WXPN Welcomes Nicole Atkins
Acclaimed singer/songwriter has a new album – and it’s damn good.
April 24, 2014 · 8:00pm
7pm doors | 8pm music
$15 at the door
A neon noir tour de force of hi-def late-night pop, Slow Phaser marks Nicole Atkins’ most ingenious and indelibly modern collection to date. Produced by Tore Johannson – with whom she partnered on her now-classic 2007 debut, Neptune City – the album is a milestone for the acclaimed singer/songwriter, her restless creativity fully realized via the addition of some surprising colors to her already diverse paintbox. Songs like the poptastic “Girl You Look Amazing” and the sultry “Red Ropes” positively swirl with day-glo danceability, the bright hues setting Atkins’ distinctive creative voice in a brilliant and undeniable new light. Bittersweet yet life affirming, Slow Phaser is Nicole Atkins at her confident and unpredictable best – spirited, sexy, and determinedly forward thinking.
“I wanted to make something that no one’s ever heard before,” she says, “including myself.”
A charismatic and committed live performer, Atkins followed 2011’s adventurous Mondo Amore with a long year on the road. Upon her return, the New Jersey-based artist began to rethink her overall approach. Atkins went on creative walkabout, visiting various musician friends across the country and starting a productive collaboration with veteran drummer/producer Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks). The two clicked immediately, penning three songs on the very first day they set to work.
“Jim really helped me articulate a lot of what I was feeling,” she says. “He helped me make the things I was writing sound more like when I just wrote songs for myself. He taught me a lot about writing… again.”
Luckily – or perhaps not – she was in Memphis when Hurricane Sandy wreaked its havoc on the Jersey Shore and her familial home.
“It was awful,” she says. “The whole first floor was flooded, we didn’t have power for 18 days. Everything is pretty much back now, but its different. Everybody in the town aged a lot this year.”
As she pondered her next move, fate rang long distance. Hearing of her recent travails, her old producer Tore Johansson – known for his work with Franz Ferdinand, The Cardigans, and many others – invited Atkins to come record at his residential Malmö, Sweden studio.
“He said, ‘As soon as you can get here, get here,’” she says. “It was the perfect double whammy. Here was someone who was going to help me make my record and give me a place to live.”
Atkins packed up two years of songs, poetry, and journals, not to mention the hundreds of beat-based musical ideas stored on her iPhone. With Johansson’s able assistance, she devised a compelling new sonic approach, melding psychedelic energy, prog rock adventurism, after hours disco ambience, and the raw emotional purity of the finest country soul. Atkins stripped her traditional instrumentation to its core – Johansson handled bass duties, joined by The Cardigans’ Lars-Olaf Johansson on guitar, keyboardist Martin Gjerstad, and Asbury Park’s own Sam Bey behind the drum kit – placing considerably more emphasis on electronics than on her previous recordings.
“It sounds large but not cluttered,” she says. “We only used four instruments and tracked everything live. Instead of layering on a bunch of strings and horns and bells, the idea was to try to make everything have such complex melodies that they fit together like a puzzle. Every little bit counts.”
The result is remarkably vivid and varied, with songs like the opening “Who Killed The Moonlight?” blazing with transcendent pop hooks and floor-filling rhythms unlike anything Atkins has done before. She further pushed her songwriting by penning a series of wry, candid songs casting a mordant eye at pretentious boyfriends (“It’s Only Chemistry”), ponderous hipsters (“Cool People”), and the endless highway that is her perpetual home (“Gasoline Bride”). Slow Phaser comes to its poignant emotional close with “The Worst Hangover” – replete with images of shattered disco balls glittering on the storm swept Jersey shoreline – and the sparse, powerful “Above As Below,” which finds our heroine alone at sea, “surrendering to the void, just me, seagulls, and the gods.” A committed believer in the enduring power of the album-as-art form, Atkins embraced a classically tripartite sequencing inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s notorious psychotropic western, El Topo.
“When it starts out, the protagonist is really cocky and sure of himself and makes terrible decisions without thinking about the repercussions,” she says. “In the second part, he has everything taken away and is really put in his place. Then, in the end, he accepts it and tries to find spiritual meaning in order to be a better person.”
Atkins plans to release Slow Phaser on her own Oh’Mercy! Records, an assertion of ownership that embraces her ever fervent fanbase, who helped fund the project through a successful PledgeMusic campaign. In addition, the always ambitious artist plans to indulge her defiantly prog dreams with the most theatrical live performances of her career thus far.
“I’m going to wear a cape and shoot lasers out of my hands,” she says. “Really.”
Inventive and irresistible, Slow Phaser positively radiates with idiosyncrasy and a palpable sense of fully empowered musical discovery.
“It’s taken me a while to figure out who I really am,” Nicole Atkins says. “Musically, and as a person. It’s constantly changing. I’m not just this one character. I’m an artistic person trying to figure shit out.”
Shilpa Ray‘s forearms bulge with blood when she plays her harmonium. “I have strange musical injuries” she explains, referring to the blisters on her fingers. But none of that stops her from pounding on the accordion-like instrument, which reached the height of its popularity in 19th-century churches. “I always feel like I’m still my 14-year-old self” she says, explaining her determination to play despite the trauma her music can cause. “I never developed beyond that in my attitude.”
Ray’s teenage tendencies are alive and well on Teenage and Torture, her second full-length with Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers, which will be released in early 2011 on Knitting Factory Records. A collection of 10 savage and sultry blues-influenced songs, the album finds Ray eviscerating her subjects (and often spilling her own guts) with the kind of sharp-tongued, smart-assed angst that keeps juvenile detention centers in business. Songs like ‘Hookers’ and & ‘Genie’s Drugs’ aren’t dealing with kid-sized issues, but no matter the situation, Ray says, “I always have that gut reaction the way that teenagers do.”
Growing up in central New Jersey, at 6 years old Ray picked up both the harmonium and piano at the insistence of parents who wanted her to learn classical Indian music. “I really wanted to play guitar and my parents said no” Ray says. “But I had the harmonium, so I would learn chords to songs that I liked and start to play.” At 16 she taught herself how to play The Velvet Underground’s ‘ll Be Your Mirror’ but it wasn’t until a few years later that she worked up the nerve to perform in front of other people.
Settling in New York City with no idea how to form a band, Ray frequented open mic nights at the East Village’s legendary Sidewalk Cafe, where she performed solo. “I started going to Sidewalk because I didn’t fit into any scene and it seemed like there you can be anybody and still get a shot” she says. “So I went and I sang a song a capella and they asked if I played an instrument and I told them about the harmonium, so they said if you bring this harmonium down, we’ll give you a show.” Ray would soon form her first band, Beat The Devil. While the group was met with early success and local acclaim, winning great praise from many observers including Brooklyn Vegan and the New York Times, they disbanded shortly before the release of their first and only album.
Initially Ray decided to continue on as a solo act, but she soon began enlisting the help of musicians she had met while playing out. Eventually the line up began to solidify and Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers was formed. In 2009, the group released the self-financed album A Fish Hook, An Open Eye and the excitement for Ray and her unique artistry picked up where it had left off. “Following the demise of her previous band” wrote the New Yorker, “Ray has struck out on her own, further showcasing her seemingly indestructible vocal chords. She screams, growls, and snarls her way through the screeching muck of oil-stained garage rock and backwoods blues, cresting just above the waves of a sonic tumult that threatens to consume her minuscule frame. This tenuous command of a raucous sound makes for a volatile breed of rock and roll.”
Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hooker’s latest album, Teenage and Torture, both refines and expands upon the arresting qualities of their first release. The result, “isn’t as thrown together as the first one” says Ray.”The first record was like a series of thoughts, this is one big thought. You’ll slip into a different world when you hear this.” Recorded with Black Dirt Studios’ Jason Meagher at Seizure’s Palace in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the songs on Teenage and Torture are dark, sardonic looks inside Ray’s own world and obsessions, augmented by the musical styling of her Happy Hookers — Nick Hundley on bass, Andrew Bailey on guitar and John Adamski on drums and percussion, and featuring Greg Lewis on organ, Jonathan Lam on pedal steel and Andrew Hoepfner on vocals and keys.
“Most of the time when I write songs, they’re semi-autobiographical,” says Ray, “but they’re also taking situations and trying to understand things that I have a hard time understanding,” she says. “When I wrote ‘Genie’s Drugs’ it was about this dude I used to date who was dating every other chick on my block. One day I said, “I don’t want you to see this Genie girl, why do you see her?” and he told me, “Well, she’s got the good drugs.” And I thought it would be great to write a love song about I’m so poor that I can’t afford the drugs to keep him around.” On another standout track, ‘Liquidation Sale’ Ray mocks herself for feeling down. “I could not take myself seriously writing a blues song” she says, “so a lot of those lyrics are me making fun of myself and how fake I am being by even writing it. At the same time, I’m like everybody else, I want that window to complain.”
Blood and blisters be damned, on Teenage and Torture, Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers have some things to say, and you’ve got no choice but to pay attention.