- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
After making her second album, “Mondo Amore,” in Brooklyn a few years ago, Nicole Atkins decided to make her next one in Sweden, where she’d recorded her heralded debut “Neptune City” with producer Tore Johansson. The presumption: Atkins realized in retrospect how special her Swedish experience had been, and wanted to recapture that magic.
Uh, not quite, as it turns out. “The first time, I hated it in Sweden. It was one of the most miserable times in my life,” Atkins said by phone last week, shortly before hitting the road for a tour that brings her to Austin this weekend. She headlines her own show on Friday at the Belmont before a Saturday gig opening for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at ACL Live.
Atkins explained that both she and her producer were going through significant relationship turmoil during the “Neptune City” sessions, which took place in the depths of a dark and cold Scandinavian winter. Though the resulting album, released by Columbia Records in 2007, put Atkins on the map as a promising new artist, her memories of those days are anything but idyllic.
Time changes everything. A few years later, Atkins was on vacation in Sweden with a friend, and she stopped in to see Johansson. The working relationship they’d built the first time paid dividends: “We wrote ‘Who Killed the Moonlight’ and ‘It’s Only Chemistry’ together in one day,” she says, citing the first two tracks on “Slow Phaser,” which came out in February.
Fate pushed Atkins back to Sweden after Hurricane Sandy turned the New Jersey native’s world upside down in the fall of 2012. “After Hurricane Sandy happened, I didn’t know where I was going make a record,” she said. “And Tore just sent me an email saying, ‘Why don’t you make it here?’”
Atkins told him she wasn’t sure she could afford it; after albums on Columbia and Razor & Tie, she’d decided to do “Slow Phaser” on her own label, raising money from fans through a crowdsourcing effort and getting help from Nashville affiliate Thirty Tigers. Johansson put her at ease: “It’s a two-for-one deal,” he said, cutting her a big break for having worked with him on her debut.
With the pressure off, “we went in there with no expectations,” she said. “We just played; there were no guidelines or boundaries, just the sound of four people having fun in a room for a month.”
“Slow Phaser” finds Atkins applying her dramatic vocal style to material that bends more toward dance music than her previous records did. It’s not exactly disco or electronica — her own term for it is “neon noir” — but the alluring rhythms and textures push the music in creative new directions.
Also bringing fresh perspective to Atkins’ songs was Jim Sclavunos, the longtime drummer for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, who co-wrote three of the album’s tracks. Sclavunos ended up playing drums with Atkins on a recent overseas tour, and when Cave announced a series of U.S. dates, he helped her get the opening slot.
One hitch to taking the gig was that Cave’s camp wanted the opening band to be no bigger than a trio, so Atkins pared down her supporting cast to just drummer Christopher Donofrio and guitarist Dave Rosen. “We’ve reworked all of my songs” for this tour, she says. “We sound like super-garagey now. We make a lot of noise for three people, but the sound is completely different — like really sophisticated garage rock.”
It’s no surprise to hear Atkins talk about reworking the nature of her material, as her writing and voice always have been adaptable to a variety of styles and approaches. A case in point is a batch of tunes she’s worked on in recent years with Austin musician Robert Harrison, leader of the bands Cotton Mather and Future Clouds & Radar.
Harrison co-wrote a handful of tracks with Atkins for her 2011 album “Mondo Amore,” but the two artists also collaborated on other material that didn’t end up on the record. “I wanted to create timeless pieces for her that hearkened back to Dusty Springfield and Lulu — because I thought we could pull it off,” Harrison said by email. “So I wrote a lot of these and demoed them on acoustic guitar, and she did the vocals in my little house. Her takes were so fresh and strong, I believed they could hold up as masters.”
Though memorable co-writes such as “Cry Cry Cry” and “The Tower” found their way to Atkins’ album, “my favorite compositions I’d written for her were gathering dust,” Harrison noted. “So I called and asked if I could use her ‘demo’ vocals and produce some masters for a new project, and she quite liked the notion.”
The resulting tracks, fleshed out by Harrison’s bandmates in Cotton Mather and Future Clouds & Radar, are earmarked for a side-project EP called Sir Parker that Harrison says he hopes to release this fall.
One of the songs they wrote together, “Call Me the Witch,” is an instantly memorable number that can be found on YouTube in live solo acoustic versions. Its appeal hints at the variety of directions Atkins could take her music in the years to come.
“I love that song. I always play it in my solo shows, but I just could never figure out a way that it fit on my records,” she says. “That’s always a hard thing — writing in a folky or country vein and having these songs that are so good, but they don’t fit on the album. But who knows, maybe in 10 years once I have a bunch of those songs, then they’ll all go together.”