Columbia Records artist and friend of the site Nicole Atkins recently gave us an exclusive interview where we got the opportunity to discuss her new album, her songwriting process, Chris Isaak’s mirror suit and the best philosophy for your band. If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear her debut album Neptune City,
you’re missing out on one of New Jersey’s finest. Now, on to the interview!
MS: We’re living in a new age of digital music that is constantly in flux and where the fate of traditional record labels is in a strange sort of limbo. Right now, you’re on a pretty big label. So far, how has that experience been?
NA: For me so far it’s been a pretty good experience. Being on a major label has definitely helped me reach a wider audience in a shorter amount of time than if I was on an independent label. They have a larger staff of people working to get the music out on a many different platforms. I know that most majors put out a lot of commercial music that I wouldn’t probably listen to but I’ve been lucky with mine that they give me the time and space to make the music that I want and we just take it from there.
MF: After an acclaimed debut album, you’re working on a follow-up. How different is it 2nd time around? More confidence, pressure or room to experiment? Can you explain the sound you’re going for this time around?
NA: I would say it’s all of that. The cliche about the second record is definitely true. You have your whole life to write your first one and a few months to write the second. I’ve been working on this record for about 9 months and have probably written about 40 songs. Up until last month, I still wasn’t sure where I was going with it but then last month I got a new band and we just started playing these songs everyday and now they’ve really started to show themselves as a whole. The sound is definitely more raw, very 70′s rock, very surfy, less orchestration. It’s nice to be able to experiment with this kind of sound as this is the kind of music I’ve been living with at home for the last 16 years so I knew it was only a matter of time before I broke out some distortion pedals. There are still gonna be a few big ballads like the last record too.
MF: What method do you use to record your demos? Do you prefer small sketches or do you elaborately plan your songs?
NA: I usually record all my song ideas either on my cell phone or my mini digital recorder. Then I show them to the band and we record them in my buddy Jeff Plate’s apartment. It’s a small operation but we get a really nice sound outta there and it’s just a fun place to be.
MF: Do you feel that the songs you create end up a close to the original vision you had for it, or do you prefer to be surprised by the end result? What role does the studio (instruments and effects) play in the construction of your songs, if any?
NA: I definitely was with my last record, Neptune City. Before I was signed I made a demo record called “Party’s Over” with my friend David Muller. We recorded it at my parent’s house and at the Deitch Space in Brooklyn. Most of the songs from that demo ended up on my album. We spent a lot of time adding layers with guitars, piano and a little Casio keyboard with a sound bank to create a wall of sound. When I went to record the album proper in Sweden, there was a budget and it was in a real studio. So instead of using Casio violins, we used the real guys. So the songs were close to the original but the sound was like a grand scale vision of the original. Once I’m in the studio, you never know exactly what the outcome is gonna be like in the end but as long as you have a general intent then it will keep you grounded to be able to get what you want and sometimes you come out with something way bigger than you expected.
MF: Some artists get attached to an instrument or piece of gear that they feel comfortable with or that helps define them or their sound. Do you have one of these?
NA: My black 68 Hagstrom Viking has been my main instrument but I think I might be retiring it for a bit. Baby’s tired.
MF: Your voice is one of the first things that stands out about you. Is that something you’ve trained for or is that something that comes easily for you?
NA: I’ve been singing since I was really little. I was never brought up with training but within the last couple years with touring I’ve been taking some lessons to learn how to not damage it and keep it strong on the road. I’ve got acid reflux and a polyp (which I’ve had since age 13) so I gotta keep that thing in shape and be nice to it.
MF: I’ve heard you on occasion cover Fleetwood Mac, an extremely influential group with two dynamic female songwriters. Do you find yourself referencing other female artists for inspiration and comparison or does gender even enter into the equation for you?
NA: I find inspiration in male and female artists, movies, nature, alleys, the sea. Gender never enters the equation no. Its an all in idea pool.
MF: Speaking of heroes, when I was about 16, Chris Isaak was the first rock show I ever saw (he was wearing a suit made of mirrors and he blew my mind!) Were you previously a fan of his music and how did it feel to open up for someone like him? And do you still get star-struck on occasions like that?
NA: Ha, he still has that mirror suit! I got to try it on, shit is heavy! I was a fan of his since “Blue Hotel” came out. I remember watching David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and hearing “Wicked Game” and being I don’t remember how old, but like “Who is this!?!?” – he’s like a young Roy Orbison. When my manager called me about the tour I was ecstatic. I was a bit star struck at first but Chris and his band are the most humble, funny, down to earth and encouraging people we could have ever hoped to play with and become buddies with.
MF: Lastly, I know these past few years have been quite a whirlwind of changes for you considering all your success. What advice can you give our readers trying to take their bands to the next level?
NA: I would just say to put all of your time and effort working on your songs, making your sound interesting and working on your band. Make your sound sound like what your head and heart would sound like and don’t pay attention to trends. Keep it real, son! Play as many shows as you can and get involved in your local scene. And always keep a demo on you, you never know who you’re gonna meet. Especially in New York.