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Nicole Atkins: Summoning Rhonda Lee

Holly Gleason | January 09, 2018


Nicole Atkins can't find the coffee filters. She’s looked in all the cupboards and on the shelves of the cream-colored, sunlight-filled East Nashville kitchen where she resides. She’d arrived home far later than planned from Alaska after wrapping up a string of shows. She’s already missed a doctor’s appointment, and really needs that coffee.

“I don’t do a lot of things,” she explains. “But the things I do—like music and coffee—I’ll do it until I die!”

She laughs, makes a mock-crisis/serious face. But a reality remains: She can’t find the filters, and she needs coffee. Finally, taking two paper towels, she folds them to fit the catch in her coffeemaker and gently scoops the ground beans in.

“Coffeeeeeeeeee...,” she intones, invoking caffeine’s healing powers. Then she rolls her eyes, making fun of her exhaustion. Even as she suggests these small dramas are really no drama at all, she demonstrates the cat-landing-on-its-feet grace that defines a career that’s been hailed by The New Yorker, The New York Times and countless late-night TV shows.

With her copper hair caught back in a stubby ponytail, rectangular glasses, oversized shapeless sweater hanging down and vowels steeped in the squawk of the Jersey Shore, the lithe 39 year old could be just another grad student trying to pull it together. But the hanging rack of sequins and vintage clothes in the kitchen—“They’re from my garage sale. No one came,” she confesses— suggests a far flung career path through the major label grinder en route to carving her own space beyond genres.

Is it alternative? Adult? Vintage chanteuse? Retro- soul? Rock? Noir-cocktail jazz? Psychedelic pop? Whatever it’s called, she sings it with a depth of emotion that rivals Adele, Sade, and even the deceased Dusty Springfield, Dinah Washington, Amy Winehouse and Dap Queen Sharon Jones.

Goodnight Rhonda Lee, Atkins’ latest, mines the emotional landscapes of bottoming out and seeking sobriety. With the minimal “A Night of Serious Drinking,” spaghetti-western undertow of the title track, serious soul of “Listen Up,” Randy Newman-esque funky torque of “Brokedown Luck” and Bobbie Gentry by way of Burt Bacharach feel of “I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t),” GRL measures a heart soaked in gin and tries to dry it out.

Recorded at Fort Worth, Texas’ Niles City Sound with Leon Bridges producers/ former White Denim members Josh Block and Austin Jenkins, the song cycle traces Atkins’ own battle with the bottle, steeping it in the Jersey girl’s deep musicality and with the help of a band filled with ace players like Robert Ellis.

“When he heard the demos, Austin was like, ‘This is Roy Orbison and Aretha Franklin having a party in London in the ‘60s,’” she recalls over coffee on the front porch. “It swings. One of the influences was Frank Sinatra’s Ring-a-Ding-Ding! Timeless stuff... I wanted to make a record that if I died tomorrow, I’d have made a record of what I do best: ‘50s songs are what I record. The music I do onstage is more ‘60s and ‘70s soul, but there’s other stuff, too.”

The musicality keeps what could be mountains of melodrama in perspective. While the unfiltered Nicole Atkins writes about being tortured by the bottles at the bar in “Colors,” and gently pulls her drunken protagonist alter ego somewhere to minimize the damage, the music is what makes Goodnight so special.

It’s not surprising. Atkins is a musical magnet. She’s produced Bash & Pop/former Replacement Tommy Stinson, co-written with Bad Seed/ NYC punk provocateur Jim Sclavunos and Chris Isaak. Seemingly able to use her voice to sing anything, she once scatted questions to DeeDee Bridgewater at a University of North Carolina lecture. As a teenager growing up in New Jersey, she jammed onstage with moe. and has served as an auxiliary member of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. She’s particularly close with JRAD guitarist Scott Metzger and has used his instrumental trio WOLF! as her backing band. It is these layers that make things interesting.

“It was so cool, working with these really schooled musicians,” she marvels. “I could say, ‘Do that four times, then go to this note...’ and they could do it. There was a Nashville Scene article that really bummed me out, suggesting the band did it. Truth is, I might have all those talented guys around me, but I coached them for what I wanted. Just because I don’t play these instruments, it doesn’t mean I can’t arrange these songs! I sing people the parts, and say things; with ‘Sleepwalking,’ I said, ‘Let’s go Love Boat. Is that cheesy?’ And they were all, ‘No.’ [The musicians] knew exactly. Sometimes it’s the vibe as much as the note.”