Inspired by everyone from The Ronettes to David Lynch, Nicole Atkins thrives on unpredictability. Taciturn one moment and boisterous the next, this pop-noir chanteuse’s talent lies in her bombastic voice and highly theatric orchestral instrumentation. Fiercely devoted to her music, she has pursued an active touring schedule even in the wake of her commercially disappointing 2007 major-label debut, Neptune City, and a dropped contract with Columbia records earlier this year. Her upcoming album, Mondo Amore, has yet to find a label, but there will be plenty of sneak peaks during her show at The Rock And Roll Hotel on Friday night. Ahead of her performance, The A.V. Club caught up with Atkins to hear her thoughts on getting stood up by David Letterman, collaborating with David Byrne, and having drinks with The Boss.
The A.V. Club: Why did your backing band change from The Sea to The Black Sea?
Nicole Atkins: I got a whole new band, so I kept "The Sea" but I changed it to "Black" because it sounded more dramatic and darker.
AVC: Why the whole new band?
NA: A bunch of different reasons. The sound is changing a lot. Also, a lot of the guys in my old band were going in different directions in their lives. They were starting to focus more on their families. I wasn't living in Brooklyn anymore, I had moved back to New Jersey, so I was playing music with people who lived closer to me and with people I grew up with. It just started making more sense to play with them.
AVC: You mentioned that you were hoping to get dropped by Columbia. Why was that?
NA: There were a lot of things that Columbia did for me that were really, really great. But most of the time it felt like it wasn't the right fit. There were a lot of arguments about the record that I wanted to make and about what kind of music I should be making. When it comes down to it, I want to make the music that I want to make.
AVC: What music did they want you to make?
NA: They were very, very vague about it. Sometimes they would ask me to get angrier and I don't really write angry songs but more heartbroken songs. My songs are more passive-aggressive apology letters.
AVC: Have you found a new label yet?
NA: We're actually working that out right now.
AVC: Have you given any thought to releasing your next record on your own label?
NA: It's a really good thing to do these days, like, to get a bunch of private investors and put it out yourself. It's something a lot of people are doing now. I don't know, if things work out with this one label that we're negotiating with, I'll be very, very happy. Starting my own label is something I could definitely do, but I'm not a person that has much money. I would if I had rich parents, but I don't.
AVC: Speaking of your parents, one of your goals with your last record was to finally become financially solvent enough to move out of your parents' house. Were you able to make that happen?
NA: It did. You know what's funny, though? My lease just ran out a couple weeks ago and then this tour started, so I moved back in with them so I wouldn't have to go pay a month's rent at a place I wouldn't even be at. So, it's all come full circle.
AVC: After your Letterman appearance, did you ever get David Letterman to take you out for the steak dinner he promised you?
NA: No, and now I'm kind of glad he didn't, with the whole scandal around him. I waited in the dressing room and I just waited for a while because I thought we were going out to dinner but he never showed up and I just split. So, I guess, "Do you want to go get a steak?" means "good job" or something in show business.
AVC: What was it like to meet and hang out with fellow Asbury Park resident Bruce Springsteen?
NA: Oh, awesome. He's the coolest dude ever. He knows everything about tons of bands and gives tons of good advice. He's a good dude.
AVC: What advice did he give you?
NA: He gave me advice on how to deal with labels trying to push you in certain directions and to always make the music you want. Stuff like that.
AVC: So, he's as down to earth as his reputation suggests?
NA: Absolutely. After meeting him once he's just like my brother or the guy who brings me my coffee, except he's written songs that have moved billions of people. He's just a really cool human.
AVC: What were the circumstances under which you met?
NA: My friend works at a bar that he frequents, this was before my album came out, so my friend called me and said "come down and meet Bruce for a drink." I went there and Bruce was sitting there alone at the bar and then the bartender says, "There she is!" And I'm like, "Here I am!," and I sat down and he bought me a shot of Patron. We talked about music and bands and business. It was very, very cool. I had a bit too much to drink, so I had to call my dad to come pick me up.
AVC: You also recorded a song with David Byrne.
NA: That was really great. I just came home to some random e-mail from David Byrne and I was like, "What!?" He wrote a musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos. It's called "Here Lies Love" and he enlists all these female vocalists. He asked me to play Estrella, who was Imelda's nanny and essentially her mother growing up. He showed up in his purple suit, his wing tips, his bike helmet, and his big white hair. It was really funny because that night he was playing a show with Paul Simon and he had to wear fancy shoes. There were some really, really high vocal harmonies that I can barely hit and he can barely hit. It was just so fun, he has a really good sense of humor. Fatboy Slim did the beats.
AVC: Have you endured any backlash from doing that American Express commercial?
NA: Oh, tons. Tons. I remember when I sang with My Morning Jacket on New Year's Eve they were like, "Oh, I never listened to you because you're the American Express girl," or, "That's the band American Express created." Right now, the only ways bands are making money is either through touring or being used in commercials. So, basically these snide 17-year-olds don't understand that when you're trying to make a living you can either dig your own hole or you can put 40 grand in your pocket and keep going out on the road.