If you’re not yet familiar with Nicole Atkins,
Nicole called in from the road in Vermont to discuss the album, the tour, dinner invites from Letterman, and being the new DeNiro (sort of).
You’re on tour right now, opening for the Pipettes. How is that going?
It’s going good, the shows have been really great.
How are the Pipettes' fans responding to your performance?
Surprisingly well. There’s a lot of younger fans in the crowd, younger girls with polka-dot dresses on, and they seem to really like us. They’ve been buying our CDs after our set, which is good. A lot of people were saying they were surprised they liked the opening act!
Neptune City is based on life in your hometown. Can you elaborate on the story behind the songs?
I was living in Brooklyn for four or five years, and I just got to this point where I was really sick of the city. I moved back down to Charlotte for a few months just to get my head together, and I decided to move back to New Jersey for awhile, and it was basically about me coming to deal with all that, and being ok with living in my hometown again, because I always wanted to get as far as I could away from it, and I ended up really liking it.
There are conflicting emotions in some of the songs – a sense of pride in your town, but also disappointment in the changes that had taken place.
Yeah, you got it. It was hard because I didn’t know anybody that lived there anymore, but I ended up meeting some of the best friends I’ve ever had. It became easier for me to live there and write songs and commute to New York a couple days a week to practice, than it was for me to actually live in New York.
“Brooklyn’s on Fire” stands out as a song that paints a vivid picture. What was the inspiration for that song?
That was actually the first time I met my best friend Susan, who was my old roommate. We met on the fourth of July in Brooklyn at a rooftop party, and it was about that time, you know, just being young and living in Brooklyn, hanging out in New York and making the best memories of your youth in that time. It was a tribute song to her.
I understand that Rick Rubin made some last-minute changes to the record. How did he get involved?
Yeah, well he became the president of Columbia and he got my record and he really liked it but he thought that the vocals were being too squashed. So he actually ended up taking the mastering off completely, and it really made all of the arrangements and vocals really crisp, and you’re able to hear the nuances of every sound. My voice ended up sounding like it was leading the track rather than just being a part of the track, so I was really thankful. At first I was apprehensive about it because I didn’t know what he wanted to do. I thought I was gonna get my record back with all this shit all over it, and in the end he just enhanced it, he didn’t change anything.
I imagine it felt good to have someone of his stature helping out with your album.
It was pretty neat. It was weird because he would call me all time. I’d be out for drinks with my friends in New Jersey and be like, 'Hold on,' and they're like, 'Who's that?' 'Oh, Rick Rubin.' (laughs). He’s a really cool guy.
You’ve cited people like Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline as inspirations, with that kind of old fashioned sound. What is it that draws you to that kind of music?
It’s more the vocal style. Most of my musical influences are from the late ‘60s on, but they are inspirations to me because, that old country style of crooning, it feels really good for me to sing that way. And also the way I write songs, I like to start them out really low and build it until it’s like pow! at the end. And that’s something they were really good at doing with their songs as well.
I have to ask you about playing Letterman a couple weeks ago. What was that experience like?
Really fun! It was completely nerve-wracking at the beginning but then after a couple glasses of wine we went on stage and had a blast (laughs). It was one of the coolest days of my life so far. It was weird because when we actually got on stage, it was almost like I blacked out for three minutes and just got so into the song I didn’t notice how nervous I was.
It seemed like Dave was quite smitten with you.
Yeah, he asked me if I wanted to go get a steak! I thought that was pretty funny.
You and your band also did an American Express commercial. How did you get that opportunity?
It was so random. An intern at Columbia, their friend worked at the ad agency. She wanted to get an up-and-coming female singer/songwriter to do the ad and they asked me to do it. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I weighed the pros and the cons and was like, wow, I can pay off my credit card bill finally, move out of my mom’s house, and people actually get to hear my song that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radio, so I couldn’t understand any reason not to do it.
You mentioned the pros and cons - there will always be some people who see doing advertising as selling out.
Yeah, but you’ve gotta think about how the music industry is today. The only songs that make it on the radio are Britney Spears... to the few radio stations that even still exist. Musicians need to make their money somehow, and I just figured all the American Express ads that I’ve seen were really cool, and they always had cool people in them, and I figured if it was good enough for DeNiro, it was good enough for me!
The only thing that was misportrayed was we don’t really lounge around in bathrobes and offer to fly our friends out to our shows (laughs). I asked them about that too. I was like, 'We usually stay at the Econolodge.' 'Uh, that doesn’t look too good on tv.' Ok, whatever.
You’re playing here in Pittsburgh on Monday. What can people expect from your live show?
They can expect to probably dance a lot, and it’s more of a rock show than people would expect from hearing the recording. It’s pretty much a full-on rock show.
Video clip: Nicole Atkins & The Sea perform “The Way It Is” on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Nicole Atkins & The Sea perform at Diesel with the Pipettes tonight at 8 pm. Check out her website and her MySpace.