Nicole Atkins’ latest album, Mondo Amore, won’t be released until February 8, but it’s already garnering rave reviews left, right and center. This talented singer-songwriter from New Jersey has drawn comparisons to the likes of Janis Joplin and Etta James, and she recently took time to talk with our very own Aaron Kupferberg about her new album, band and recent wardrobe malfunction (yes!). Be sure to catch Nicole and her band, The Black Sea, on their 19-city tour in February. Dates and more info here.
Q: Mondo Amore has some great tracks on it. Tell me a little bit about the process of bringing this album together…
A: Well, after I left Columbia [Records], I went with my friend Phil Paulozolo, who co-produced the record and recorded it. We decided to to do this record without a label during the process of making it, so we just kinda hunkered down from January ’till June at the Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn and I just called on a bunch of my friends; the old members of my band The Sea and the new members that are currently with me [now called The Black Sea], and a bunch of friends from other Brooklyn bands.
We sat in the studio for a few months and made the record, and after it was all done, we took it to a few labels and showed it to them and Razor and Tie seemed like the best bet.
Q: But even before it got to that – tell me a little about your background. You have such a great voice, like a combination of Nancy Wilson and Stevie Nicks…
A: Thank you.
Q: Were you classically trained as a vocalist?
A: No, but I did a lot of musical theatre growing up. And then I started singing rock music and I actually didn’t have any vocal training until we started doing our first tour [from the last record] ’cause I started singing every night and started losing my voice, so I started training to figure out how to sing correctly to make that not happen anymore.
I didn’t start out with any training. Actually, I never thought I was a very good singer growing up, you know? I thought in order to be a good singer you had to be able to sing really high. Like a soprano or something, and I was only good at belting. Now I’m realizing that’s not a problem. It’s kinda my thing.
Q: I also read that when you made this album, a lot was based on a relationship that was sort of going bad. I guess that’s where the title comes from, Mondo Amore?
A: It means “big love.” It was more of a combination of three different relationships that were really important to me. And you know, a love relationship, a band relationship and a career relationship – all kind of ending at the same time. It was the most confusing heart break I’ve ever been through in my life, so this record is kind of all about those situations and how I try to figure out all of them in my own head and heart.
Q: Gotcha. A lot of the themes are about breaking up and getting hurt in relationships. Songs like “Cry, Cry, Cry” and one of my favorites on the album, “Hotel Plaster” – You have a good measured approach to that song; it wells up inside you and flows out…
A: Yeah. That one is the ah … [sniffles] … Oh God.
Q: Yeah. Why don’t you tell me how you came up with the song “Baby Don’t Lie”? It’s the bounciest song on the album; all the other songs are kind of dark and bluesy. It has this classical break and then returns to a bluegrass style…
A: Yeah, it’s a traditional country song with a little New Orleans Zydeckoish in the melody, but I almost didn’t put it on the record ’cause I thought it was too traditional for me, but you know what? This song’s fun.
Q: Are you planning a tour when the album comes out?
A: Yeah, we start touring February 9 – the day after the record comes out.
Q: Excellent. Who do you admire right now in rock and roll? Who do you consider a contemporary you’d like to jam with?
A: I think there are a lot of really great bands out now. It’s weird, I usually listen to music that’s pre-1972. And lately there’s so many good bands out. I like this Australian band called Tame Impala. This Australian psyche-pop band, I saw them play two nights in a row, and I haven’t been to a concert since I was in high school where I was headbanging, screaming my head off. I had the best time.
And then there’s the Black Angels, [the] new record is great. I obviously love My Morning Jacket and Black Keys. And this girl that just came out this year, Sharon Van Etten; I’ve been listening to her record non-stop. She’s a mix of PJ Harvey and Hope Sandoval.
Q: Wow. that sounds great. So your band’s changed a lot from the last album? Is it a totally new band?
A: Totally new band; we are a four-piece counting me. A really tight quartet.
Q: How did you recruit them?
A: Well, Arena, the guitar player, her and I have been friends for like eight years. She was always one of my favorite guitar players in New York. We’ve always been in each other’s circles and have always wanted to play together. Finally we got a chance to, it came up, and I needed somebody and it’s really great having her ’cause she’s a close friend and also constantly inspiring new songs. She’s definitely a muse. And she brought along the bass player, Jeremy, who brought along the drummer, Ezra. And so it’s a really cool band right now; it has a real brotherly/sisterly vibe.
Q: It’s more fun than all work and no play…
A: Yeah, it’s alot more fun and they all listen to the same type of music. We are all heavily steeped in ’60s and ’70s rock and jazz. And psyche and blues.
Q: I wanted to ask about the audience you appeal to; lots of classic rock audiences but also younger audiences, especially on the first album where you try a few different styles. Here, it’s not just a showcase for your vocals – it’s a concept album…
A: I almost did it all myself. There weren’t too many cooks in the kitchen with this album. I did exactly what I wanted to hear, you know, without too much outside opinion.
Q: Tell me about some great experiences you’ve had on tour or any embarrassing moments on stage…
A: I can’t think of too many embarrassing things, thank God. I’m sure I had a lot in the past, but one thing – we went on stage during the Black Keys tour a few months ago, our last show in LA, and somebody stepped on the back of my dress. It was like a sheer black wedding dress and I went on stage with one layer showing in the back. It was kinda embarrassing, but I was wearing shorts, so it wasn’t mortifying or anything.
Q: It wasn’t a wardrobe malfunction, in the classic sense…
A: It was, it was. You couldn’t see my butt cheeks or anything, but … One of the coolest things about the shows, opening for the Black Keys: they’ve been doing so well lately and they deserve it. Being out in front of 3,000 people a night and having no one know who we were and then by the end of the set they are all into it, and that was our first tour as a band.
Q: That’s how you know you’ve done well, because you win over the crowd…
A: Not everybody was with us, but a majority were – and that’s a good feeling.