The Nashville singer-songwriter learns 'to go hungry' more judiciously
Goodnight Rhonda Lee, the 2017 full-length from Nicole Atkins, easily ranks as the most plainspoken of her career, with the singer and songwriter documenting everything from her cross-country move (she relocated to Nashville from Asbury Park, New Jersey, in late 2015) to her struggles with alcohol addiction.
“The bottle's gonna kill me,” she offers matter-of-factly on the monochromatic “Colors,” brushing aside the myriad discarded brown and green liquor bottles.
It makes sense then that the musician carries herself with similar candor in interviews.
“It was pretty much all written when I was fucking up,” said Atkins, who headlines a concert at the Basement on Thursday, Aug. 16. “It's less flowery poetry and more just (makes vomiting sound).”
It's also heart-achingly beautiful, at times, moving from chipper numbers such as “Sleepwalking,” which displays more pep than its title might suggest, to swollen ballads such as “A Little Crazy,” given an assist from friend and collaborator Chris Isaak.
“I had a friend who was in a band … and he said something that made me really mad, but he was right, and he said, ‘You know Temple of the Dog? Stop going hungry all the time. You go hungry too much.' So then I just stopped going hungry at all,” Atkins said, referencing the more toned-down vocal approach she'd adopted in recent years. “When I was working with Chris [Isaak on ‘A Little Crazy'], he said, ‘You keep playing down your super power. You have this thing in your voice few people can do. Do your thing.' … Now I'm learning to do it when the emotion of the song calls for it.”
On “Darkness Falls So Quiet,” Atkins even dabbles in strutting, horn-stoked soul, finally overcoming long-held fears that had prevented her from exploring the genre.
“I just didn't think I could write that kind of song because when I'd sit and try it just felt like appropriation, or, ‘Here's a soul music template,' and I didn't want to do that,” Atkins said.
Initially, “Darkness Falls So Quiet,” which has existed in some form since Atkins released her debut, Neptune City, in 2007, was written as an alt-country tune in the vein of Whiskeytown, though it never felt right. Through the years, Atkins attempted it in different forms — “I remember writing in my notebook: ‘Try it like “Oh Yoko!” from John Lennon; try it like “Do You Realize??” by the Flaming Lips,'” Atkins said — before striking gold when she belted the words atop the shuffling groove of Bobby “Blue” Bland's “Rockin' in the Same Old Boat.” “Immediately I was like, ‘Holy shit, this totally works,'” she said.
While the move to Nashville originally proved challenging for the longtime East Coaster — Atkins said there were times she felt alone, trapped in a large house in a town where she didn't know anybody while her husband, a tour manager for artists like JD McPherson, was on the road for long stretches — it has since become a more comforting, comfortable place, offering myriad options for collaboration, which the musician has found beneficial.
In recent times, Atkins has teamed with everyone from Ron Gallo band member Joe Bisirri (on a jingle for a Jersey taco shop) to Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos. Longtime writing partners Atkins and Sclavunos are currently putting the finishing touches on the debut album from their band Beasts, which also includes Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion, Pussy Galore), Jack Lawrence (the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs) and Patti Smith's son, Jackson.
“My friend is a comedy writer … and he's like, ‘Usually you can make a road trip on your own, but if your car breaks down you call a friend,'” Atkins said. “That's songwriting.”