“I love The Ultimate Warrior. My fans bring me Ultimate Warrior dolls to my shows. Is this why we’re doing the interview? Because you know about my love for The Ulitmate Warrior.”
It’s an unexpected way for a first Zoom interview to start, an unforeseen joint respect for The Ultimate Warrior. But Nicole Atkins spotted the Funko Pops! version of him on the shelf, one of the up/downsides to cameras.
The first thing to note is how engaging Nicole Atkins is. When we speak she’s just woken – it’s about 11am Nashville time – because of an unexpected early morning phone call from her uncle talking about what he used to get up to in the 70s. But we’re really here to talk about her new album, the genuinely excellent Italian Ice.
Obviously the mandatory first thing to discuss is the fact that she’s releasing her album in the midst of a global pandemic, but it was never a consideration to postpone like some people have “I mean, everybody’s home right now. What are they going to do? They need something to listen to, you know. So I just feel that right now music and art, movies and entertainment, are such a comfort. People need to hear this stuff. Also, I’m impatient and I hate surprises. I feel like it’s a pretty timely record, even though I didn’t plan it that way.”
From Nicole’s point of view things weren’t great before COVID-19 reared its head, “the news was just so shitty all the time”, and Italian Ice is her response to all that, “I wrote the record kind as a big vacation from all that, you know, I wanted to make something that made me feel better.”
And it does actually sound perfect timing, releasing it when lots of people around the world are confined to their homes, or have a limited chance to get out, it’s a record to transport you, “I wrote it as a tribute to the Jersey Shore, you know. So I wanted people to be able to feel like they were there. It’s one of those types of albums where you can put it on and you feel like you’re in a certain place and time.”
The genesis of the album comes from a place of isolation as well, with notes from previous writing sessions sparking the idea of “a Jersey Shore record”, and written in that physical place to evoke the better times, “I wanted to finish it on the winter on the beach in the Jersey Shore during the loneliest time at the shore, which is the winter before all the tourists get there. But basically trying to make something as happy as possible.”
“When I think of things that make me feel better, you know, like instant things that fix my mind; like walking on the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore, or like the AM radio in my parents’ car. I could be having the worst day when I go visit them and then I turn on the radio in their car and Bobby Vinton is singing.”
It’s at this point that the conversation takes a side alley into whether “throwback” – my word not Nicole’s – is a negative description of music, “My beef with the term throwback is, you know, there’s throwback music, which I think is like the cherry pop or like a Squirrel Nuts Zippers, stuff that’s postmodern jukebox or something, like we’re going to rehash the old times. I think that there’s jazz and blues and classic rock and roll music and I feel like I combine so many different styles and put them together so that they’re new sounding.”
“But if you don’t do those types of styles, with those classic melodies, then they go away. It’s like trying to be a traditionalist without being a traditionalist. It’s like a lot of pop music, you know, when I was little pop was Cyndi Lauper, you know, but you wouldn’t find anyone calling 80s or 90s pop music throwback to 70s pop. I analyze that shit all the time in my head.”
“I just remember like when I was talking to Binky (from The Dap Kings, Sharon Jones’ band) about blues music. We were both at a party where there was a really bad blues band playing terribly bad bar blues music. And I was like, this is horrible. And he said, “Well this is why I play blues music, because it’ll just go away if I don’t.””
Our conversation touches on our ages, “Well we’re old-ish now “, whether people will ever forget about The Beatles, “I feel like there’s like an inherent connection that people will always have with their music. It’s like God’s music, you know, like it connects to something that’s way deeper than just what people are into at that moment.”, whether there’s too much music being released in the world these days, “You’re lucky to be heard by anyone really.”
We talk about keeping busy in lockdown, specifically about Nicole’s weekly live stream, “We call it the junkyard Jools Holland. It’s like Jools Holland on a shit budget. My neighbour is a camera guy and my husband’s soundmen so we just have it sounding real good.”
Along with the live streaming shows, staying busy in lockdown isn’t that tough when you have a new album to release, “I’m packaging up the records from presale, I’m drawing on all of them, making them all extra nice because I want people to not just get a record, but get some extra special love in it.”
The chat does circle back to Italian Ice and how Nicole’s albums come about, “I have to have something to say. Something I really want to hear that I don’t hear anywhere else. So I need to make it, you know. And I wasn’t hearing a record that made me feel better. So I was like, OK, we can try to make one. And if people hear it or not, that’s really up to fate.”
The album also has a stellar line-up of musicians and writers, “I’d worked with all of them before, except for Spooner [Oldham] and David [Hood]. When we met we just hit it off, they’re like the coolest, most laidback, people ever. I’d been working with Jim Sclavuno for a long time and we write songs together, we just did a tour with The Bad Seeds. Binky [Griptite], from the Dap-Kings, and I write a lot of songs together and we’ve been friends for like a really long time. And then Britt [Daniel] from Spoon was writing a song with me.”
And recording the record was huge amounts of fun, “It was like play, every time we got to the end of the day we’re like, “this shouldn’t be this easy”. And it was fun because of that. Between takes Spooner and David would just tell us crazy stories that weren’t even bragging, it’s just their life!”
Atypical for what’s usually stereotyped as the creative type, there’s more creativity to be had without the help of alcohol, “Since I quit drinking, I mostly just hang out with musicians I like and they’ll say, “hey man, let’s get coffee”. I’m like, “Fuck that. Let’s just like hang out, write it song, and drink coffee while we do that.”
“You get to know a person a lot better if you make something with them rather than just eating food in front of them. Which is horrible I think. Like I said I guess when you write it’s more personal. Even if the song isn’t, you talk about things in your life deeper, you know, and, even though I knew Britt – we hung out at parties sometimes – I got to know him a lot better just sitting and writing songs.”
“Nobody’s really asked me about the song ‘Forever’.” We’re discussing which songs are most popular in interviews for the new album, “It’s called ‘Forever’ because – I always have these morbid, dramatic thoughts – I was thinking about like my grandfather dying and my cat dying and I just wish all these people could be around forever, you know? So I had this idea that I wanted to write a song called ‘Forever’, but call it ‘Forever Music’, music has existed in lots of forms through a long period of time. Then I was chatting to Kelvin Holly about how I met my husband… we were talking about pro-wrestling and normal shit, and then I just smell him and he smelled like forever. And then Kelvin said “Smell like forever, huh, that’s a song.” And I thought that’s what the ‘Forever’ song is about. Ryan hates that song, well e likes the song but hates the story; “you’re so creepy sniffing me”, I’m like you could’ve got worse!”
Before we wrap up Nicole talks about what happened when she found out The Ultimate Warrior died “I ran outside crying, I didn’t want anybody to see, and a cop comes up to me, he’s like, “Ma’am, are you OK?” And was like, “The Ultimate Warrior’s dead” and he’s like, “The Warrior’s dead???” and we’re hugging, and then Ryan comes out and the cops says “It’s okay, sir, it’s OK.” And Jake The Snake Roberts being her answering phone, “Yeah. I met him and I asked him to leave my answering machine message. He did.”
Italian Ice is out on Friday 29th May and is excellent. So buy it or stream it from your usual joint.