"We listen to a lot of Seal."
Nicole Atkins and her touring band are driving through the massive expanse of Montana when she confirms a life tip we've long suspected: "You throw Seal on at a party and everybody goes,'F---, yeah!'"
In a nutshell, most of what anyone needs to know about Atkins is this: She does what she wants. She doesn't really care if you like it, get it or approve. The eclectic songstress bucked her last label when it tried to force her into an alt-country mold, and after being surrounded by "cool people," where style over substance is the ultimate M.O., she ditched them all and recorded the most honest album of her career to date -- in Sweden of all places.
Evolved from the raw, swaggering rock of 2011's Mondo Amore, Atkins' new album, Slow Phaser (out now via her own Oh'Mercy! record label), is a compelling genre-eschewing mix of prog-rock psychedelia ("Gasoline Bride," "What Do You Know?"), '70s glam pop ("Girl You Look Amazing), smoldering indie rock ("Red Ropes") and Beatlesque sing-alongs ("It's Only Chemistry"). Atkins has always been a confident singer, but her rich voice is in effortlessly prime form here, anchoring and lifting the songs simultaneously.
Atkins recently took a few minutes out to chat about her March 6 show at Soda Bar, singing to her food, taking inspiration from Peter Gabriel and where she fits -- if at all -- into today’s musical landscape.
Dustin Lothspeich: After San Diego, Phoenix and Albuquerque, you've got five dates at Austin's South by Southwest. What’s it like playing a festival like that?
Nicole Atkins: I love it. It's completely exhausting, but it's so fun. It’s my fourth time doing it. You get to see a bunch of friends in other bands who you don't usually get to see all in one place. Just so long as you can keep hydrated, it's all good.
DL: We were just at Sunset Sessions, which I know you've played in the past. How do you feel about doing industry-showcase type events like that?
NA: They can be necessary. It can be really good to get in front of music supervisors and people like that. But when I'm performing at things like that, I just put myself in a different head space and try to block out everything else but the music.
DL: Is that something you normally do when you're performing?
NA: No, I try to connect with every single person in the room, from the people up front to the people checking ID's at the front door. It's about trying to impart a good time to everyone. Honestly, there's a lot of music I see where people are up there onstage and they feel like it's all about them. Like, they'll come off stage and go, "People didn’t get it!" or, "No one showed up!" It's not about you, man; it's about the people you're playing for.
DL: I've seen you in concert once, and it was in 2010 when you opened for the Black Keys at SOMA. Is it nerve-racking to play huge shows like that?
NA: It's actually easier to play bigger venues. There's a ton of people, the sound is big, people are standing and dancing. Everything disappears for that hour. You black out into some kind of dream. The smaller shows are a lot scarier because it’s just you and a few people. Social anxiety kicks in and you just have to overcome it.
DL: My favorite track off Slow Phaser is "Girl You Look Amazing." What does that song mean to you?
NA: That line came to me in a dream. Earlier that night, I had made dinner, and when I went to put it down on the table, I was looking at that plate of food and sang that melody off the top of my head [she jokingly sings, "Damn, you look amazing!"]. I ended up recording it and saved it for something. I struggled with it for a year. And after a long time of looking at my life and where I was, I felt like two bucks. I felt like I looked great on the outside but not so great on the inside. I was surrounded by people bereft of substance. On the flip side of that song, the way we produced it, made it into kind of a cool rock strut -- it’s not all bubblegum. It's funny, though: My friend called me up and said her young daughter puts that song on when she's getting ready in the mornings and she just starts strutting around [laughs].
DL: Do you have a particular favorite off the new album that you play?
NA: It changes all the time. I really like when we run "What Do You Know?" into "Gasoline Brides." It’s a groovy, prog-rock number, and it melds so well into "Gasoline Brides." It’s got a ZZ Top/Pink Floyd kind of strut.
DL: What is "Gasoline Brides" about?
NA: In past relationships I could've gotten married, but it didn’t feel right. The only consistent thing in my life is writing and touring. ["Gasoline Brides"] is about being OK with that, burning that path of a traditional life. Stylistically, it’s got kind of a Queens of the Stone Age stomp, a very cinematic feel. It just came to me. My friend sent me the first Peter Gabriel record, with "Solsbury Hill" -- it's called Car, I believe -- it’s got beautiful pop songs, along with weird, theatrical, Fraggle Rock moments. It made me know that there is a place that I do exist. It’s in this fun, wacky, dark, pop world. There aren't many of us [laughs].
DL: Do you think your new record is the most accurate representation of you as an individual vs. your previous albums?
NA: Totally. It sounds like what the inside of my head sounds like. I think it's the record that sounds the most like me. There are songs on Neptune City [her 2007 debut LP] that are the best songs I've ever written. Each record is its own unique thing. I'm really proud of all of them. I feel like Neptune City sounded like two distinct parts of my life. Mondo Amore was one specific part of life at the time. But [Slow Phaser] sounds like my DNA. It sounds like my inner dialogue. It's not one specific thing. It's the dialogue in my head. Soundwise, it felt like I was finally able to listen to the sounds that came to my brain and not have to edit them to fit into a specific thing.
DL: Well, there's a lot going on across the album. Do you think critics and listeners will have a hard time pegging this record as one thing or another?
NA: Yea, I think it is hard for people to classify me. I don’t give a f--- about being classified anymore. Maybe people can be in my class. I spent way too many years trying to fit into a category. I took the success factor out of my head – and now I just wanna be a weirdo.