The Jersey-Boardwalk Sound Of Nicole Atkins

When Nicole Atkins sings, she sounds like Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and Janis Joplin all rolled into one voice. Atkins talks with NPR's Scott Simon about her new self-published album, Slow Phaser, which was funded by fans.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nicole Atkins is a New Jersey artist with a voice that has been compared to Patsy Cline, Janis Joplin and Roy Orbison - that's quite a trio - all rolled into one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NICOLE ATKINS: (Singing) I first saw you (unintelligible), from my (unintelligible) down for me...

SIMON: A voice that could melt the heart of a devil. Sense of humor dryer than a drought. Nicole Atkins's latest album is called "Slow Phaser." She joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ATKINS: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Must be hard to live up to comparisons like that. How do you feel about it?

ATKINS: I don't really think about living up to them. I just say, wow, thank you.

SIMON: Growing up, beginning to sing, is there any musician or group of musicians that you particularly tried to emulate?

ATKINS: I was really into Led Zeppelin and musical theater growing up. And I had a really small voice. And so I was never considered a good singer. And I'd saw this girl do a song for an audition. I don't know what show it was from but it was a song called "Johnny One Note." And it was a monotone song where there was one note that was just like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING ONE NOTE)

ATKINS: ...like this big belty note and I just used to sing it as a joke on the beach. And then I just realized, wait, I do have a voice and it's a big belting one. So, it kind of happened by accident. So, I guess I wanted to emulate that girl singing "Johnny One Note."

SIMON: Let's listen to a song from this new album, "Girl You Look Amazing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL YOU LOOK AMAZING")

ATKINS: (Singing) This is night in this new town, it's a bumping around, man to man down. Another fight, goes around, watch instead of scenes gone by broken machines. Life's a pearl for the nowhere girl...

SIMON: Now, do I get this right - this song came to you in a dream?

ATKINS: Part of it did. I was eating sushi one night and I put it down in front of my friends. And I was like, guys, this looks amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL YOU LOOK AMAZING")

ATKINS: (Singing) He said girl, you look amazing. This party's over. Now, I'd like to take you home.

That little melody just stuck in my head, and then that night I had a dream that I was in this, like, kind of Studio 54-ish dance club and David Byrne and Talking Heads were singing: (Singing) Girl you look amazing. This party's over. And it was this big dance hit. And I woke up in the middle of the night and I went into the hallway of my apartment building and sang it into my phone. As a songwriter, any little bit of inspiration or melody nuggets that come to you are gifts and you can't let them go. You know, you have to get them down as soon as possible. So, if that requires waking up your roommates, your neighbors and getting them into your voice notes of your phone as soon as possible, that's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL YOU LOOK AMAZING")

ATKINS: (Singing) In the gutters, you discover all the things you miss...

SIMON: I understand you were a Teletubby.

ATKINS: A Tele...oh, man. You know about that? I was a singing telegram person in college, and they would make me dress up as a Teletubby or Barney and go to birthday parties for kids. But I got fired from being a Teletubby.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: What do you have to do to get fired from being a Teletubby?

ATKINS: There was one day I showed up and they wanted me to be Barbie for a kid's birthday party. And, you know, I have a gruff voice and very, very dark eyebrows. So, I was a great Teletubby but a bad Barbie.

SIMON: Were you influenced by the Jersey shore sound growing up on the Jersey shore?

ATKINS: I was always inspired by the things I guess that informed the Jersey shore sound, like, you know, Frankie Valli and Motown and Jackie Wilson and, you know, old soul and garage music, those cruising classics albums you could get from the gas station. That was just on constant rotation in my house and in my parents' car. Those are the songs and sound that I think made up the Jersey shore sound. So, I guess by proxy, yeah.

SIMON: Let's listen to another song, if we could. This one is called "It's Only Chemistry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY CHEMISTRY")

ATKINS: (Singing) You've lost your mind, whether it's fortune, (unintelligible), blame it on boredom, I don't care. Ghosts on the corner, they ain't looking for you, maybe it's sunshine. Yeah, I feel is not real and you seek but you'll never find...

SIMON: What's the story behind this song?

ATKINS: I was just in the midst of going through a pretty crappy break-up. And the guy that I was dating at the time was obsessed with me reading Marcel Proust and couldn't really wrap his head around why I couldn't finish one of Proust's books.

SIMON: That's kind of nervy. I command you to read Marcel Proust.

ATKINS: This is a reason we are not together. But, anyway, I kept thinking about being upset about break-ups. And one of the lines in the first book, "Swan's Way," said the ideal is not real. And I kept thinking about how people idealize partners and when things don't work out, they beat themselves up so much about it, like, why didn't it work out, why didn't he feel the same about me or why wasn't I good enough? And really it's all just chemistry. Like we're not in charge of who our partner is at all. It's chemicals, it's scent and those aren't things that you can control in other people so it's best just to let it go 'cause the ideal isn't what's going to be real for you.

SIMON: I want to ask you about another song, too. And this one is - well, let's cue it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORST HANGOVER")

ATKINS: (Singing) I take a shot with bullet 509, confusion cut into the other side...

That's a song called "The Worst Hangover." I wrote it when I was on a plane to go record in Sweden. It was actually right after Hurricane Sandy.

SIMON: You were hit very hard I'm told.

ATKINS: Yeah. It was really life changing. A lot of our friend's and family's houses got destroyed, including my family's and our neighbor's. And it just put a lot of things in perspective. After the storm, it just made me think about a lot of things that were more real, and the worst hangover, it's kind of like a eulogy to the party life, you know, just kind of burying that hedonistic child and wanting to jump off the carousel 'cause it just felt like I was going around and around and around instead of going forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORST HANGOVER")

ATKINS: (Singing) It's a lush life out on broken shells, just being my merry on the carousel, round and round...

SIMON: Taking stock of experiences, I guess, what makes music at some point, isn't it?

ATKINS: Yeah. Just it felt like it was time to get serious about that. And just seeing so many things, especially in my town that I always thought would always be there not be there anymore, and just realizing that music is, you know, it's one thing that you can make that will always be there and it will never go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Nicole Atkins, speaking from New York. Her new album, "Slow Phaser," comes out next week. Thanks so much for being with us.

ATKINS: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATKINS: (Singing) You wouldn't show me the ropes as they tied me to the tracks. Didn't help to struggle, that's as good as (unintelligible). Years and years you swore up and down...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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