New Jersey native Nicole Atkins is back with Slow Phaser, her ambitious third studio album. It was released on Atkins’ brand new, self-run label Oh’Mercy!, and funded by fans thr0ugh a PledgeMusic campaign. Here, the plucky singer-songwriter sounds off on making the new album, writing jokey songs as a kid, being friendly with The Boss and more.
Bruce Springsteen recently gave your efforts to start your own label a plug on Facebook. What’s your relationship like?
Bruce is awesome! I see him around town once in a while and we always have a good catch up and a drink and a laugh. He’s so down to earth. He came and checked out my band’s set at a benefit show and afterwards sat with me and gave me so much advice. All I could think was, “This is like the movie High Fidelity, but not a daydream!”
How’s things with the label going? Why did you start your own label?
So far so good! It’s definitely a lot of time and money but ultimately I know it will be more rewarding to have more ownership of my own records and freedom to make the kind of music I want to listen to. I want Oh’Mercy! to be something I’ll have for the rest of my life that I can put my heart into and release not only my own projects but others that I love and can nurture.
Why did you name the album Slow Phaser?
We were tracking the song “What Do You Know,” and I said to my producer Tore [Johansson], “Turn up the slow phaser man!” and a little mind bubble went off. I thought, “That sounds like an album title!” And I thought it was fitting in two separate ways. I’ve always been a late bloomer in most aspects of my life so Slow Phaser is basically me. And theres also a shit ton of actual slow phaser on the album.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Lee Hazelwood, Harry Nilson, Peter Gabriel, Roy Orbison, Dan Penn, Nick Cave, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, Big Star, Patti Smith and John Grant.
How would you describe your new album?
I think of it as a dark disco record performed in the desert. But not in a Burning Man sort of way. More like an El Topo meets Robert Fripp and Donna Summer kinda way.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Very different. My last record was a very stripped down psychedelic blues record centered around a painful breakup. Slow Phaser is a record that I wrote with the subject matter focusing more so on how I felt in the world. Growing pains, learning to trust your gut and having your emotions change from black and white to something so colorful and dumbfounding. Keeping that childlike wondrousness while being okay with becoming an adult.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
My mom’s little brother passed away when he was 13. I was two at the time. He was the only person in my family that played an instrument. When I was 13 I found his guitar in our attic. My mom at first wanted me to leave it alone because she didn’t wanting it getting lost. I bought a Grateful Dead and a Neil Young guitar book at the mall and taught myself how to play the songs on the sly while she was at work. One night I sat down and showed her and my Grandma that I could play “Stella Blue” and they were cool with it.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
When I’m home I play a little every day. Its fun to mess around with new pedals and try to get decent on my Rhodes. For fun I like to try to learn Benji Hughes songs. My friend also got me a Nick Cave songbook. I’ve been trying to learn the solo on Pink Floyd’s “Echos,” pretty much for the last ten years.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
When I was 7 years old I wrote a song about my stuffed rabbit, Pink Froyd. He was skinny and tall and had corduroy overalls on and a big butt. So I wrote him a song called “I Love My Heinie, So Bright and Shiny.” My family actually still sings it when we see each other. Growing up I always wrote joke songs. When I graduated school and moved back home, most of my friends moved away. I lied to a local show promoter and told him I wrote an album and wanted to play a show. The show was two weeks later and in that two weeks I wrote my first eight “serious,” songs. From there I never stopped. Out of a hundred shitty songs I’ll write, I usually get one or two good ones. I’m grateful for those.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
It’s a song called “Fein,” that I cowrote with Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds. I came up with a whistle melody and a Kraut rock-ish drum beat while I was on a flight and then a couple months later Jim came to NYC and we worked on the lyrics. It’s really dark but the music is dancey. Conflicted in the perfect way.
How do you go about writing songs?
Melodies will come to me and I’ll record them into the voice notes on my phone. They wouldn’t make sense to anyone else but I can listen to one from years ago, just a little whispering and fake words, and it will instantly come back into my mind how it should sound. I also free write daily and read and write a lot. Then I’ll sit for a while and try to piece the puzzles together and figure out what they mean.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
I don’t have one direct approach. I write lines down that come to me. My books are full of them. So when I need lyrics, I’ll hit those up. But sometimes, when the melody comes first and I have fake words to it. Sometimes those fake words will interest me and I’ll try to figure out what kind of stories those subconscious sounds want to tell.
Most of the characters or stories in my songs that sound like they are about one person or one situation are usually in reality about 4 different situations in my life.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Romance, pain, lights on the river at night, restlessness, compulsions, Italian funerals, families. Lots of things. But it mostly just starts with a melody that I fall in love with.
What’s a song on Slow Phaser you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Gasoline Bride”. The lyrics came fast and as soon as they did, I saw it all laid out like a movie. This vision of a bride with her hair on fire driving through the desert. Like a psychic outlaw, completely untouchable. And the sound I wanted to make it like this version of Morricone combined with early Genesis and I didn’t think it could be done and not sound whack. But I think I pulled it off and I love it.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
From the song “Cool People.” I like the line “I am always naked in my mind. Trying to reconcile with a towering dark side. The only dress I wear is my shadow on the wall.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I find it much harder to write songs if I’m not doing it all the time. That’s definitely one thing I’ve learned. The more time you take off from writing, the harder it is to do it, or rather do it and not have a self loathing anxiety attack. So I like to keep my practice pretty steady.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I hate the words “gnocchi,” “sensual,” and I hate when people use the word “party,” as a verb. I also strongly dislike the word “giggle.” Fuck “giggle!” I love most other words. Especially the words “purple” and “mannequin.” They are so much fun to say!
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I know that a lot of people got some comfort from my song “Neptune City.” Mostly my neighbors on the Jersey Shore, especially after Hurricane Sandy. That song was written in 2006 but its was if it was written on that night.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I write a lot of letters and short stories. I keep a dream journal because my dreams are really vivid. I also write a lot of bathroom stall poetry.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Roy Orbison. I would love to write an epic heart-murdering cryfest with ol’ Roy.
Who do you consider to be an underrated songwriter?
Benji Hughes, Dennis Wilson, Jim Sclavunos, and Robert Harrison of Cotton Mather. Four of my favorite writers of all time and more peoples ears and hearts would be way happier if they knew their songs.