Three years ago, I caught a particularly memorable episode of The Late Show with Conan O’Brien. Yes, Coco told some jokes and interviewed Hulk Hogan, but it was pop noir artist Nicole Atkins who caught my attention with her performance of “Maybe Tonight,” the lead track from 2007′s critically acclaimed major label debut, Neptune City. I had missed the hype in prior months; Neptune City was the catchy, lush, atmospheric gem I was looking for.
In a recent half hour phone interview with Atkins, I learned that she thought the Conan performance “sucked.” She seems much more pleased, however, with her band, Nicole Atkins & The Black Sea, and its heavily anticipated sophomore record, Mondo Amore. Atkins spoke to Knox Road about Mondo Amore, the recording process, b-sides, touring, and Twitter.
You can check out the lead track from Mondo Amore, “Vultures,” and b-side cover of experimental German rock group Can, “Vitamin C.” By the time you finish listening to these tracks, you might make it through this marathon interview.
With Mondo Amore coming out Feb. 8 and a tour starting next week (yes, it hits New York City AND Washington, D.C.), we naturally opened up our conversation on the topic of her “every show” dress, picked out with her guitarist Irina Yalkowsky.
Atkins: [...]I just started wearing it. We just did a tour with The Black Keys and I think I wore it every single show. It required very little thought, although it was kind of hard to find places that do five-hour dry cleaning.
Knox Road: Oh I bet. I always wondered about that because you often see bands who like to wear suits and some are just casual, but I always thought you had a pretty cool fashion sense for your shows. It always fit the music in a way.
Atkins: I feel like if I ever wore jeans on stage, it wouldn’t feel like a show. When people go to work, they put their work clothes on, and when people get on stage and are going to entertain you, [they] put an entertainment outfit on.
KR: That makes sense. Maybe that’s why the DC show [Atkins's March 18, 2009 solo show at DC9 in which Atkins wore white pants] felt so casual. You were like, “I’m trying out some songs. We’re just hanging out.”
Atkins: Yeah. It was also the first time that I fit in those white pants in five years and I felt excited. (laughs)
KR: One of my early favorites on the record [Mondo Amore] is “This Is For Love.” I love how triumphant the chorus is, and it really feels like a climactic moment in the middle of the record. How’d that song come about and was the song placement strategic?
Atkins: It just felt like it fit in the middle of the record. The record is kind of bluesy and psychadelic, and I feel like that song kind of stretches out a bit more, so it felt like a bridge between the first half and the second half of the record. The theme of the record is a relationship and that song is trying to say, “I really want to work this out.” We teach ourselves how to live so we can get along.
KR: Mondo Amore‘s overall theme is a relationship and everything surrounding relationships. It reminds me of a record, Beck’s Sea Change, where he told a story about the relationship with each song.
Atkins: I love that record.
KR: Mondo Amore is like a parallel to that and “This Is For Love” seems like the optimstic moment in the middle of the record.
Atkins: That’s a huge compliment.
KR: One of the reviews I’ve read mentions that your record has no real genre to it. [...] There’s the dark cabaret pop. There’s the rockin’ moments like “My Baby Don’t Lie.” There’s the mo-town sound on “Cry Cry Cry.” There’s a bunch of different influences coming in like Nick Cave and Led Zeppelin. In today’s society, a lot of kids hear individual songs from blogs rather than the whole record. Was this intentional?
Atkins: When I went into the studio to record, I had about 18 songs and I didn’t know which ones I would actually use. Once I had got “The Tower” down and “Vultures” down, and “Hotel Plaster” and “War Is Hell,” those were the four that were touchstones. This is what the album was about. So then I picked the other songs. Oh, and also the song “You Come To Me.” I really wanted to make the unifying thing the strings, my voice, and the guitar tones. With that, I could do any type of song I wanted. I don’t listen to just one type of music. I listen to psychadelic, blues, country, and soul music. It’s a Nicole Atkins record and that’s what I’m about. I’m about lots of things.
KR: And that’s a good thing!
Atkins: The one song that was giving us trouble that we weren’t even going to keep on the record was “Cry Cry Cry.” In the beginning, it just sounded so “mo-towny” and it was so good that’s it’s almost too perfect and happy. And I was like, “I’m not making another ‘Maybe Tonight.’” The rest of the record was so moody. We were like, “How do we fit this on there?” My guitar player [Irina] came back with the guitar part and said, “I was trying to think like the horns, and I came up with this.” She put this John Lennon/David Bowie kind of guitar part on top of it and it made it finally fit.
KR: That’s another standout on the record. I listened to a lot of these tracks as you were working through them and touring with different people. “Cry Cry Cry” you’d perform solo and with the Black Sea in an earlier iteration.
Atkins: And when I do it solo, I do it country. (laughs)
KR: So the song has changed genres a few times! I also wondered what the effect of adding Irina was. She seems to add a gritty sound to the music. Didn’t she come up with the slide guitar part for “My Baby Don’t Lie”?
Atkins: Yeah! She actually recorded it in her little apartment and we just kept it.
KR: That’s awesome.
Atkins: Irina’s the guitar player I’ve been looking for my whole life. She’s wonderful.
KR: You worked with Phil Palazzolo [I butcher his name.].
KR: You’ve said working with him was a fun process and it was like working with a friend. The record seems to show that. “My Baby Don’t Lie,” for example, sounds fun. It’s gritty and raw and distorted.
Atkins: We were both on the same page. He’d ask if I have any songs that are like Janis Joplin or Loretta Lynn, and I’d say, “Actually I do!” and played him that one. I sent him a demo of acoustic guitar, footstomps, me singing it, and in the middle part, me singing all the string lines. He instantly got it and said, “OK, we’re putting your vocals through a harmonica amp.” It’s a nice little country ditty.
KR: What was it like working with Jim James [My Morning Jacket], who sings on “War Is Hell” with you?
Atkins: That was great. I wasn’t there when he did it. I just called him up and sent him the song. He really dug it. He actually recorded the vocal in a hotel room in L.A., working on a soundtrack. It was very easy.
Atkins: Yeah. I wrote a lot of songs on this record with him.
Atkins: We’re still working out the logistics of that. I think that’s going to be where we release singles. It’s going to be a project where Robert and I write a bunch of songs, and there’s also songs that Robert wrote alone. It’s going to have different girl guest singers. It’s fun. Robert’s a great writer. He definitely has “it.”
Atkins: Oh god. You know, we’re bringing “Teen Creep” back live.
Atkins: I think this band will do a really good job on what that song should sound like. That song should sound trashy. “Darkness Falls So Quiet” I still haven’t recorded yet, but it’s still there. I’m going to some day. “Call Me the Witch” we recorded with Robert for Sir Parker.
KR: Cool. That song was fun live.
Atkins: Yeah. It’s super fun. I just haven’t found a way to make it fit in the set with my band yet.
KR: I like “Teen Creep” a lot. When I first heard that one, I thought it was a bonafide lock for the next record. Now that I hear Mondo Amore, it just doesn’t fit.
Atkins: That’s one that will either be on the next one or it’ll still exist.
KR: How about “I Wait For You”? That one sounded like it could fit Mondo Amore.
Atkins: It was recorded to go on Mondo Amore, but it got muscled out by these other ones.
KR: That makes sense. The record is really tight. The songs have evolved over the past year or two. “The Tower” has a different guitar part on it now. “Vultures,” probably my favorite song of yours, changed. What was that revision process like?
Atkins: We did all the basic tracking with the old Black Sea – Chris [Donofrio], Tony [Chick], and Brad [York]. They were in the studio for maybe three days and then went off to work on their own project. So we were like, “Oh shit. Who are we going to get to play guitar?” My friend David Moltz of Salt & Samovar, who we brought out on the road with us a few times, he’s this amazing guitarist who has this Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton, Blind Faith-era thing going on. We gave him “Vultures” and “The Tower” and had him create layers of different guitar parts. And then we had this other guy Foley Stewart come on. We basically just called any and all of my friends to come in and play. Even Irina. Before we decided Irina would be in the band [with Jeremy Kay on bass and Ezra Oklan on drums], she came in and did a bunch of stuff. It was a lot of sifting through what worked and what didn’t work.
Atkins: My friend Senior.
KR: He reminds me of Machete. He seems like a badass dude. (laughs)
Atkins: I’ll tell him you said that.
KR: Why’d you choose that picture for the front cover?
Atkins: I just had an idea one night before going to bed. For some reason I really want to put Senior and me. The back cover is him holding a one year old baby crying and he’s looking out the window like, “Oh shit!” My friend Danny Clinch took the photo. I just came up with the idea and I thought people could leave it open to their own interpretation. I thought it would be a really good accompanying image to the title Mondo Amore.
KR: I like that you’re leaving it open for interpretation. I’ve been trying to figure out. Is this guy romantically involved? Is he protecting you? Who is he?
Atkins: I know. Totally.
KR: At Bonnaroo 2008, you performed a song backstage for the media, “Caught in the Way.” That’s an old song, isn’t it?
Atkins: Yeah. It’s pretty old.
KR: You put out a couple of albums with Los Parasols, Paperhouses and Summer of Love EP. You’ve said in earlier interviews that those will never see the light of day, but will you ever pull any of those songs out live again?
Atkins: There’s actually a couple of those older songs that I’ve been thinking a lot about reworking. Now that I have more of a grasp of how to write and arrange a song than I did when I was 21, there’s a lot of good stuff there. I’m working out mostly new stuff, but there’s two songs from those days I’ve taken out a lot lately. There are times when I think I might want to make a strictly old country record as well. Maybe I could release some of those older songs along with the newer ones. I’m getting back into a bit of a country and rockabilly phase.
KR: That’s good! It’s another side of you.
Atkins: They’re fun to write.
KR: [...] I like ["You Were The Devil"] a lot. It’s very psychadelic.
Atkins: Yeah. We were trying to do the whole Ennio Morricone thing on that one.
KR: There’s something about “You Were the Devil,” a riff toward the latter half of the song, that reminds me a lot of “Carousel.” It’s like creepy circus music.
Atkins: The one at the very end of the song? (sings) Yeah.
KR: It’s a constant theme in your music.
Atkins: Yeah. The carnival’s going to pop out once in a while. (laughs)
KR: You seem like you really like playing “You Come to Me” live. You really get into it and rock out. Is that your favorite song to play live?
Atkins: It was. It’s not right now. Right now my favorite one is “The Tower” and “My Baby Don’t Lie” and “War Is Hell.” I still do like playing that one but this upcoming tour, we’re not going to have a keyboard player. Finances are hard. I have to play guitar on “You Come to Me” now. It’s going to be OK, but I’m a little bummed I can’t dance.
KR: It’s going to have to sound a bit more raw, huh?
Atkins: Yeah. Dancing days aren’t here again. (laughs)
KR: You’ve played with The Avett Brothers, A.C. Newman, The Black Keys. You’re going to be touring with Cotton Jones on the upcoming tour. Who have been your favorite touring partners and who would you like to tour with?
Atkins: All of them. I can’t choose between The Avett Brothers and The Black Keys. They’ve both been wonderful experiences. The Avett Brothers are great old friends. The Black Keys are great new friends. I think we’re going to do a few shows with The Avett Brothers in the spring.
KR: That’s great!
Atkins: Hopefully we’ll do more with The Black Keys soon. Oh, and A.C. Newman was awesome too. That was a different situation. I was actually in his band. That was really fun because I just got to get drunk and play tambourine every night. There was no pressure at all.
KR: You could just relax and say, “I’m having fun!”
Atkins: Yeah. It was great. And I’d love to tour with Nick Cave or P.J. Harvey.
KR: That would be amazing.
Atkins: That’d be a dream come true.
KR: What are some of the top records you’re listening to right now?
Atkins: One is Tame Impala. They’re amazing. They’re from Australia. The record is Innerspeaker. It’s just one of the best psychadelic pop records I’ve heard since Cotton Mather. The new Grinderman record is great.
KR: I was hoping that one would make a lot of people’s top records of the year lists, and it did.
Atkins: A new record that’s coming out in February but I’ve heard it that’s totally dark and dancy and amazing is the new Twilight Singers record.
KR: Ohhh. I didn’t even know they had a new record coming out!
Atkins: I think it’s the best work Greg’s [Dulli] done.
KR: [...] On your 2008 tour, you had a Ouija board poster and several other posters. Are you continuing the concert poster theme, and did you design some of these?
Atkins: Yeah. I designed one, but apparently it looked too much like a vagina. (laughs) We’re going to have two posters out on this tour.
KR: I like concert posters. It’s a nice way to remember the show.
Atkins: That’s always been my favorite thing to buy at a show. They’re so well made and they only make 100 or 200 of them.
KR: And you don’t really worry if it gets dinged up at all. It’s like, I was rocking out. It’s OK.
Atkins: T-shirts come and go but posters stay forever.
KR: You use Twitter a lot to communicate with other musicians and friends and fans. You tweet a lot about other music you love and random moments like your grandfather’s Christmas joke about the mustache.
Atkins: That was great, huh?
KR: How is it you approach the platform?
Atkins: It’s definitely a great way to get all the info out on your shows immediately. It’s also a way if you hear something funny to share that with other people. I couldn’t believe he [her grandfather] said it. I was like, “Who are you?” The best Twitter time we had was when we were making up band names with food on The Avett Brothers tour. (laughs) That was such a good way to pass the time. It was really cool to see everyone writing back to it. It made the drive much less boring.
KR: Your record hasn’t leaked online yet. A lot of records leak online weeks and months early and it makes the release date anticlimactic.
Atkins: I really hope it doesn’t leak online because I will find who did it and kill them. I’ll find them personally.