Nicole Atkins Discusses The Jersey Boardwalk, Muscle Shoals Mojo And Her Latest, ‘Italian Ice’

The music in Nicole Atkins’ head is music for the ages. That’s both the music that comes out in her songs and the music she’s absorbed since she was a child in New Jersey. It’s the sounds of the Jersey Shore boardwalk, the tinny sounds of oldies emanating from her parents’ beat-up car radio, the pop-noir she’s explored in the four well-received full-length albums and several EP’s she’s released, and even her love of jumping on stage and crushing Led Zeppelin covers with a pickup band in Anytown, USA.

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Italian Ice is Atkins’ latest and best record, covering a wide spread of music, from swampy acoustic sing-alongs and 60’s R&B to ‘80s pop, disco and of course, Jersey soul. Atkins understands the importance of recognizing the lineage from where she came. On Italian Ice, she celebrates her influences, bursting with joy while taking a late-night stroll down the boardwalk after winning the big prize at a game of chance.

Italian Ice was recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Florence, Alabama, a studio with a vibe if there ever was one. Atkins is so likable and musically knowledgeable that two of the most revered Muscle Shoals session players, bassist David Hood and keyboardist Spooner Oldham bonded with her and added their specific mojo and identifiable style to the album’s eleven songs.

It’s her first release for Alabama-based Single Lock Records, which is owned by musicians Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes (who co-produced the record with Atkins), John Paul White and partner Will Trapp. Spoon’s Britt Daniel, the Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite, Erin Rae and Seth Avett are some of the high-profile name guests who drop in to lend their talents. But in truth, they’re really just her good friends, people who love making music and enjoy hanging out with each other. Call it a family affair.

Like the ice-cold treat she used for the album’s title, Italian Ice offers a wide variety of choices, each with their own unique flavor. Which one becomes your favorite might change over time.

After all the styles you’ve absorbed and explored throughout your musical career, would you say this record is a long-term vision of how you’ve wanted your music to sound?

Yes! I wish I said that in my last interview!

I’m from New Jersey but I live in Nashville now. I’ve become friends with the guys down in Muscle Shoals (in Florence, Alabama). It’s given me a lot of breath and freedom and inspiration. I’ve been able to bring a lot of the friends I’ve worked with throughout the years, who had never been there. There’s a lot of heavy musicians who I’ve loved and been a fan of. Put us all in a room and we’re just a bunch of music geeks.

How would you describe this record?

It’s a very rock ‘n roll record made by people that adore rock ‘n roll music. And the guys at Single Lock work really hard to keep it fresh down there.

Even after the record was done, David Hood (legendary Muscle Shoals bassist) came up to me at an event and said ‘I do sessions all the time and I do my work and come home and hang out with my dogs. But this week I just felt like we were in a band!’

That has to be an awesome validation.

It was the best! Because it did feel like that. It’s nice when everybody is on the same page and it was a cool moment in my life.

New Jersey has always had a specific sound from back in the ‘70s and 80s, which incorporates that R&B vibe, and this record blends that well with the Muscle Shoals sound. You can’t escape your roots.

You can’t escape it. Lots of writers would always write ‘Jersey girl finds her Nashville roots.’ I don’t have Nashville roots. My roots are Jersey. I learned everything I know from music coming off the radio stations coming out of Philly, New York, New Jersey. This one writer from the Austin Chronicle finally got it when he said my sound was a refreshing update of the Jersey boardwalk sound. And I was like ‘yes! Somebody gets it.’ There’s Bruce and Southside Johnny who were loving the music of Dion, Roy Orbison and ‘60s garage rock. And I love that music and I love their music. But I also grew up with indie rock and ‘90s and 2000s. The Jersey Boardwalk sound is its own genre, but it hasn’t been notably updated since the ‘70s.

Is the song “AM Gold” a reflection of your upbringing?

Yes. I wrote the song “AM Gold” about all the bad shit that’s going on in the news the last few years. Turn on the TV and people are getting killed, there’s climate change. It’s relentless and all in your face. I think about all the things that make me feel better. If I had to make a list of ten things that instantly make me feel better, walking on the boardwalk is one. Just walking out by the water helps. And whenever I go home and get in my parent’s car, they always have the AM station on, and it’s the best station ever. I can be having an argument, or a bad day and I immediately feel better when I hear that music. It’s like ‘ah Bobby Vinton, take me away!’

In the song “AM Gold”, I hear Marvin Gaye, John Mayall’s Turning Point record, Mavis Staples, Bill Withers. Politically conscious but still grooving.

I hear Marvin Gaye too. But you know what I hear? I hear the Pointer Sisters. Totally unintentionally in the lines “we’re stranded in the garbage of Eden.” But they were my favorite band when I was four. 

That lyric and the following line, ‘we’re starving what we should be feeding’ are great observations.

Thanks. I wrote that when I first moved to Nashville and had it hanging around. I kept thinking about driving around America and going to a park or beach or someplace amazing and natural. And then you go and see endless mini-malls and pre-fab houses. And you think, ‘what have we done to this place?’

I had the music in my head and started writing it in Asbury Park before I moved. That guitar riff that Binky (Griptite) plays at the start of the chorus, I thought that was a vocal melody and was going to be like a Bill Withers meets the Meters vibe. It always stood in the way of me being able to write the lyrics.

I decided to record the music first because I knew what I wanted it to sound like. I had the arrangements and all the musicians are such great players, so it was more of a suggestion. I could sing what I wanted to them and I realized that the melody in my head was a guitar line, not a vocal line.

Then I had to finish the lyrics. It was the last day of doing overdubs and Ben told me not to stress about it, we had enough songs. But I loved the song and it had to happen. And I was at the motel and fell asleep listening to the news. I like to listen to panic when I fall asleep! I woke up and had the whole chorus in a dream. I told Ben I think I have the words. It worked great in my sleep! And it did. I think I write my best lyrics in my subconscious. I’ve always been a heavy dreamer. I have lucid and reoccurring dreams. I notice them and go into them. So, when song ideas pop into my dreams I always remember. Keep a tape recorder by your bed. Sometimes it’s garbage but other times…

Who is playing bass on “Mind Eraser, the song co-written with My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel?”

That’s David Hood. I wrote the bass line. It’s a nasty tone. I originally recorded it with the band Midlake. They came up with that drumbeat. That’s how I picked (Midlake drummer) Mackenzie (Smith) to play on this version. We didn’t have electric guitar so I just hummed the parts and we double tracked the bass so there are lead bass parts. Then David got the charts and he said ‘how about we save this for last? This bass line is crazy.’ And then we went nuts in the mixing, twisting knobs and making it sound all White Album-like.

“Forever” has the classic sound that people associate with your music.

“Forever” is my most Jersey song. When I started writing it, I had just turned forty, so I decided I would allow myself to do a song that’s full-on Jersey Shore sounding. It’s my most Springsteen-ish song. And I don’t think my music and what I do is retro. It’s a continuation of a sound that’s existing, combined with new ones that can exist forever into the future. Music that will never die. “Forever” has that epic sound that comes back to a love of Roy Orbison and Dion.

I sang at Spooner Oldham’s birthday party in 2018, which is where I met everybody and the idea to record together started. Kelvin Holly, the guitar player on that show, was the only person who smoked so we became instant friends. He asked me how I met my husband. I told him he was my tour manager, and he was not my type but when I smelled him, he smelled like forever. And Kelvin said ‘whoah that’s a song you gotta write’ But I didn’t write it then. I kept thinking the album was going to be called “Forever Music.” I had been thinking about how I wished my grandfather would last forever, and my cat and all the people I love could be together forever.

We ended up writing the song a few days before going into the studio. We had an Australian couple, Clare Reynolds and Jordi Lane, living with us who are great songwriters. I actually wrote it with Claire the night before we went to record. Claire was singing this melody. We were watching a movie and both of us kept singing it.

And then of all things, we were in the studio eating dinner before tracking at Muscle Shoals and the label owner walks in with Garry Tallent (Springsteen’s bass player)! It turns out that he used to live on the same street that I grew up on in Neptune City in New Jersey.

I hear a bit of Cyndi Lauper in “Forever.”

Totally. Cyndi Lauper is my number one hero. She’s a great singer. And she was a wrestling manager. Two of my favorite things!

On “Captain” a lot of people hear the country influence, but I hear Jeff Lynne.

Me too. I totally hear ELO. It’s a band I love, and I always describe their sound as something new and weird. I was hearing that robotic voice and vocals coming out of the pedal steel. And Ben knew exactly what I meant- ELO and Jeff Lynne with that fantasy version of the Beatles. On the outro I was hearing Pink Floyd and that Duane Allman slide part that he played on “Layla.”

What is the story behind the lyrics?

My husband is our tour manager and you have to be a certain type of person to be in that job. They’re always taking care of everybody before themselves. I remember a time when I was drinking and couldn’t take care of myself. Small things would make the sky fall for me. Once I worked it out, I could handle anything. The song’s lyrics were my way of telling him you don’t have to do everything all the time. Let me take care of you. I got you. He needs to know I’m the captain now.

“Never Going Home Again” has that downhome feel- a little bit of Bobbie Gentry.

I love the Mamas and Papas and I wanted to write a song where I could sing with other singers and have big fat harmonies. Something with a country feel that would be a good road song. Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds was also in the Cramps, Lydia Lunch and all these great bands. So we wrote the song by combining all our tour stories. It’s as madcap as can be. It has that swampy laid-back feel. I was thinking “Creeque Alley.”

How long did Italian Ice take to record?

It took five days to record and a lot of time to overdub and mix. We nitpicked and dug in on the mix. It had to be perfect.

The strings were all done in one day. I sang the parts to the two musicians and they got it right away. I do it that way on all my records and love it. It’s singing. I can do it with my mouth, and you can do it with your fingers.

You always seem to have a dreamy, waltz style song on your records.

I love a good waltz and I like a good disco song. There’s a disco song on every record except for the last one.

I also hear Shelby Lynne and Aimee Mann influences.

Oh yeah. Someone gave me the I Am Shelby Lynne record when I first started writing songs and I was like ‘wow.’ That was a beautiful record.

Jon Brion (Aimee Mann’s producer) and George Martin are my two biggest heroes. Production, even over songwriting, is what has drawn me to listen to records over and over. Jon’s production on Magnolia was a great vehicle to get Aimee’s work out there, because she was ignored for so long. And then his work with Fiona Apple. David Friedman’s work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev too. That’s some of my favorite stuff.

Bringing it back home to your roots, you’ve always supported indie music venues. We’ve been reporting on the struggles a lot of smaller clubs like Asbury Park’s The Saint are having staying afloat. What makes them special?

Every town has a Saint. But not all of them are in a rock and roll town. Being on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, you can perform and make a lot of money playing in bars. It was my first job. I was bussing tables and the owners told me ‘wait you sing? Can you play here?’ So, when people ask if my parents gave me shit for playing music, well it was never like that down in New Jersey. They see that it’s a viable job.

So, the Saint is a beloved rock club in a beloved city. It’s not a random one-off place. When it opened, I wasn’t old enough to go. Then I went to college. I never wrote my own songs in college. I ran into (club owner) Scott (Stamper) and told him I wanted to play the Saint, and he said ‘well you know, we only have original music. Do you write your own stuff?’ So, I lied to him and said ‘of course!’ And then I wrote eight original songs in two weeks before the show and that was it. I never thought I would be a professional musician. It was just something I did for myself. It was the only job I didn’t get fired from! Then I started working there, at the door, the bar, the booking. And when he put on the Asbury Music Awards and I won an award it was the first bit of validation that people were actually paying attention.

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