SEA CHANGE Nicole Atkins

It’s been a
period of prolonged upheaval for the gorgeous rock chanteuse. With a new album,
band and tour, things are looking up.

 

BY NICK D’AMORE

 

The album’s title seems so charming and innocent. Mondo Amore, Nicole
Atkins’ huge expression of love in the form of her second album, coming out a
week before Valentine’s Day, no less.

 

Or not. Not after the year (or two) she’s had.

 

In the years following her 2007 debut full-length, Neptune City, Atkins’ career had been
ascending steadily. She had a critically claimed album and was receiving wider
recognition. She shared stages and recorded with David Byrne and A.C. Newman.

 

Then, in 2009, came upheaval. She and her record label, Columbia
Records, parted company, for reasons that have befallen many an artist on a
major label in the past decade. The people who had originally signed Atkins
were gone and now there were haggles and discussions about singles and even the
tempos of her songs. So, in the beginning stages of crafting a new album, the
search was on for a new home. According to Atkins, the split from the label
that had released her first records, 2006’s Bleeding
Diamonds
EP and the following year’s Neptune
City
, was a positive step for her. She soon found a willing partner in
Razor & Tie, a company initially known for releasing compilations such as Monster Ballads, but that in recent
years has amassed an impressive roster of artists, including Joan Baez, Dar
Williams, Richard Ashcroft and Zappa Plays Zappa.

 

“Once I left, I felt a lot freer to make the music I wanted to without
having to worry about hits,” Atkins says. “Razor & Tie are super-into what
I make and give me the freedom to do my thing. It’s fun again.”

 

The record label change was not the only huge musical hurdle Atkins
would have to best. Around the same time, she also split with her longtime
backing band, The Sea, a group of talented players who excelled at the tight
arrangements of Atkins’ songs. Similar to her change of label, the change of
supporting cast seemed to come at the right time. She was writing darker,
moodier and looser material that would require players with a more spontaneous
and harder feel than The Sea had brought. She aptly dubbed her new band, The
Black Sea, reflecting the sounds with which she was now experimenting. The band
as it currently exists is your basic rock setup, guitar (Irina Yalkowski),
drums (Ezra Oaklan), bass (Jeremy Kay); Yalkowski and Kay are both on Mondo Amore, while Chris Donofrio held
down the drum seat for the album.

 

Probably the most difficult challenge for Atkins in the run-up to her
new album was a bit more personal than leaving behind her old bandmates and
record label. She also ended a years-long relationship with her boyfriend, the
heartbreak of which can be heard throughout the album in songs like “Hotel
Plaster,” “Cry Cry Cry” (not a Johnny Cash cover; both that and “Hotel Plaster”
were co-writes with Austin
musician – and longtime BLURT fave – Robert Harrison of Future Clouds and Radar)
and “You Were the Devil.” 

 

The moral of the story might be that with big love sometimes comes big
loss. The result of all the chaos is a menacing and melancholy mosaic of her
journey set to a soundtrack of intriguing new sounds from Atkins. But, starkly
present above it all is her powerful voice that retains its flair for the
dramatic, with perhaps a touch more grit and edge behind things now.

 

Ironically, it was during one of the more difficult times in her life that
Atkins found the confidence to create an album that sounds more like what she
hears in her head. “I trust myself more to write what I would want to listen
to: blowout music mixed with crooner ballads,” she says. “I made a conscious
effort to write more dramatic and heavy songs.”

 

That confidence spread to the studio, where she took more of a lead
role in the production of the album, particularly with the string parts. “I
wrote the string arrangements to be more of a lead melody than as padding as
they were on Neptune City,” she says.
“Making this record was a lot more mellow and off-the-cuff than making Neptune was.”

 

With an anything-goes vibe during recording, Atkins and producer Phil
Palazzolo tossed around ideas and called any and all musicians they both dug to
guest on the album. They brought in Salt & Samovar and fellow Jersey Shore
natives Atlantic, Atlantic, as well as Jim
James of My Morning Jacket. James lent his distinctive pipes to the song “War
is Hell” by recording his part in a hotel room and emailing it to her. The
looseness surrounding the recording carried over to the mixing phase, which was
done during Fourth of July weekend at the Carriage House in Connecticut. During a huge party on the lawn
of the place, Atkins became suddenly inspired. “I got drunk and redid the
vocals to half the songs in one night. Shit sounded sweet with a little bourbon
on the throat.”

 

During the recording of the album, Atkins toured with her old friends the
Avett Brothers, which included a stop at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and also made a quick jaunt to the United Kingdom
to open a concert for Regina Spektor at O2 Academy Leeds. Both the tour and the
one-off Spektor show were exciting for Atkins, who had come up with both
artists from some inauspicious beginnings.

 

“We [Atkins and Spektor] used to play together in the back of a
buffalo wing restaurant I used to work at,” she remembers. “Me, her, the Avett
Brothers and Langhorne Slim playing for maybe seven people. It was a trip to
open for her in front of a few thousand.”

 

The Mondo Amore promo tour
will begin in earnest this month, with a record release show at Bowery Ballroom
in New York
on Feb. 9 that will feature a string section and a guest appearance from her
keyboardist from The Sea, Dan Chen. The subsequent North American tour,
featuring openers Cotton Jones (recently profiled at BLURT), will stretch into
early March. Along the way there will be an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show
on Feb. 17, then next month, a slot at SXSW in Austin.

 

This tour will be more directly supported by Atkins’ fans than just
buying tickets, thanks to her Kickstarter campaign. She began the campaign
barely a month ago to help offset the rising costs of touring, including
getting a touring van, gas, lodging and having a stage setup. In the short time
the campaign has been established, Atkins’ fans have donated more than $17,000
to her cause, with donations starting at $1. In addition to helping her be able
to actually tour, donors of specific amounts will receive certain perks for
their generosity. Give $15 and get the album and a monthly newsletter. Give $60
and get seasonal mix tapes from Atkins for a year. Give $500 and she’ll write
you a tune.

 

But, really, Atkins is just looking forward to going back on the road
with her new band, new tunes and fresh start to 2011.  The musicians will be bringing their darker,
harder sound to Atkins’ old songs as well. (“They all sound more surfy and
romantic and dark. All of the old songs are sounding new again.”) And she
predicts that the new material and new band might leave lasting memories
ringing in their ears of her audiences for a while.

 

As she proclaims, “Shit is loud!”

 

[Photo Credit: Lucia Holm]

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