Nicole Atkins has unveiled her most impressive and sophisticated album to date with the release of Slow Phaser. Considering the caliber of her prior two releases, that’s no small statement.
The Jersey-based singer has really come into her own with clever, poignant songwriting and hauntingly catchy melodies. Learning that Nicole wrote the lyrics to Slow Phaser surrounded by the musical ghosts of Memphis, her evocative sound makes perfect sense. That Memphis soul permeates throughout the record.
I caught up with Nicole Atkins during SXSW where we discussed the inspiration behind Slow Phaser, her New Jersey roots (including her weakness for a pork roll sandwich), and her upcoming tour with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
Sound Dessert: How did recording Slow Phaser in Malmö, Sweden influence your sound?
Nicole Atkins: It was the winter time in Sweden, so it was really dark and snowy and we were working all morning into the evening in this little houseboat-type studio with all these toy instruments everywhere. We wanted a prog-rock sound and being in this cocoon of light amidst the dark Swedish winter was a nice contrast. I feel like that’s what Slow Phaser sounds like. The lyrics are pretty heavy and dark but the music is really playful and fun.
SD: How long were you recording in Malmö?
NA: A month and a half.
SD: Did you do any traveling when you were there?
NA: I stayed there the whole time. I walked a mile and a half in the snow to the studio every morning and I didn’t know anybody except for the people I was working with, so I made friends with locals. I’d go to the studio and when I’d come back, the only place still open was a Greek restaurant owned by this 70 year old woman and her husband. She was Greek and he was Swedish and we would do shots, play poker machines and sing Abba karaoke every night.
SD: Many songs on Slow Phaser including “The Worst Hangover” and “Above As Below” are inspired by the events of Hurricane Sandy.
NA: Yeah a little bit of the lyrics on almost every song on the album are kind of influenced by that, not that they’re specifically about that. With “Worst Hangover” it’s about more than a hangover, I was thinking about how my entire town, post Sandy, was having the worst hangover of their life.
SD: You were in Memphis at the time of the storm. Did you record some of the album there too?
NA: Sun Studios is where I put together most of the demos for my songs. Staying down in Memphis and having those musical ghosts around was really helpful. I wrote most of the lyrics in Roy Orbison’s old room on the second floor of Sun Studio’s where they have the museum now. Apparantly Sam Phillips used to yell at him for not writing rock songs and writing all this “cry baby sh*t.” Meanwhile he’s a legend for writing ballads.
SD: You played shows all week for SXSW, any artists that stood out to you?
NA: Torres. Mackenzie Scott has a three-piece and she becomes possessed when she’s performing. She sings really dark melodies. Kinda metal, sludgy.
I saw Pat from My Morning Jacket’s new band, Spanish Gold and they were fun. Really good stomp, party rock.
Then I saw a lot of really terrible bands. I do not understand dubstep and I don’t know if that’s my age, but every time I hear it I feel like I’m having a stroke. I’m like “oh no, my time has come! Oh wait, that’s just dubstep.”
SD: I know Asbury Park has a pretty tight-knit music community. Do you find yourself an active part of that scene?
NA: Oh, definitely. Everybody’s becoming a lot more friendly with each other which is a good thing. There’s a lot more collaboration and support going on in the Asbury community now, and there’s just a lot more bands. It’s exciting. There’s starting to be more venues too, it’s cool.
SD: Jersey was definitely representing during SXSW from artists to labels, including Little Dickman Records who had a few showcases. Did you catch any Jersey acts during the festival?
NA: We saw our friends Ruby The Hatchet. They’re in Philly but they’re surrogate Jersey, they used to live in Jersey.
Our friends The Battery Electric are on Little Dickman. I just released a video for “Girl You Look Amazing” and The Battery Electric guys are in the video – they’re in the bowling and the dancing part. All the extras are people in Asbury bands.
SD: Which bar did you shoot “Girl You Look Amazing” in?
NA: It was at The Asbury Lanes. It has three rooms so it looks like it’s in a bunch of different places: Asbury Lanes, Silverball (a pinball museum), and Delvetto’s Italian restaurant. I felt so bad for them, I don’t think they knew what they were getting into. They were like, “yeah you can shoot here” and then we bring in the fog machine and the disco ball and they’re like “wait a second, we’re opening for dinner in like an hour.”
SD: Being that you’re from the East Coast do you have a bagel addiction?
NA: I’m a die hard pork roll person. It’s a New Jersey meat. It’s a spicy ham/bologna that you fry up with an egg, cheese and ketchup on a bun. It’s disgusting and amazing. So delicious.
SD: Where are you headed next?
NA: New Orleans, Arkansas, Memphis, Nashville and then up the coast. We’ll have two days to sleep and then we’re doing some dates in May.
This summer we’re touring with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, that’s going to be really fun. Our tour actually kicks off here in Austin at the Moody Theater, July 19th.
SD: What’s your favorite thing about Texas?
What I love most is Austin in general. It’s a really cool place with a lot of freaky, creative people that I love. I definitely feel like Austin is one of my global homes. I wrote most of my second record, Mondo Amore, down here with Robert Harrison from Cotton Mather. I did a movie here with my friend Geoff Marslett called Mars where I play a mom. He made me into a cartoon.
Every time I come down here I feel very at home.