MUSICAL GROUNDING “I didn’t get into this to make music to clean your room to.” Says Nicole Atkins. “I’m not trying to make girl-pop.”
When a character turns to black, it usually means something particularly ominous is about to overtake their persona. Think Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, saddling up to Jabba's Palace dressed as a dark assassin. Or Spider-Man being overtaken by the ghoulish specter of the Venom costume.
"Or like when Batman became the Bat," says Nicole Atkins via telephone from her home in Brooklyn. The 33-year-old songwriter, who made a splash in 2007 with her band the Sea, is not only gritty, gifted, and glamorous, but she can also dish comic books with the geekiest of writers. She's got everything going for her.
But a lot seemed to go wrong for Atkins after Columbia Records released her classic-pop imbued debut Neptune City four years ago. The singer of the newly rechristened Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea watched everyone responsible for getting her signed to a coveted major label deal get fired within months. She then broke up with the label, lost her band, and finally watched a five-year romantic relationship fizzle like the Wicked Witch of the West (another character clad in black). The waters, once sparkling, started to look a whole lot murkier. As she says, it was time to take things underground.
"I spent so much time with Columbia waiting for them to get back to me on the songs," says Atkins. Overdue for an album in 2009 and on the brink of artistic indentured servitude, Atkins was put through the indignity of being told to write a hit single by record company executives looking for the next Alanis Morissette. "Rick Rubin told me in August that he wanted 40 songs by November. Forty songs by November? Fuck you! But I did it. I wrote 42. And I waited six months for him to say, 'I don't hear anything in them.' "
As much as you could say that everything went predictably wrong for a musical force of nature such as Atkins, you could also say that things went incredibly right, as well. Operating underground (as much as Kickstarter-funded tours with the Black Keys and Avett Brothers could be considered underground) finally made it possible for her to maintain creative control outside the scrutiny of what anyone, except Atkins herself, heard in the music. Change is a relief. "I didn't get into this to make music to clean your room to. I'm not trying to make girl-pop," she says with a hint of annoyance. "I'm trying to make a record that sounds like Derek and the Dominos."
Her latest, February's Mondo Amore (Razor & Tie) is much closer to Atkins's darker musical vision than the more pleasant facade of her debut. If anything, it's music to destroy your bedroom to — or someone else's. Mondo Amore's best tracks stir up a powerfully gothic, almost spaghetti western-like landscape of old rock and roll, blues, and country. Rootsy without being overly reverent, songs like the scorching "You Come to Me" or the cinematically melodramatic "The Tower" are the perfect vehicles for Atkins's tight, piercing vibrato and brooding poetry.