury Park for kids after school. The football program is really great, but for the kids that don’t play sports, like what the fuck are they gonna do? And we have so many great local musicians in Asbury that can lend their time when people aren’t touring to give kids between the ages of eight and 12 that kind of hands-on music training. Like even if you want to teach them about hip-hop, you can bring in poets. Teach them how to engineer and record their own stuff. Give them something to learn at a young age that they can take with them for the rest of their lives.
Mx3: Speaking of Asbury Park, have you had any more run-ins with The Boss?
Atkins: Not with him personally, no. I went to his last giant stadium show, though. My friend Jay is Max Weinberg’s son, and so he brought us and he was playing drums on “Born to Run.” We were like on the stage. It was great.
Mx3: That had to be kind of surreal.
Atkins: Yeah, it was sweet.
Mx3: You spoke to him a couple times in person, right?
Mx3: He should push you guys.
Atkins: You know, everybody’s busy with their own stuff.
Mx3: Take you on tour with him.
Atkins: Yeah, that’d be great.
Mx3: Wouldn’t have to worry about all this kind of stuff. One time with Bruce Springsteen and it’s over.
Atkins: We work hard. The things that are supposed to happen to us will, whether Bruce Springsteen takes on tour or not. Whatever.
Mx3: So you guys have demos of all your songs? Pretty much ready to…?
Atkins: We’re ready to go, I think. We’re ready to record this album. Dude, we’ve been ready. I’ve been had that. We’re gonna go in, in January and it’s gonna be awesome. I’m just glad after all of the things—the waiting and the frustrations and the blockage and the change that all happened last year—I feel like it’s finally coming to a point now with this tour and then recording this winter. All of that hardship and frustration is just gonna be like ‘ahh’ with this winter. Who knew winter could be such a good time?