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A Ride on the Boardwalk: Inside Nicole Atkins' Eclectic New LP 'Italian Ice'

Thursday, 04 June 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Barbara FG

After absorbing Nicole Atkins’ eclectic new album ‘Italian Ice’, you might wonder if the New Jersey songwriter possesses psychic abilities. And it’s not just that the material boasts some eerily prescient lines that resonate with the current pandemic crisis despite being penned over a year ago. It’s also down to the way she assembled a seemingly incompatible group of musicians in order to craft a boundary-pushing, timeless sound with foresight that indicates an almost prophetic vision guided her creative hand.

Since arriving on the scene with 2007’s ‘Neptune City’, Atkins has refused to rest on her laurels. From the electronic leanings of ‘Slow Phaser’ to the vintage soul of ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’, fans know to expect the unexpected whenever an Atkins record drops. But even by past standards, ‘Italian Ice’ is a unique journey.  

Described by the singer as being “an acid trip through her record collection” the idea was to evoke the hallowed sounds of the New Jersey boardwalks she frequented as a kid. It was a place where the impressionable youngster would hear radios up and down the shoreline blasting out a magical mixture of musical styles, significantly shaping her wide-ranging tastes in the process.  

To bring that vision to life Atkins and her band set up shop at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where they conjured a musical album full of picturesque imagery and stunning geographical ambience. From the disco-dance seduction of Domino and hollering Mamas and The Papas road trip Never Going Home Again, to the Beatles-esque Captain and psychedelic lucidity of Mind Eraser, that time and sound have been captured by an exceptional cast of musicians from very different backgrounds.

Joining seasoned Muscle Shoals cats like piano maestro Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood were Bad Seeds Jim Sclavunos and David Sherman, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Binky Griptite from the Dap-Kings, Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith and more. Under Atkins’ guidance, they coalesced into a crack team to create a highly original record that’s daring and familiar at the same time.

We caught up with Atkins to hear about the making of ‘Italian Ice’, her ‘Together We’re Alone’ lockdown live stream series on YouTube and the invaluable advice she once received from New Jersey’s favourite Boss.   

How have you been holding up during the pandemic?  

Sitting at home and, actually, busier than ever in different ways. Packing up pre-ordered records and learning how to run a TV show. That’s been fun. There’s definitely a lot of technical issues but the way we have it is pretty good so far. At first people were like, ‘There’s latency, there’s this, there’s that.’ I’m singing so I have no idea. I’ll see my neighbours’ face, when something’s wrong, go ‘Fuck…’ The first three weeks I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get divorced. This is crazy.’ We were fighting about technology and then it was ‘OK, we’ve figured it out.’ It’s fun coming up with different guests every week and seeing what we can do with it. 

There’s a view among music fans that our favourite artists are going to be writing like crazy during lockdown, so there will be some great stuff released once it ends. How true is that for you and your friends?

From what I’ve seen it’s 50/50. Some friends are struggling and have submitted to the dark side of ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen?’ That darkness can block up a lot of creativity. On the other side, there’s people who are like ‘I finally have time to be home and work on all these ideas that needed attention.’ I fall into that category. I’m always writing and now I have time to finish up a lot of ideas. Being home, almost playing like a kid again, creatively I’m in a good space. I remember seeing one comment ‘Make a new album’ and was like, ‘I did and you haven’t even heard the motherfucker yet.’  

Has the current situation fed into your writing? 

No, it’s weird. It’s such a terrible, scary thing that’s happening. The craziest that’s happened to the world since before my grandfather was alive. My mind goes into creativity and positivity, because that’s my protection. It’s funny because I was writing about the state of the world for ‘Italian Ice’ and now it sounds like the record was written yesterday. Jesus, I tried to write a record that was a cure for the news. So it was like ‘Here’s what’s happening, here’s what’s happening, but here’s the hope part.’ Now it’s like, shit’s so dark, I’m writing dance-rock songs because it’s fun.  

Every day, turn on the news, and it’s like some horrible new thing is happening. I don’t want to be all ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love’ but it is. As an artist what you write about reflects the times, but in today’s state you also have to create a reprieve for people. Whether it be in the sound or the feeling of the music. I like a lot of sad music but I’ve found it very hard to listen to right now. I can’t listen to Elliott Smith. Love him, but I just can’t go there cos it’s not just scary in my head and my feelings, it’s legit scary. 

What was your initial vision for ‘Italian Ice’?

I wanted to make a very ‘me’ record down in Muscle Shoals. I didn’t want to just make a tribute record of things that had come before there. I wasn’t interested in being nostalgic or retro or just one thing. I wanted to bring in all the different players that had worked with me over the last 10 years in various ways, combine them with Spooner and David, and give them something fresh to work on. At the end of the recording David was like, ‘I do sessions every day. I go in and do my part, go home and play with my dogs, and don’t think about it again. But this week felt special. It felt like we were a band.’ And I was like, ‘We were a band.’ It was a special five days in time I’ll never forget.  

The chemistry on the album is incredibly strong. Was there a master plan when it came to selecting those musicians?

I read somewhere, ‘This sounds like somebody just put together a bill for a benefit show’ and was like, ‘This person doesn’t know I have deep relationships with all these people.’ On paper they might not make sense, but for me they do because they’re the co-writers and collaborators in my life. For five days before we went to record I couldn’t sleep because I was like, ‘Oh no, all these awesome people, they’re my friends, but none of them have ever met. Like ‘What if it doesn’t work? What if it falls apart and the styles and personalities clash?’ I wanted everybody to be on their toes a little bit, but by day three we were like, ‘Is this as good as we think it is? Because it’s way too easy.’  I’ve never had this easy of a time in the studio before.

‘Italian Ice’ is a mash up of musical styles and periods, yet there’s no sense of whiplash from track to track. What do you think makes everything gel as well as it does?

I had so many songs because I was writing throughout ‘...Rhonda Lee,’ which was a specific type of style throughout the whole record. That was a conscious thing, but for this I wanted every song to be like ‘Man, I broke [the mould] with this.’ It fits because it’s the same band playing it together and me singing all of it. Each song is a nugget on its own. They sound good together and tell a story. Even sequencing, like the last song of Side A is Never Going Home Again, and…‘We’re not, so flip the record.’ It was all very conscious. I wanted it to sound like a ride on the boardwalk. If it was the same style throughout that wouldn’t be a ride to me. I wanted it to excite.    

Can you tell me about your different vocal style on Domino and where that cool groove came from?

It’s the best groove, isn’t it? We were listening to a lot of French electro music while we drove on tour. My friend Dax from Nashville, he has a studio and we were recording some vocals for me and Jim Sclavunos’ duets record that will hopefully come out next year. He was like ‘What are you listening to right now?’ So I made him this mixtape and he’s like ‘This shit is insane. I love it.’ I was like, ‘Do you think we could write something for me that sounds like this but isn’t just this?’ He’s like, ‘We could try.’

He sent me the drum and bass track and I was like, ‘Woah.’ I wrote over it but it was such a simple way to sing where it wasn’t [exaggerates] ‘I’m gonna sing this big.’  Everybody was like, ‘This is a hit’ and I was like, ‘But I’m not doing my singing thing that much’ and they said, ‘You don’t have to.’ That was letting the song do the work rather than my voice and now it’s fun to have some music in my bag I can dance to.  

We did a show the day after Thanksgiving in New Jersey, and no one had ever heard this song. Everybody was dancing like crazy and I was like, ‘Woah, that’s a thing.’ I have this one fan, this super goth kid, and he was at the front with his mouth open. I was like ‘Oh no, he hates this.’ Afterwards he came up and was like, ‘Domino, oh my god, what a song.’ I was nervous because that was the one song where I was like, ‘I don’t know if this fits on the record.’ But when we recorded it, it was like ‘OK we’re doing a disco-ish dance track but it’s still a live band.’ It sounds like, I don’t know if it’s the ‘70s or 10 years from now. The whole record has this out of time feeling.  

You’ve said this was the first time you made an album when you weren’t in emotional turmoil.  Were you concerned you might need to be a little tortured to come up with your best work?

Not to name drop, but I met Bruce Springsteen after my first record and he was like, ‘If I can give you any advice it’s to know you don’t need to be tortured to make it work. It actually works against you.’ I didn’t think I needed to be but always was, so didn’t know any other way. And [he was] totally right. If you’re in a good state of mind you can make anything because it clears out a lot of the noise and bullshit and lets you get to the heart of what exactly you want to do. Which in turn makes it fun.

'Italian Ice' is out now on Single Lock Records.

Nicole Atkins Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed May 26 2021 - LONDON Moth Club
Fri May 28 2021 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Cluny
Tue June 01 2021 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club

Click here to compare & buy Nicole Atkins Tickets at Stereoboard.com.



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