It had been a week since Nicole Atkins checked herself in for a month-long stint at a California alcohol rehab center. It was March 2015, months before the 39-year-old Nashville-via-New Jersey singer-songwriter would begin working on her new album in earnest. Between getting sober and caring for a father who, on her first day in rehab, entered surgery after a lung-cancer diagnosis, recording was hardly her main concern.
But after meeting a fellow musician at the facility, a new career phase began. “I got the idea of committing to more of a soul sound for this record when I was in rehab,” she says over lunch in New York. “There was a music producer in there. I won’t say who he is, but totally different style than me. A hip-hop guy. One day, he’s like, ‘Play me your stuff.’ He said, ‘You’re really good, but you need to stop fucking around with this indie-rock bullshit. You’re a soul singer. Just do what you do.'”
The “indie-rock bullshit” had served Atkins well over the course of three critically acclaimed albums: 2007’s Neptune City, 2011’s Mondo Amore and 2014’s Slow Phaser. Now, the producer’s words kept ringing in her head. At one point during her stay, Atkins says she had a dream that she wrote an Aretha Franklin song before waking up, running to the bathroom and recording the chorus under her breath on her Kindle.
The song would become “Sleepwalking,” a breezy standout track from Atkins’ latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee. Atkins’ breadth on the album – both vocally and musically – is astounding, with the buoyant pop of “Listen Up” and brash, Dap-King–assisted funk of “Brokedown Luck” melding with the mournful nostalgia of “I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)” and rootsy country vibe of the title track.
But Atkins’ voice, alternating between sultry croon and soulful belt – “Big singing has always been my thing,” she says – remains the steady anchor. Friend and veteran singer-songwriter Chris Isaak, whose band took Atkins on her first tour in 2007, pushed her to emphasize her voice more in the mix. Isaak co-wrote “A Little Crazy,” a torch song about a real-life ex that balances heartbreak with resilience, and the title track. For Atkins, it was not exactly their first collaboration. “I had [Chris’] poster on my wall when I was in high school,” Atkins says. “I used to jerk off to it every day after school.”
In person, Atkins is as refreshingly unfiltered as on record; a fast-talking New Jersey native whose blunt affability and natural gift for storytelling recalls Amy Winehouse. Asked about the titular Rhonda Lee, which “started as my bowling alias, but became my drunken hag alias,” Atkins, now sober, explains the dichotomy of the alcoholic and why she is saying “good night” to that part of her life. “In my element, I could’ve been the best fucking thing you’ve ever seen where I’ll get us a free limo ride to the party in Brooklyn and free drugs and then we’ll go get steak and eggs in the morning, or I’ll say horrible things to your wife,” she says. “There was no telling.”
It’s this unashamed frankness that also became a key factor in her decision to get sober. “The biggest thing that helped me is being open about it and not feeling like it’s something to be embarrassed about,” Atkins says. “Finding help where it’s offered has been helpful to me.”
Growing up in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Atkins became obsessed with the Who at an early age while absorbing the Fifties and Sixties music constantly wafting from both her mother’s stereo and the town’s boardwalk. A cassette tape her mom bought at a gas station called Cruisin’ Classics turned her on to artists like the Drifters, Jay Black and the Americans, and Jackie Wilson – perennial “oldies” radio stalwarts but rarely the inspiration for fledgling singer-songwriters in the 1980s and beyond.
“I couldn’t drink without blacking out. I’m making a record and I’m in my element and I feel nothing.”
A self-confessed “hard partier” since around age 12 (“whenever people started getting Starter jackets”), Atkins says her bouts with alcohol got darker after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “I couldn’t drink without blacking out,” she admits. “After Sandy, shit just got sloppy. I’m making a record and I’m in my element and I feel nothing. I just went to bed for three nights in a row crying. Sandy was the realization of seeing that nothing is permanent and everything can change at any moment. The place that you thought would be there from when you’re born until you die may not.”
After a lifetime in the Northeast, Atkins relocated with her husband to Nashville in October 2015. “I hated it. The first year was horrible,” she admits. “I was five months sober, but I was just losing it. I was itchy as shit and started drinking again and relapsing off and on. It felt like I was just floating in space and not knowing what I was doing.”
She’d still write constantly, but in Nashville, Atkins was now meeting with “a bunch of people talking about algorithms [and] bullshit co-writes.” In one meeting, an executive asked her if she had any songs with the word “miracle” in it to match an advertiser’s target keyword list. “Yeah, it’s a miracle I didn’t fucking die,” she says with a laugh.
She eventually would find new friends and new non-algorithmic inspiration. While writing Rhonda song “Darkness Falls So Quiet,” Atkins took the track, originally a country song, and sang it over the groove from blues and soul legend Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Rockin’ in the Same Old Boat.” The musical shift helped Atkins discover an identity only hinted at on past albums.
“In the 1960s, you knew who the person was by what they sang,” she says. “I always do these benefit shows where you do cover songs and it’s like, ‘I should write some stuff that I like singing at these kind of things but that are just mine.’ I had to get out of this mindset that it couldn’t be done.” Much of Goodnight Rhonda Lee focuses on transformations both geographical and internal, with the album detailing the joys and horrors of uprooting your life and starting over.
Though Atkins’ transformations were a long time coming, the recording itself happened quickly. Once the songs were in near-finished form, Atkins decamped to Fort Worth, Texas to track the album live to tape in less than a week with musicians she had just met face-to-face days earlier. “It took three years to write and five days to record,” Atkins says. “The previous albums had a lack of grit and lack of mistakes that I wanted to hear. I wanted it to sound real.”
These days, Rhonda Lee is gone, replaced by a singer whose admitted enemies are “depression and excitement.” “I require consistency from my friends,” Atkins says. “How can I require that from somebody else if I can’t do that myself? Rhonda would’ve either gone skydiving or just killed herself and everybody else. I’m just excited that I have all this room in my brain now to just do music. It’s a very fun place to be.”