The one and only Nicole Atkins is set to play The Barns at Wolf Trap tomorrow night, so I caught up with her over the phone on Friday to talk about what the audience can expect from the gig. It’s the last one stateside before she hops the pond for some UK dates opening for Mercury Rev, and she wants to make it extra special. (Basically if you haven’t grabbed tickets yet, this is your cue to do so ASAP.) Aside from tomorrow night’s show, we also talked about what it’s like to have one foot in Asbury Park and the other in Nashville, her creative process and self-care routine, what’s on the horizon for her in 2019 and MORE, so internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below! (And while you’re at it, snag a copy of Goodnight Rhonda Lee, out now on Single Lock Records!)
BYT: How was the show last night?
Nicole Atkins: Oh, it was great! That Troy Music Hall is one of the best-sounding stages I’ve ever played on. It sounded so good that it was throwing me off! I’m not used to stages sounding that good.
BYT: That’s amazing! And what’s your setup going to look like for Wolf Trap?
NA: It’s going to be really fun! I went out this summer to Europe with this band called The Pollies from Muscle Shoals, and they were backing me up, so I’m bringing them up for the show with me. They’re just great. They’re a band that’s got really, really good players, really great grooves, and I just can’t wait to see them.
BYT: Sounds like it’s going to be great! You know, Wolf Trap (Filene Center, not The Barns) was actually where I saw my first-ever concert. My older sister really wanted to go see Shawn Colvin, so that’s what we did. That was a zillion years ago, but it’s so great that they’ve continued to consistently have really great stuff happening over there.
NA: Actually, I met Natalie Merchant at the show last night, and that was the first concert that I ever went to with my friends. I was like, “Oh my god! I painted your lyrics on my best friend’s walls when I was in high school!” So that was a major moment. But yeah, everybody’s been telling me, “Oh, wow! Wolf Trap? I can’t believe you’re playing there! It’s amazing!” We played there with The Avett Brothers last summer, and it really is just such a cool place. Such a beautiful venue, and I’ve seen some pictures of The Barns, and so I’m just kind of thinking in my head, “Okay, I’ve got The Pollies as the band, it’s my last show of the year, last big band show after two years of touring really hard and before making a new record. What kind of show can I create for this space at this time?” So I’ve got a little section in my notebook that’s dedicated to this one Wolf Trap Barns show, and I’m gonna make it really special.
BYT: Amazing. And you’re based in Nashville still, yeah?
NA: Yeah, but I’m also part-time in Asbury Park as well. I grew up there, and between all this touring it’s just become a sort of hub. I have to go do Thanksgiving there, and I’m going on tour in the UK, and we don’t have our international part of the airport done yet, so I always have to fly out of Newark. I’m basically with one foot in Nashville, and the other still in Asbury Park.
BYT: What was it like to grow up in Asbury Park, which has such a legendary musical history? Did you find that to be influential?
NA: Big time. It was a really magical place to grow up. I was born in ’78, and that was right at the turn of Asbury Park’s backslide. It was after the race riots, and the town kind of burned to the ground, and everybody got scared to live there. I caught the tail end of the Palace Amusements and the boardwalk. It was beautiful and scary. There were weird clowns and fun houses, halls of mirrors, a carousel and swan boats, rock ‘n roll, punks from every corner outside, and that kind of went away. It got kind of desolate. But that desolation was very inspiring. It’s like the burned out rock ‘n roll village on the beach. And then it came back, you know? But it’s always been a very inspiring place to me as an artist. Where else can you grow up where telling your parents you want to be a musician is just as accepted as telling your parents you want to be a doctor, you know?
BYT: Absolutely. And what about Nashville? Obviously a big music town that’s seen a lot of growth and change in the last decade or so. What’s it like to live there as a musician?
I think it’s great. I’m not very “country”, and it’s funny how people call me “Americana” now, because they never did when I didn’t have a southern zip code, you know? [Laughs] But whatever. Me and my friends all moved to Brooklyn in the early 2000s, and Williamsburg was where you moved because it was cheap. And as places get bigger and artists get priced out, it makes sense that a lot of rock ‘n roll and indie rock and experimental music is moving to Nashville, because it’s cheaper to live there and it’s a music city. Granted, it is becoming more populated and therefore the rent is going up, so no matter where you go, the gentrification is going to follow. You wonder if you’re part of the problem.
But it’s just so wonderful to live in a place that has such a strong music community, to live in a place where you’re not the token musician friend in your group. People will still invite you to their BBQ even though they know you’re on tour, because they know how nice it is to know that you’re remembered and feel included. Or there are the friends that’ll pick up your mail and water your plants and remember to do it, because they know you’re going to remember to do it for them when they’re out on the road. It’s a warm little organ that didn’t exist in my body until now that I wish I’d had sooner.
BYT: So good to hear! And do you find you do most of your creative work there? Or are you the type that can write on the road, too?
NA: I write everywhere, so my whole life is basically a giant studio. [Laughs] I have my art room, which is like my music and painting studio, but when I’m home it can also be the living room or the bedroom or the kitchen. Right now it’s my van. Or the green room. I’m in gypsy mode all the time, so wherever I am, that’s where I make stuff.
BYT: What’s the most inconvenient place you’ve ever been inspired?
NA: Strangers’ houses when we’re not vibing on writing a song together. Or a writing room in a publishing place. I’d rather just have the inspiration come to my house.
BYT: Totally. And I’m gonna backtrack for a second to touch on your visual art, which you briefly mentioned re: your painting room. I know it can be difficult to articulate how your creative process works, but I wanted to ask if you notice any similarities or differences in the way you approach visual art and songwriting.
NA: I actually do. They’re very, very similar for me. With painting, I start with a few colors, and I put them down and see where they go and what they turn into. I kind of let the material dictate what it’s going to be. And then with songs, I do the same. I’ll just sing whatever comes off the top of my head, and I let that dictate where it’s going to take me.
BYT: Have you been working on new material right now?
NA: Yeah, I’m working on a new record that’s going to be recorded in February. I’ll just say it’s super, super badass.
BYT: Will you record in Nashville?
NA: It’s a really cool setup, but I actually can’t say anything about it until the ink is dry. I don’t want to jinx it!
BYT: Totally understandable.
NA: It’s super, super, super dope, though, and I think it’s gonna be a record that people will welcome, just because it’s going to lift you up.
BYT: Which we all need right now.
NA: Yeah, we fucking need it, so I’m basically writing a record that’s a note to self to keep your head up.
BYT: What do you personally do in terms of self-care? I’m sure that songwriting and making art is very therapeutic, but do you do anything else besides?
NA: Just trying to give people as much love as I can, you know? Be nice to people, stop thinking about yourself so much. Go out and just call somebody and ask them how they’re doing, or if you can help them do anything. Even though I’m super busy and touring all the time, it’s really good for me to get my head out of my own ass, and see if any of my friends or family need my help. It’s been something as simple as drawing something for somebody, or doing little frivolous acts of kindness.
BYT: Absolutely. And (to me) it’s felt like the lack of that is a bit what got us to this place to begin with.
NA: You know what, though? I don’t think there’s a lack of it. I think this is just the first time that the world has been on a 24-hour news cycle. You know? And it’s really easy to get addicted to it, and to get sucked in, because it’s constantly like, “What the fuck?” all the time. Just shut it off, and you’ll see that the world is still going on. We’re all still doing cool and fun things, and that’s the best thing about shows, because for that two hours, everybody’s got their phones turned off. You’re just having a good time and hanging out with your friends, having drinks, listening to music, dancing and singing along. For two hours, you forget that there’s evil at work that’s making the headlines all the time, because that’s the movie people want to see. People just have to stop thinking life is a movie, because it’s real.
BYT: Right. And it’s also interesting, because it’s sort of easy to forget how recently the internet really did turn the news cycle into this constant in-your-face thing. It’s not something I grew up with, so it’s kind of strange to think about the advantages and disadvantages of having all of this access to information and misinformation.
NA: Yeah. And it’s really easy to feel helpless, which is why it’s so important to do everything that you can that you’re capable of, you know? Even as far as mental illness. It sucks that mental illness has been so stigmatized for so long. Your brain is just as important as your heart or your stomach. If someone has stomach cancer or a stomach disease, people don’t flinch. But if somebody has mental illness or alcoholism or PTSD, people are like, “Oh, they’ll get over it.” But they need help.
BYT: And I guess that would be one of the advantages of the internet, then, because I’ve found that so many more people are opening up about this stuff on a platform where people will actually see it. You don’t have to buy a book or anything, you know? It’s just right there in what people are posting. And I think that’s so helpful. There are tons of things in terms of anxiety, depression, etc. that I’d never have felt comfortable talking openly about even a couple of years ago, and now I’m able to do that easily.
NA: Definitely. And that’s why I talk about my depression and my alcoholism and my anxiety, just because when I was going through it, there weren’t that many people who were open about it. It’s nice to be able to point to somebody else and say, “Oh, I like that person, and they understand. They have this, too. I might be okay.” Little things like that really help people. I just think in the midst of so many evil and mean things happening, you just have to combat with kindness. Just start it at home and in your social circles.
BYT: Completely. And since you are so open about discussing your alcoholism, I wanted to ask you whether or not you were ever nervous that your creative process would be affected by getting sober. I know that’s a thing that a lot of people express concern over, and of course it’s a myth, but did you struggle with that question at all personally?
NA: Yeah, it’s the biggest lie of all time. [Laughs] I make way cooler shit now, and I’m also not constantly dealing with a hangover, you know? Even just the self-esteem you get back, too. I was a pretty high-functioning alcoholic, but I’d be like, “Oh, I should write a song.” And I’d just think about it and have all these negatives. Now, it’s just like, “Oh, cool. Let’s make something. Fun!” I remember I met Bruce Springsteen (name drop!) [laughs] when my first record came out, and he was like, “If there’s one piece of advice I can give you, it’s that great art does not have to be made in distress. I used to always think that my anxiety and my depression were a key to my creativity, and that’s not true.” I remember thinking, “Yeah, maybe not for you, Bruce, ’cause you’re rich!” [Laughs] But he was totally right. When you grow up, too…being happy was not cool when I was growing up. It was the nineties. You had to hate everything, you had to be miserable. But it was just a waste of fucking time.
BYT: So on the flip side of that, and kind of embracing positivity, what (aside from music and creativity) do you love right now?
NA: Well, I love Animal Planet. [Laughs] I love the Frozen Planet animals. We stayed up until like 4am watching a special on beluga whales and their exfoliation process. They like to spa! I also like bathhouses, steam rooms and stuff. They’re the best for when the weather gets cold. You have access to all the best places in NYC, like the 10th Street ones. It’s the best. But I hate that I always have to go with friends, though, because there’s always a dude that comes into the steam room and sits next to me making weird “Ahhhh” sounds, and it’s like, “Shut your mouth! Why do you have to be so weird?!”
BYT: RIGHT?! Every single time.
NA: I also really love Krink paints. They’re like this really fun spray paint…or, it’s not spray, but it’s mop acrylic paint. I don’t know, I’m just kind of really into animals and colors right now. [Laughs]
BYT: Amazing things to be into, to be honest. And aside from the gigs and the upcoming record, what’s sort of left on your 2018 bucket list, and/or what are you excited for going into the new year?
NA: Well, Wolf Trap is my last show in the States, and then I’m headed out to the UK to do a solo run opening for Mercury Rev. Then I’m looking forward to going on vacation with my husband, because we never see each other. After that, making a new record, getting to make more artwork…just seeing where it all takes me.