The Nashville-based singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins released her fifth album Italian Ice on the 29th of May this year. Featuring members of the Bad Seeds, Midlake, My Morning Jacket, Spoon and the Dap-Kings, David Hood and Spooner Oldham from the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section plus many more besides, it is a record that has attracted universal critical acclaim including a 4* rating on these very pages.
The following evening Nicole Atkins held her seventh consecutive Saturday night livestream show Alone We’re All Together with a special album-release party during which she performed ten songs from Italian Ice live from the attic of her Nashville home alongside pre-recorded guest appearances from Chris Isaak, JD McPherson, Britt Daniel, Binky Griptite and Rebekah Del Rio.
And very first thing the next morning Nicole Atkins was more than happy to speak to God Is In The TV via FaceTime from her front porch. During a far-reaching interview Atkins impresses with the warmth of her personality, the infectious enthusiasm she has when speaking about making music, and the unlimited generosity of both her time and spirit.
In this extensive interview Nicole Atkins speaks openly about many subjects including the impact of Coronavirus, her livestream shows, the making of Italian Ice, her long-standing love affair with the music of the English rock band Traffic, what it is like to perform at the Harlem Apollo, and her desire to have an amateur wrestling match as her support act when she plays at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds next June.
God Is In The TV (GIITTV): Can you tell us where the thinking behind the Alone We’re All Together livestream show came from?
Nicole Atkins (NA): When we first found out how serious this (Coronavirus pandemic) all was I had some money put aside for living but the guys in my band didn’t. They had to continue working in a tobacco shop in Muscle Shoals and I thought if we can continue doing some shows we can earn some money for the band as there was no insurance from the tour (the Italian Ice tour of the US, UK and Europe that had to be cancelled at the last minute due to the onset of the virus).
Ryan (McHugh) my husband is a front-of-house sound guy and our neighbour is a cameraman so that worked out. For the first few weeks everything was falling apart but I saw something online from Jarvis Cocker and all his sound equipment was breaking and I was like, ok, we are all fucking up right now so that’s ok!
My grandfather passed away during all of this….
GIITTV: I’m sorry for your loss.
NA: …thanks. He’d had a good life, though, he was 92. And seeing my Mom and my Dad using YouTube and my fans interacting with my parents and my Uncle in the comments it made me think this is exactly what I should be doing right now. And it meant every Saturday there would be something to work towards and something to look forward to. You know, I need to keep my head out of the gutter. I can’t allow my head to stay in despair for too long as I’m an alcoholic, y’know. (laughs ironically).
GIITTV: Talking about Alone We’re All Together the format reminded me a little of that used on Movin’ With Nancy (a television special from 1967 featuring Nancy Sinatra in a series of musical vignettes featuring herself and other artists).
NA: You just blew my mind as I have never seen that! I would love to see that!
GIITTV: Was it a deliberate choice to open last night’s album launch party with ‘AM Gold’ (the opening song on Italian Ice)?
NA: Yes, it’s the perfect opener. Even when I first recorded that song, and didn’t have the words for it, it was like I don’t know what I am going to sing yet but this song was the first one we recorded in the studio and I just knew there is no place on this record except for the first song on the album. This was track 1 and it all just came to me on the last day.
I was thinking of it like the beginning of that Traffic record John Barleycorn – that’s what I kept thinking of – and (Marvin Gaye’s) Inner City Blues, but it ended up sounding like The Pointer Sisters!
GIITTV: You suggested during the show last night that the momentum for Italian Ice gathered during the party for Spooner Oldham’s 75th birthday…
NA: I always knew I was going to make a record, I just didn’t know when I was going to do it or what the themes were going to be. I kept writing throughout touring so I had a lot of songs. Whenever I make a record I usually have about two or three songs and these are, like, the theme and now I am going to write more around these songs.
And then when I went down and sang at Spooner’s party, I think it was David Hood who was talking to guys from the record company after the party – because they all live in the same town – and he said “man, we want to make a record with her, she’s fun.” And I am just glad I didn’t know that David was in Traffic when we did that show (bass guitarist Hood was a member of Traffic between 1972-73) because I would have been so shy because that is the band that made me want to make records.
So David and Spooner wanted to make a record with me and Binky (Griptite) was with me when we ran into Roxanne (Spooner Oldham’s daughter who had invited Nicole Atkins to the party) so he should be on the record. And I then invited people that I had been working with like the drummer from Midlake – we had always wanted to make a record together – and Moose (Dave Sherman) who has always played with me. And then I was round at Jim Sclavunos’s house and he had this picture of Fame Records on his kitchen wall and I was just like “have you ever been in Muscle Shoals (studio) yet?” and he said “no, I haven’t yet, I’ve always wanted to go,” so I said “do you want to be on this record?” And Britt Daniel from Spoon – we were making this record together – and he said “where are you making this new record?”, so I told him and he said “man, that sounds like a dream” so I said “do you want to come?” and he was like “yeah!” and so it was like whoever was on the walk, y’know, at the time…
GIITTV: I read that the album was more or less recorded (at Muscle Shoals Sound) in five days. Is that right?
NA: Yeah, that’s right. All the songs were recorded in five days. And then Binky stayed an extra day and did some guitar overdubs and then afterwards I went to a couple of different studios to cut my vocals.
GIITTV: I know that the album release had to be put back because of the Coronavirus and that also put paid to your British tour. We had tickets to come and see you, this weekend in fact, at the Red Rooster Festival.
NA: Oh man, that was one of the biggest things that really bummed me out. I was so excited to play with Richard Hawley (the festival’s main headliner).
GIITTV: And the previous night you were down to play the Brudenell Social Club, the place where I first saw you play, supporting Mercury Rev.
NA: Oh, I love that place.
GIITTV: What struck me that night, hearing you for the first time, was how powerful your voice was. In fact it was the most powerful female voice I had ever heard in concert since seeing Maria McKee about 15 years before that.
NA: Oh wow, I love her.
GIITTV: But on Italian Ice you do seem to be a bit more restrained…
NA: Yeah, I think I am just starting to learn that the kind of singer I am…I’m a belter. I’ve never had any crew, y’know, so shit breaks all the time so I have to do that a lot. I grew up singing in musicals and with albums I realise there’s a microphone there so I just wanted to use different shades of my voice as more of like an instrument and belt when this has to be belted or tell them the story with just my speaking voice at times.
GIITTV: Thinking about live music and looking ahead to the future, I read that in Nashville they were moving to Phase 2 of reopening (after lockdown) and that they were starting to allow limited live music performances to return to bars and restaurants.
NA: Nobody I know is performing. It’s not safe. I don’t want people coming to my shows and getting sick. That would be horrible. And like if I get sick…it (the virus) goes into your lungs and that’s the scariest thing for a singer.
We have just been home this whole time, and we’ll get a take-out, but other people are out without masks, particularly right now when there’s been a riot down town and City Hall was on fire (part of the ongoing nationwide protests in America against Police killings, sparked by the death of an unarmed black man George Floyd). It’s crazy. But it’s also like, what else is to happen? This shit has just been happening for so long. It’s the first time in my life where I’m wondering if we are ever going to be the same.
In terms of live music I think the shows are going to start off small. I think a lot of house shows will probably happen. A lot more, like, pay-per-view type shows. Drive-in movie theatres, that sort of thing, which is kinda cool but the hardest thing about shows is that it is the community. I mean you go to shows because you want to be around people. I wanna get sweaty and dance!
That was the one fun thing with the show last night…it was so hot upstairs and I knew it was the last (livestream) show and there was the rioting downtown and I was running around the room and it was sweaty and it kinda felt like a show. It was really fun.
GIITTV: Jumping around, I know you mentioned David Hood earlier on…
NA: It was funny because after the recording (for Italian Ice) there was a party in Muscle Shoals for Cedric Burnside – he is on my label and he was nominated for a Grammy – and they had some food and drinks at this hotel and David Hood’s wife put it on. And I was like “David, what does Judy do?” and he said “I don’t know what she does, but she is just a spark plug though. She’s the light of my life.”
And he’s so funny, he says the cutest stuff, like I said to him “where are you going to be on Saturday?” and he says “I don’t know where I’m going to be on Saturday but I know it’s going to be steak night and, God knows, you don’t fuck with steak night!”
And he said, “Y’know, I do these (recording) sessions all the time and I go in and I read my chart and I play my part and I go home and I don’t really think about it but this week (recording Italian Ice) felt really special. It felt like a real band.”
And after the session was done I didn’t want to get that come down so I booked some time in the studio at Portside Sounds (in Sheffield, Alabama) and I took a bunch of hair-metal songs and got Spooner and Kelvin (Holly) in the room and said “let’s record these as Waylon Jennings’ songs.”. And they said “hey, it’s like a Lita Ford song, you’re crazy.” But we did this bunch of hair-metal songs as country songs.
GIITTV: Are any of these songs likely to see the light of day or was that just for fun?
NA: One of them came out before I did it with them…it was ‘November Rain’ (the Guns N’ Roses’ song) with me and Mark Lanegan. And I did ‘Hysteria’ from Def Leppard. I recorded it for Britt (Daniel) to sing and he was, like, “I don’t want to record ‘Hysteria’” and then I picked ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ by Lita Ford to duet with Pelle (Almqvist) from The Hives…so it’s always whoever comes to the place to sing.
GIITTV: Talking about cover songs, when I saw you play at The Cluny in Newcastle you did this astonishing version of Patti Smith’s ‘Pissin’ In A River’ and it really reminded me of Big Brother and the Holding Company.
NA: Yeah, it does end up sounding like Janis Joplin when we do that song. That song, I don’t know why, but it just connected to a relationship in my life and let’s me get some anger out.
GIITTV: At that show in Newcastle (in April last year) you previewed three songs from the new album – ‘Mind Eraser’, ‘Captain’ and….I can’t remember the third…
NA: I think it was ‘Never Going Home Again’
GIITTV: …yeah, that’s right. Were they the first three songs you had for the new album?
NA: No…the first one was ‘AM Gold’ even though I didn’t have the words for it then. And ‘Mind Eraser’, yeah. And then…what was it…oh, man…I think it was ‘Far From Home’.
GIITTV: That’s a beautiful song.
NA: Thanks. Yeah, I wrote that one when we first moved to Nashville and I was going to give it to Jim (Sclavunos) for our duet album, but I’m glad I didn’t! It would have been fine but I like singing it by myself!
GIITTV: I think that song is probably my favourite song on the whole album.
NA: Oh really? Ah, thanks. I was just, like, worried because I always feel that the slower, more grand songs, they’re always my favourites but they’re also the ones I think that nobody pays attention to because they aren’t upbeat.
GIITTV: Talking about songs and going back into last night’s show, ‘Freedom Songs’ that you sang with Binky…
NA: Yeah, that’s going to be on his solo record if he finishes it! It’s been years…I’m like, man, come on just put your vocals down. I would love Mavis Staples to cut that. I think it’s the perfect song for her. We actually sang it at her birthday party at the Apollo and we saw Mavis at the side of the stage just singing… “yeah, freedom!”. It was awesome.
GIITTV: Was that the Harlem Apollo?
NA: Yeah. It was the best venue I’ve ever been in my life.
GIITTV: Yeah, I have been in it myself. It was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.
NA: That’s the great thing about it because when you are on stage there…it’s a theatre and it has a balcony and it feels kind of squashed in and you don’t feel that disconnect from the crowd. It was just one of the best nights of my life.
GIITTV: Going back again to last night’s show you said that you were going to reconvene with the livestream shows in July but this time it would be from New Jersey. Are you moving back to New Jersey (Nicole Atkins was born and bred in New Jersey) ?
NA: It’s summer, I know there’s a pandemic but my grandfather’s house is empty right now and I haven’t seen my family since he passed. And that’s weird because we are all very close and when I am not on tour I go and stay with them and I go to the Jersey Shore and it’s like… I need it!
So I want to see my family and we’ll stay there, wait a couple of weeks and make sure we’re cool and then do the (livestream) shows from my parents’ deck. I was thinking that the river’s across the street and you can see into the neighbours’ yards so we could almost get a Freddie Mercury call-and-response (Nicole Atkins then impersonates Freddie doing exactly just that).
And my bass player and drummer live in Muscle Shoals and Memphis and I’m like “do you wanna get out of there?” and “when have we ever had the time to do this?” and “you can bring your drums and upright bass and we can go onto the boardwalk or just play on the deck and maybe the radio station can broadcast it”… and people can listen on their porches…yeah, we’re working on it. I wanna continue bringing shows to people because this (the Coronavirus crisis) is going to happen for a while.
GIITTV: Finally, Nicole, I notice you have listed a show for the Brudenell in Leeds for June of next year?
NA: Yeah (crosses her fingers)…you know what I want Nath (the Brudenell’s owner) to have open when we come there… y’know they have amateur wrestling there? It would be so much fun. Y’know music is fun and everything, but like when I was a kid…I keep seeing these parallels from when I was a kid to who I am now since I’ve quit drinking.
I remember going with Jim to see this crazy avant-grade band called Sugarlife and they were playing this, like, krautrock and were dressed like homeless junkie drag queens and it was part-performance, part-music, part-everything and the whole time, my attention, they had it! So I just think having some variety and the fact that the Brudenell have wrestling, well, that would just be so fun.
GIITTV: Well, with a bit of luck we will see you in Leeds next June along with some wrestlers too.
NA: Yeah, that would be so cool.
GIITTV: Thank you ever so much for your time, Nicole.
NA: Thank you.
Buy Italian Ice, including on 180 Gram Audiophile Black and limited-edition Translucent Ruby vinyl HERE
Main photo of Nicole Atkins: BarbaraFG