Running with Nicole Atkins
Some voices elevate. Some voices resonate. And still others can make unwitting concert attendees break out into a cold sweat by sheer magnitude. Nicole Atkins has one such Richter-defying voice. It flexes the same strength-through-heartbreak muscle that made Patsy Cline go walking after midnight, rich and velvety, it hovers and soars like a living thing through the walls of the Subterranean tonight. One listen to “The Way It Is,” from her 2007 Columbia release Neptune City and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
But writing good heartbreak songs takes a bit of hard living and tonight we reminisce about Atkins’ early days in New York City. “I was staying in my car a bunch,” she explains from a red leather booth in the corner that feels sort of mafioso. “When I got my first place, it was in Bensonhurst and I moved in and it was in the middle of nowhere. It was a house called Balloon Heaven and it had a recording studio in it and just tons of roaches and dirt and I just took it because I wanted to be there.” She slides a pair of block heel slingbacks across the bench seat and I see the determination flicker on her face. There is always that moment when a musician makes a choice for better or for worse to pursue the craziness of their dream. It often means going without and compromising in areas as basic as food, clothing and safety. “There were a lot of people doing drugs in the house. It was kind of a freak out. I stayed there for three months and I physically stayed there maybe four times. I looked at a lot of sketchy places.”
It’s been a slow climb out of sketchiness. After releasing her first record on Columbia, Atkins was forced to reassess her future. “The people that were all working with me, and who I wanted to work with, who signed me, all got fired three months after I was there,” she confides. “It was good for me to be over there for my first record because it let me jump a lot of hurdles quicker than most indie labels would enable me to. It was really good exposure but it was a constant fight with people that I didn’t know or really trust to guide me.”
For now, Atkins is a free agent. “We’re negotiating with [a label] that I like. It’s my dream label. Hopefully that happens,” she smiles coyly. My journalistic responsibilities require me to press her for the name of that label. “I don’t want to jinx it,” she says, standing firm.
We shake hands and part company, but as I pack up my tape recorder, pens and notebook, I notice the shoes lying on the bench. The soles are worn. The leather flexes easily. I pick them up and run after Nicole Atkins.
It’s a long way to the top of her game and she’s going to need her shoes.