Three albums into an acclaimed music career, and unable to enjoy making music anymore, New Jersey singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins decided to face her demon—alcohol—head-on. She checked into rehab, where among her peers she met a music producer.
Atkins played him a few of her songs, and he bluntly replied, “‘You need to stop fucking around with this indie rock bullshit. You’re a soul singer.’”
Fast-forward to Atkins, now sober, sitting across a table from neo-crooner Chris Isaak at Mel’s Diner on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. She had flown into town to write with Isaak on his request. She came armed with a few scraps of a song she wanted to define her soul record.
“I had it in my phone, and I was saving it for the right person,” Atkins recalled, in a call from her Nashville home. “This was my Roy Orbison song. I can’t just write this song with anybody.”
She played him the scraps she had saved on her phone, and Isaak, surrounded by Formica and, most likely, retro hubcaps, got real. He told Atkins she had a particular vocal quality, a raspy, rich timbre that was going unused. He told her that she needed to sing in a way to make the song her own and no one else’s.
And that’s how she and Isaak came up with “A Little Crazy,” the swoony first track on her fourth album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee.
“That melody just came in my head and it totally fit,” Atkins said. “So it was written, and we just ended up playing it for the next six hours, because it was just so fun to play. I knew that that was the one.”
The song has everything, from strings, to twirling ivory embellishments, pedal steel, and Atkins’ voice, both modern and classic, smoky and smooth. And it has Isaak’s signature falsetto, delivered by Atkins.
“I ended up going back [to San Francisco] a few more times after that, and we wrote ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’ together—and then a bunch of really terrible songs, too,” she said.
“A Little Crazy” is also the welcome mat to Goodnight Rhonda Lee, her darkest record, which tackles her alcohol abuse head-on in numerous songs like the somber, hope-is-lost piano and strings piece, “Colors.” Sings Atkins: “Everywhere I go the only things I see/ The glowing brown and green/ Bottle’s gonna kill me.” Even the title track is a callback to addiction.
Rhonda Lee is—hopefully, was—Atkins’ partier persona. It started as a harmless alter ego, explained Atkins, who has more or less been living on the road since the release of her 2007 solo debut album. Even before then, she played in bands for years. But the attention that came with Neptune City, and again with 2011’s Mondo Amore and 2014’s Slow Phaser meant more gigs and less time.
“We would go bowling a lot on tour, and when you go bowling in an older bowling alley, you type in … the first three letters of your name,” she said. “I thought ‘Rhonda Lee’ was good because it sounds like an old bowler … and the first three letters is RHO, so it’s ‘Let’s go rho some bowling balls.’”
Eventually, the name became attached to Atkins’ drinking persona. Her parents would go out of their way to tell her not to invite Rhonda Lee to family dinners. The darkest times came a few years ago, but Atkins said she’s been dealing with alcohol abuse for years. After she got married in 2013, she began to take her problem seriously for the first time.
“You just come to a point in your life where you see a thing that’s hindering you doing the things that you want to do and being the person you want to be as you get older,” she said. “You’ve got to make a choice. I can be in my 30s, drinking all the time and pissing people off, and feeling terrible about it, or I can kick it and just have lots of space and room in my brain to do music.”
The time between her marriage and 2017 was one of transition, which further heightened her sense of anxiety, with which she constantly lives, she said. She found out about her father’s cancer diagnosis on the day she began rehab (he’s since beaten it). She and her husband also moved from the Jersey Shore, where she grew up, to Nashville.
The two picked Nashville so they could start a new life together and also be surrounded by like-minded artists.
“There’s a really great community around here because, everybody, if they’re not working on the same thing … they get it, at least,” Atkins said. “It doesn’t have that small town thing, like, ‘Look at this fucking rock star walking down the street.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, what are you working on?’ It’s like summer camp, but forever.”
Her husband, Ryan, is a tour manager, currently with Hurray for the Riff Raff, JD McPherson and The Lemon Twigs, and spends long chunks of time on the road. Atkins had plenty of time to write songs, but also time with the bottle.
She began writing Goodnight Rhonda Lee during this time, intent on making her soul record, but stuck with not writing something generic and fake.
“There is a lot of soul paint-by-numbers kind of music,” she said. “After a while, I realized that all the songs I was writing, even a song that sounds like a Frank Sinatra song, that’s still a soul song. Frank said it just has to do with what your own soul sounds like.”
Nicole Atkins’ soul sounds like a rainbow. Where she has already proven she can do she can master indie rock, the arrangements on Goodnight Rhonda Lee are much more complex, from the smoky balladry of Sinatra and countrified pop of Roy Orbison. There’s Brill Building-era R&B, ‘50s rock’n’roll, the heartache of Dusty Springfield, and every song has melody and rhythm with traction that keeps the plot moving along.
But while the subjects are heavy, most of the songs are not. Atkins’ pain does not always swim the surface. The album is a mix of sadness and self-deprecation that borders on humorous. Moving to Nashville influenced the direction of the record, and so did her collaborators, including Isaak and her friend Jim Sclavunos, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
When it came time to record, she again teamed up with the production team at Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, Texas, the crew behind Leon Bridge’s breakthrough debut, as well as Houston singer-songwriter Robert Ellis and his band.
They recorded directly to tape on analog equipment to capture the classic sound, as well as to record quickly and not overthink the process; a constraint of recording to a finite canvas.
Atkins wrote all of the string and brass arrangements for the songs, and the band and crew worked quickly to record the album.
“When we got together, I just met Robert and his band that morning and an hour later we got to work,” she said. “We played every take as if it was ‘the one.’ Nobody got bored. Nobody took a long lunch. Everybody was into it the whole time, and that’s really the only way I ever want to record from now on. I used to not have much fun in the studio, and there was a lot of sitting around, and a lot of producers that wouldn’t even pay attention to me until the very end.”
Then Atkins began shopping the record around to different labels, and received a rude reception when each one suggested a change here or there.
“One guy was telling me that my vocals were super-out of tune and that he could Auto-Tune [them],” she said. “If there’s one thing I know I don’t need it’s Auto-Tune.”
Around the same time, she had returned to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and got to know the owners of Single Lock Records, owned by John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, and Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes. They asked her who was releasing her record. Tanner told her how the label does everything in-house in a home-grown, family oriented way. She soon agreed to have the record mixed and released by Single Lock.
“That’s what I want; a cool little family,” she said.
Up next for Nicole Atkins is a tour that will see her play at Café Du Nord in San Francisco for the first time in years. “I can’t wait, that’s like, my old favorite place,” she said.
But she’s already thinking ahead. After the tour, she and Sclavunos will reunite to finish a series of long-in-the-works records, which they’re calling Atkins Sclavunos Vol. 1 and so forth. There are already enough completed songs for multiple records. They plan to finish them in Muscle Shoals in January, and then she’ll get to work on her next record.
“I just like working all the time. There’s nothing more fun than making something out of nothing,” she said.
Atkins, 38, has had a few relapses since she initially went sober. The last one came to start the year. That one came after she hit a more literal rock bottom. Following a private concert—she financed the record with crowdfunding, with rewards like private shows—she and her keyboardist were walking back to their hotel. She disappeared down a 10-foot sinkhole mid-conversation. She came out of the potentially deadly situation with bruises, head staples, and an idea for a music video (for “Listen Up”) that probably hits close to home.
“I wasn’t drinking then; I’ll tell you what, though, it cured my anxiety,” she said. “After falling into a sinkhole and realizing you could have died in a parking lot of the Baymont Inn in Knoxville, Tennessee, it really changes your perspective on shit. Small things are not fretted over anymore.”