Things are moving a bit quickly for Nicole Atkins these days and they're about to move even quicker. It's not often you find a photograph of yourself in the pages of Rolling Stone within a feature on the Top 10 Artists To Watch in 2006. And when that happens, the phone starts ringing... a lot.
Of course, things were moving well for Nicole before the Rolling Stone piece as well. After a series of showcases in New York City, the Neptune native signed a deal with Columbia Records - one of the most prestigious labels around. She has just joined up with a label that carries such legendary artists as Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and (another Jersey artist from just up the road) Bruce Springsteen.
The label plans to release her EP, "The Party's Over" sometime in late summer and will release her first full-length around the beginning of 2007. For Nicole, the party is truly just getting started.
"Yeah, the party started!" said Nicole Atkins. "Either that or you can look at it like the party's over in ways like I can't fuck around with my friends as much as I want anymore because I have to work."
Columbia was the last of the record labels to see her in a showcase and they weren't expecting much, but it turned out to be the label with the greatest interest. Ironically, one of the label's who earlier had shown a lot of interest in Nicole wound up getting interested in her boyfriend's band, What About Frank?
"It was weird with Island (Records)," recalled Atkins. "I think Island was after me and then I brought one of the people to see Paul's band (What About Frank?) and then they kind of stopped talking to me and started to talk to Paul! But I didn't get too upset at it because I was still talking to so many different people. There were a lot of good dinners!"
Nicole said she had finished her round of showcases just before What About Frank? began their run. This allowed her to offer some tips to those guys from one who had just gone through the same experience. Rather than feeling any competition between the two acts, Nicole says it was just a very exciting time with both acts supportive of each other. In fact, What About Frank? will be heading into the studio as Nicole's backing band for a cover of Shirley Ellis' song, "The Nitty Gritty" - a fun track that might eventually show up as a B-side or an internet download.
"I really don't feel too much competition with anybody because I don't think anybody does what we do," she added.
What they do is make very atmospheric music; dreamy, Pet-Sounds like songs that stand out among today's music. As a former art student, Nicole compares her songwriting to the painting process. "Most of my songs are written in my head with the melody and drums and bass and guitar lines all coming into my head at the same time, so it's almost like painting a picture. You can't paint a good picture with just one color, you need all of them."
Along with painting, her songs seem to reflect her love of movies - especially movies by artful and creative directors like David Lynch and Tim Burton. "They kind of create their own little universes with their movies," explains Atkins. "You can see a freeze frame of one movie and know that it's theirs. With the demos ("The Party's Over"), we tried to create this little atmospheric world instead of just a collection of songs."
Her songs on "The Party's Over" certainly reflect the idea of layering. In fact, she says she worried for a while that she wouldn't be able to find a band that could recreate those songs live. But after a while, she found the right people.
The music won't remind you much of the Jersey Shore sound that people generally think of, but many of her lyrics revolve around growing up here. In fact, one of her most popular songs was written about her hometown.
Looking through comments on Nicole's myspace website, I was surprised to see just how well the song "Neptune City" has resonated with people around the country. I knew people around here loved the song, but I was curious as to whether or not someone from outside New Jersey would feel about it.
But somehow the song captures the place perfectly and people everywhere love it. The song sort of lures people to understand and believe in the town the same way Bruce Springsteen brings you to Asbury Park in his song "(4th of July, Asbury Park) Sandy". Maybe someday Nicole Atkins will be associated with Neptune in the same way Springsteen is linked to Asbury, but for now she's thought of as a Jersey girl and a Brooklynite. A combination that helped lead to the record deal.
There's a dirty little secret that New York doesn't like New Jersey artists. It's a lot easier for a New York band to break into the NJ club scene that vice versus and the entertainment magazines will generally look down on you if you're from over the river. This happened to Nicole at first. Years ago when she first moved to Brooklyn some people wrote her off as just another singer-songwriter from New Jersey. But once she had lived there a few years and built some New York "cred", the same magazines began raving about her!
"Yeah, you've gotta move to Brooklyn," laughs Atkins. "It's funny, some of the other songwriters in the Asbury scene like Jessie Poland and Brian Amsterdam have asked for advice and I'd say, ,Aeoas soon as you graduate high school, move to Brooklyn and then come back'."
She also believes that artists need to feel comfortable with themselves and their music while on stage. When Nicole first started playing live, she remembers trying to convey a certain image. She wore cowboy hats and tried to be cool, but after a while she realized that she wasn't really being herself. Once she made that realization, things started happening.
"It's funny but the more you let loose on stage and the more you be yourself the more you get the crowd with you," said Atkins. "And it's fun."
There was a recent show where Nicole tripped on stage and felt herself going down, but instead of stopping she just let it happened and worked with it. She turned a clumsy moment into an act James Brown would have been proud of. Eventually she convinced the entire crowd to sit on the floor while she played "Neptune City".
"Everybody just sat on the floor and held their girlfriend or boyfriend and then afterwards we all picked each other up and went to the bar and got a beer. It was really fucking cool!"
Someday she's gonna own that town. She's going to own it the same way Bruce owns Asbury Park. Maybe that's why Columbia wanted her...
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.