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Nicole Atkins turned personal struggles and anxieties into her best record yet

By: Rudi Greenberg The Washington Post
September 12, 2017 Updated: September 12, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Nicole Atkins worked with Chris Isaak and members of Leon Bridges' band for "Goodnight Rhonda Lee." MUST CREDIT: Anna Webber

Singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins remembers when she knew it was time to quit drinking.

"I was making a record with my friend Jim Sclavunos from (Nick Cave's) the Bad Seeds, who is one of my favorite people to make music with, and I wasn't having any fun," she says.

The New Jersey native was depressed and unable to write. Something had to change.

"It was weird because it was almost like after Hurricane Sandy, I couldn't drink without being able to stop," says Atkins, whose parents lost the first floor of their Asbury Park home in the 2012 storm.

A little more than two years ago, Atkins went to rehab and got clean - at least temporarily. Shortly after, she and her husband, a tour manager for rock bands, moved from Jersey to Nashville. He quickly hit the road while she worked on what would become her fourth album, "Goodnight Rhonda Lee." It wasn't an easy transition - getting sober and moving to a new city, especially without her husband home - and she came in and out of sobriety.

The singer, who had melded pop, soul, country and indie rock over three albums, was eager about finding her place in her new home.

"When you get to a town and everybody's a musician and everybody plays a certain kind of music that you don't always fit into, I just kinda felt like, 'What am I doing here?'" she says. "I was with a bunch of new people and like, 'Maybe I'm not an alcoholic,' and it would always be fine until it wasn't fine again."

Atkins, 38, channeled her struggle and anxieties into her best album yet, a soul-meets-country-meets-crooner collection that highlights the drama of her powerful voice. Sober for just more than six months now, Atkins overtly documents her battle on two piano-driven ballads: "Colors" and "A Night of Serious Drinking." The former came after a relapse. She was in Jersey visiting family and broke down on her way back home to Nashville.

"I wrote that song in tears in like five minutes on this train platform in Jersey waiting to go back to the airport," she says. "That's a tough song for me to sing, but it was so good that that came out because I was like, even though this really sucks right now, this song's really beautiful. I was able to see a lot of good things come out of these hopeless-seeming situations."

Nashville rubbed off on Atkins, as is apparent on the twangy title track, which is named after Atkins' bowling name-turned-drunk alter ego. "It's not even saying I'm putting it behind me," Atkins says of the track, which she wrote with Chris Isaak. "It's more so having a bit of empathy for that part of my personality." Isaak also helped Atkins with the album's opener, "A Little Crazy," a powerhouse vocal performance in the vein of Roy Orbison's "Crying."

"Goodnight Rhonda Lee" was recorded with members of Leon Bridges' band, but Atkins was uneasy about making a soul record until she had a realization.

"I got nervous because it's like, OK, I'm gonna make a soul record because I love singing that stuff, but also it made me realize that soul music is just songs that are soulful and are from your soul and what your soul sounds like," she says. "Not thinking about hitting notes just to show off what I can do but just singing the emotions in the way they were meant to be sung."

And those emotions stick with her when she performs, even if they can bring her back to darker times.

"I feel like every time I sing certain songs, I'm living it for that three minutes," she says. "It's like I can go to that place or that person I wrote the songs about. Sometimes, I'm gonna start crying, but I like being able to go there because I won't finish a song if I can't feel it."

Atkins recently started taking on more production work, including a pair of songs for her friend Tommy Stinson, who played bass in The Replacements and now leads Bash &Pop. "I gave him a Flat Duo Jets-meets-an-orchestra treatment and they just went with it," she says. "(The songs) don't sound like Bash &Pop - I mean, Tommy's writing is there - but I love that he came to me to put what I do on his stuff."

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