“It was just so fun,” Nicole Atkins says about the recording process for Good Night Rhonda Lee, her fourth studio album. “We recorded it live, and everything was really in the present moment, everything went by so fast, everyone was so engaged. Every take we took, once we figured out how we were going to play it…we did every take as if it was the one.”
People who have seen a Nicole Atkins performance understand that excitement. The last time I saw the Jersey-born singer/songwriter in concert, Atkins emerged from the back of the room and walked through the middle of the audience with a guitar. She stood in the middle of the crowd’s hastily-formed circle, and simply started singing. It was unexpected, it was theatrical; honestly, it was beautiful. I’ve been to so many concerts that I can’t possibly remember every one. But I’ll never forget that show.
And that unique energy and emotion is effectively captured in Good Night Rhonda Lee, an eleven-song album that is easily Atkins’ most personal, and takes a harsh look at her struggle with sobriety. “Did your writing ever turn too personal?” I ask.
Atkins takes a few moments to answer. “I don’t think so. I don’t really have a problem getting too personal. I feel like it’s better to get it out than hold it in.”
“Is it weird, though? You’ve always struck me as someone who would prefer to speak through music, but you’ve been really open in interviews about sobriety. So is that weird? It seems like it would be weird.”
She laughs. “It can be, definitely. I lay it all out there and it is what it is. You know? A lot of the songs are about kicking booze, and when I was thinking about addressing that in interviews, I knew I couldn’t really say that those songs are about anything else.”
Atkins has always been an honest songwriter, so the aching vulnerability in Good Night Rhonda Lee won’t surprise her fans. What will surprise them is her embrace of soul stylings. She’s always been a musical nomad, particularly in how nimbly she escapes classification from critics. And while no one would have necessarily expected a soul album, its a natural fit for her effortlessly powerful voice, her wistful lyrics, and occasionally lush arrangements.
“That’s just the kind of music I’ve always listened to,” Atkins says. “I wanted to simplify my sound down to the two types of music I loved the most. And that’s the Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Lee Hazlewood crooner stuff. And soul music. I worked for a few years to try to write songs that would lay in that sound bed.”
Fans and newcomers won’t be disappointed by the stylistic departure. I kept thinking of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago as I listened to Rhonda Lee, even though the albums couldn’t be more different musically. What unites the projects is their naked vulnerability, unembarrassed and unrelenting. Rhonda Lee is a shift, but the lyrics, the mix of harrowing reflection and dark humor, and the thrillingly soaring voice mark it unmistakably as an Atkins album.
The power in Atkins’ voice has long been the hallmark of her music. She sang “The Way It Is,” a dark moody ballad, in an early-in-her-career performance on Late Night with David Letterman, and left Letterman notably stunned. That stirring voice brought her to the attention of Rolling Stone, who named her one of their Top 10 Artists to Watch. “I remember where I was when I found out,” Atkins tells me when I ask about it. “I was in this store in the lower east side, just looking at clothes, and I got that call. I just remember screaming in the store. And the guy who owns the store asked ‘What’s wrong?’ And I told him and he started screaming too.”
We talk a bit about her early career, which included a lot of highlights, but also moments that brought unnecessary flak, like a commercial for American Express. Which leads to a very-standard interview question. “Is there anything you wish you could have told your younger self?”
“Yeah,” Atkins says, flatly. “No one is thinking about you.”
“You know, be easy on yourself. The world isn’t out to get you.”
As the interview draws to a close, we return to Rhonda Lee and how personal the album is. “Given how contentious things are politically, is your current writing veering toward social consciousness?”
“I always write about my life,” Atkins replies, slowly, “and people I’m close to. And what’s going on in the world is a big part of people’s lives. It’s unavoidable, and it is seeping into my writing.”
“My songs are always notes to self, and I’m just trying to give myself some hope right now. And maybe that will give other people some hope too.”
And that reminds me of the last lingering lines on the closing track on Good Night, Rhonda Lee, “A Dream Without Pain,” a lovely, heartbreaking song of loss and forgiveness and redemption and lies and life:
You can stay there but I have to go
You can stand there in the flames,
I want a dream without pain.
I woke up from a nightmare,
To a dream,
The most beautiful dream.