Nicole Atkins: Summoning Rhonda Lee

Holly Gleason on January 9, 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.” 

Atkins is a talker. She regales everyone who will listen with tales of growing up in Jersey and the cover bands she’s played in, learning to go into New York and finding the anti-folk scene, running a business painting murals after college, chasing the night in Brooklyn before it was hip, working at SiriusXM, growing up with her golf-loving father “Dutch” and feeling boxed in by the tags her hometown hangs on people. She explains, half-ruefully, “Nicole is the singer.”

All those things conspired to take a wildly talented girl who loves a good time and create a problem. Not one to moralize, she confesses that by sliding down and crawling back up the slippery slope of sobriety over and over again, she fed people’s skepticism and her own sense of struggle.

She recalls talking to her sister about it. “I remember saying, ‘Courtney, you don’t understand. If there’s beer in the refrigerator, then it’s all I can think about,’ and her saying, ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’”

In time, Atkins figured things out. “People have no reason to understand. You know, they think, ‘If you wanna stop, why don’t you just stop?’ But there was a clarity in those relapses. Coming out of [an episode] and going, ‘Well, I didn’t die, and I’m not in a hospital.’”

And there was the sinkhole. Laughing, she recalls, “I fell into a ten foot sinkhole outside the Baymont Inn and Suites in Knoxville. I couldn’t crawl out, and my keyboard player tried to give me a hand, and that didn’t work. He had to jump in and boost me.

“Something shifted. I remember thinking, ‘I am in my 30s. When is this teen angst gonna end?’ But the fact I didn’t die in a hole? That somehow took my anxiety away.”

Passing through the kitchen into her offce/study/workroom—full of books, odd bits of art to stoke her imagination and an ever-ready laptop—there’s a strong scent of “creativity lives here.” More than mere Bohemian pretension, the former mural painter curates for maximum inspiration.

Atkins and her husband, Ryan McHugh, made the decision to relocate to East Nashville after they married. Hailing from Scotland, McHugh often felt like an outsider in Jersey, and the change of scenery was a means for them to make friends together. (His employer, musician J.D. McPherson, was also making the move to Music City.)

The first year was rugged but eventually she found a tribe of fellow creatives. “Nashville was very brown, and the streets have a lot of broken glass. In Jersey, I could go to the boardwalk and the ocean; here I was landlocked,” she says of her acclimation to the city.

She marvels, “As soon as I got out of that hole, I’ve never had so much help. One of my best friends from home said, ‘Whoa, that’s heavy. Hope you sue.’ My friends here? A huge outpouring of care: soup, rides and just company. It was awesome.”

Tumbling through all the notions in her mind, she thinks about how she arrived at this point, the falling down—literally and metaphorically—and
Goodnight Rhonda Lee. Laughing about the folly of it, she sits at her desk and savors the irony.

“I was in a deep depression, and remember thinking, ‘How do I take this shitty situation and turn it into something beautiful? How do you take the good, bad, and ugly, and use it?’

“Two days before I had that final relapse, I called Jim Sclavunos and said, ‘I can’t do music anymore. It’s breaking my heart too much.’ He was at a photo shoot with Nick Cave, and he’s like, ‘Nicole wants to quit.’ Nick says, ‘Tell her to get over it.’”

Eventually she did. After this year’s Bonnaroo, Atkins marveled that she was out until 6 a.m. with an open bar and never twinged for a drink. Eight months sober at this writing, she says, “This is the first time I felt ‘the shift.’ It actually
does happen.”

Slated to open a series of shows for Umphrey’s McGee, Atkins recently completed dates with McPherson and just recorded a classic country duet of Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” with fellow East Nashville writer/provocateur AaronLee Tasjan. She’s writing with everyone from Isaak to My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel to Taylor Swift’s guitar player. Creating, creating, creating.

“Fuck fame,” she says. “I just want this to be sustainable. When you [make music] not loaded, you have a hundred ideas a minute; you have thought behind them and you know what to do. If I fuck up, it’s okay. I just want to make music.”