When she isn't renting minivans and breaking laptops in American Express commercials, singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins busies herself with a mix of melancholic lyrics and Roy Orbison-styled croons. The Jersey native originally pursued work as a visual artist, having relocated to North Carolina in the late '90s to study illustration at UNC. After befriending the young Avett Brothers and forming her own alt-country act (the short-lived Los Parasols), Atkins began gravitating toward a genre she now describes as "pop-noir." Equally reminiscent of the sunny sounds of Brill Building songs and the rainy-day atmosphere of old, black and white detective films, the "pop-noir" sound eventually landed Atkins a contract with Columbia Records. Although she's currently on tour in support of her debut album, Neptune City, Atkins took a few minutes to talk with Allmusic about her addiction to bagels, the decor in Rick Rubin's office, and her former gig as a singing Teletubby.
Allmusic - Take us through a typical day on the road with Nicole Atkins & the Sea.
Nicole Atkins - Wake up. Coffee and bagels. Always the hunt for the town's best bagel. Movie watchin' and Neil Young listening. Actually, when I think of it, most of the day is spent driving, hunting for really decent food, and trying not to drink too much.
Allmusic - You attended Catholic high-school in New Jersey. Did you do the usual "rebellion thing" after graduation?
Nicole Atkins - I think i did it before graduation. We had a class called "Morality" which was a total crock of sh*t and had nothing to do with morality. I never did any of the projects, so I failed and actually had to go to summer school after graduation for Morality class. It was unreal. My psychology teacher thought it was hysterical so he just "tutored" me and wrote me off.
Allmusic - After moving back and forth between New Jersey, North Carolina, and New York, which city do you currently call home?
NA - I live in Asbury Park, NJ, right now. It's always been pretty inspiring to me -- now even more so, probably. So many characters here.
Allmusic - Where were the songs on Neptune City written? Is it easier to write in isolation?
NA - I always write alone. It makes me feel more open if I know no one is around. I wrote a lot of the songs in my parents living room when they weren't home. A lot of the lyrics were written at Frank's Diner in Asbury. The rest, usually during train rides from NYC to NJ or vice versa.
Allmusic - Your debut album was recorded in Sweden. Tell us about the experience, the weather, the lingonberry jam...
NA - It was very dark, very lonely, and the people all had great taste in music. I drank alot of scotch and cried and played music every day. Let's just say it had its peaks and valleys. I dont think i'll be doing another Swedish winter any time soon. Summer, sure!
Allmusic - Do you create your own cover art?
NA - I used to, but I didnt have time [on Neptune City], so I got my good friend Nic Rad to do this album. He did the EP, too. His art is what I feel like my music looks like.
Allmusic - Publications like Rolling Stone and CMJ have likened your voice to Loretta Lynn's unmistakable alto. Think we'll ever get to see a biopic on your life along the lines of Coal Miner's Daughter? Who would you like to play the lead role?
NA - Wow, that would be surreal, wouldn't it? I don't know who would play me. Hmmm, maybe Nancy McKeon, "Jo" from The Facts of Life? I guess only if it could be her 29 year old self. We have the same teeth.
Allmusic - What's the oddest temp job you had before joining Columbia's roster?
NA - I had a few. I did singing telegrams where I would go to children's birthday parties dressed as a Teletubby or Baby Bop or some other thing. I worked at an after-school soccer program. I painted murals in Italian restaurants and sang once a week at an Irish pub on the Shore. I got fired because I only did my own songs and Pavement and Sebadoh covers. I didn't know any Springsteen.
Allmusic - While we're talking about Columbia, what is Rick Rubin's office really like? We imagine the walls are covered with Grammy plaques and assorted pieces of rock & roll flair, like Bono's Fly shades or the Red Hot Chili Peppers' laundered tube socks.
NA - No, it doesn't look like a Hard Rock Cafe. It's got mirrored walls and floors and stuffed polar bears everywhere. And a swimming pool in the living room. I actually have no idea -- I haven't been there yet.