February 8, 2011
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Ben Greenman is a writer and editor at the New Yorker. His most recent book is the short story collection What He's Poised to Do.
Author Ben Greenman interviews singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins:
Ben Greenman: Welcome to today's interview.
Nicole Atkins: Thank you.
BG: That sounds unnecessarily formal. I want to talk about a number of things today, most connected to creative work, whether music or fiction, and how it relates to personal emotional experience. Do you want to start with a question, or should I?
NA: You start.
BG: Okay. The question is about starting, as luck would have it. How do your songs start, most often? What's the genesis?
NA: For the most part, they kind of come to me out of nowhere, but usually while I'm traveling: when I'm taking the train, driving, or walking. It's pretty common for a melody to come to my head, and if it doesn't leave after 15 minutes I'll record it into my phone. Then later I'll revisit it and put chords to it and try to decode what the fake words i recorded into the phone are saying.
BG: I read a recent interview where you said that a new song was born on the back of an attempt to play a Smiths song.
NA: Yes, sometimes when I try to learn someone else's song, I'm not that great at the guitar, so I'll just go off on a tangent and make something of my own.
BG: I think that's funny that you say you're not that great at the guitar. That's probably partly modesty, but let's assume it's partly true. That's one of the best ways to make something new. Virtuosity can be the enemy of creativity, right, because if you can exactly replicate whatever Smiths song you are interested in, well, then why make something of your own?
NA: That's when I'm at home, listening to music, and I pick up a guitar. The other melodies, the ones I like to think of as traveling melodies, just kind of happen out of nowhere. There's always a running dialogue in my head, at least—eight thoughts at once. Sometimes a melody will come out to shut everything else up.
BG: When you were little did you hear melodies first, or snippets of lyrics first. Writers are preoccupied with that idea, because we only have words.
NA: When I was little lyrics were always first. Do you ever hear melodies to your words? Many of the lines in your stories are very lyrical.
BG: Not melodies, exactly, but shapes. I know when something swells and when it is kind of a harmonizing sentence and when it tapers off. But not real melodies with flavors.
NA: You wrote a line in What He's Poised to Do that I underlined because I feel like I could write a whole song out of it. It's in the story "Down a Pound:" " That is what angels should play instead of harps: a bone."
BG: Right. That's a joke, kind of. The woman's boyfriend tells her that she always has a bone to pick when it comes to her music.
NA: It's such a great image, and the story is very heartfelt but straightforward.
BG: Let's back up a half-step. I want to talk about your voice. Not your voice as a songwriter but your actual voice. If people heard your first record, Neptune City, then they already know what this second record, Mondo Amore, illustrates: that you can sing like hell. It's not just putting across a melody. Your voice is a big, scary physical thing. When did you know you could sing? I knew that I could not when I was, say, ten, and that seemed to me like a loss of grace. It is a great thing to be able to sing, and to be able to sing well is even greater. It's about physical force and erotic force and spiritual force. Lots of prose seems like an attempt to apologize for the absence of that force.
NA: Well I always sang, but at first I thought I had a terrible voice because I wasn't a first soprano. In the grade school theater world, as a female you didn't exist unless you were a soprano. In a way, that helped direct me to rock and roll. Throughout high school I got into Steve Winwood and Jow Cocker, British white-soul rockers. It felt normal and good to sing along with their records. Then we did Jesus Christ Superstar at my school and none of the dudes could sing the Judas part so I showed up to the audition in a beard and sang like I thought Sam Cooke or Joe Cocker would have sung and got the part. I guess that's when I knew I could sing.
BG: Was it a convincing beard?
NA: Not at all, although the girls in my school thought I was pretty smokin'.
BG: I did a short piece in the New Yorker recently about Bobby "Blue" Bland and I brought up this question/game that people play, Voice of the Century. If you had to pick one singer, who would you pick?
NA: If I had to pick my favorite vocalist right now, I'd say for a female voice, Judy Henske, not for her whole body of work but for one song she did on the record she made with Jack Nitzsche. I don't even know what it's called, but it's so full of anger and pain.
BG: Oh! Anger and pain! That's my next question. We'll talk more about your new, excellent record Mondo Amore, but I wanted to talk about one song on your last record, Neptune City, which is called "The Way It Is." The song starts out without instrumentation, just with you singing, and you sing "Don't tell me." There's so much put into that phrase. How conscious is that? How much is it just talent? This may be a very stupid question. It's just that as a writer, I can create context. I can tell you that someone is saying a phrase duskily, or in a tone like a shaken abacus, or whatever, but when it comes time to put those words down, "Don't tell me," I don't have many options. You have shade and color options like crazy. Are you analytical about that kind of thing?
NA: Well, the melody happens first, and that controls what I do to some degree, but my brain tends to veer always towards the dramatic for the melody first. That's just what I'm attracted to.
BG: And it's what people who love your work are attracted to, too. In fact, I have a question about drama. The use of drama, which isn't to say melodrama, is very important in your work. Are you a dramatic person normally? If we were at a coffee shop now, and your order came and it was wrong, would you send it back? Would you stand on the table and accuse the waitress of taking all that you have every worked for?
NA: Ha. That's a great question! To be honest, I like to let my dramatic and dark yayas out in my music. In normal life, I am pretty easy going. How about you? There's lots of drama in your writing. There's humor, but also lots of darkness and wrong choices.
BG: Pretty calm in normal life, too. I mean, if you take away all the seething anger and the yelling and the clenched fists and fantasies of throwing bricks through every single window in sight.
NA: Also, I was raised Sicilian and Catholic so I'm too guilty to send any sandwich back.
BG: Even so, this new album, Mondo Amore, grew specifically out of dramatic circumstance, right? I have heard tell that there were personal stresses, in the form of a breakup, and professional stresses, in the form of a new band and a new label.
NA: Yes, this record was definitely born out of one of the darker periods of my life.
BG: Let's talk about that.
NA: Let's talk about you! See how I avoided that? Your book, What He's Poised to Do, has characters and scenes that are drawn very personally, even if they are entirely fictional. When you're writing a book and there are stories that come from personal experience, do you ever feel too guilty to write it?
BG: No. I don't have guilt except when I do something wrong.
NA: You don't fear that you'll hurt people close to you?
BG: Oh, that. Yes: I have mortal fear that I'll hurt people. That's why I don't write memoir, which is a form I don't understand. What gives me the right to put actual people and their actual names into my drastically subjective sense of how things were? On the other hand, there are people who I have been very close to for a long time, friends, girlfriends, and I need to talk about them. So I hide them under layers and layers of disguise. You could say that I am protecting them except that probably the layers are intended to protect myself.
NA: That's what I do, too. The new record is very close to real circumstance, painfully so, though many of the events are combinations of a few different plots. Overall, this record was hard to write because when I started, I was still very much involved with what I was writing about. I didn't want to sell anyone out. At the same time I didn't want to sound like a fool or a whiner.
BG: So you know whose eyes are in the lyrics of "Heavy Boots," say?
NA: "Heavy Boots" is very direct.
BG: Are the songs, on average, instruments of revenge or compassion? Are you settling scores or trying to make sense of why things happened?
NA: Compassion. Even though I was going through a lot of hurt, I was still trying to save the ship. That became clearer after I finished the record. I wanted to ask you something related. The main theme throughout your book is letter-writing. After reading it, the book re-instilled my love for writing them, so thanks for that. But where did that theme come from? It works nicely with all the infidelity and heartache in the book.
BG: I started to get fed up with the way that the world is. I used to get letters and give letters and then I blinked and everything was texts and emails, which are convenient but only part of the picture. If I write you a letter I have to make a case for myself and send it off, and then I get your reply. With email we have all sides, and there's the illusion of communication, but people say less. Letters seemed like the way we present ourselves, and not always honestly. Like artwork.
NA: Exactly! Letter writing is the truest representation of yourself to that person.
BG: But also, being prose, they can be filled with tricks: sliding screens, special effects. I always envy the directness of songs. Like in "Hotel Plaster," on your new record, there's a lyric, "I know we hurt each other pretty bad." That's something foreign to me, that kind of bald statement.
NA: Well, the things I say in a song to someone are something I could probably never write them in a letter. It's always too late. They are things I would like to say but most of the time in dealing with matters of the heart I say what comes to my mind at the time, which usually isn't how I feel. That isn't always the most considered thing. In Jersey we have a term for that: its called a "pop-off." My old nickname was "Nicolai Poppinoffalot."
BG: I think that sometimes I do that with plots. I never write directly about myself, but there are cases when characters in the stories achieve a kind of peace that I wish for old friends, old girlfriends.
NA: Like in that story "Down a Pound," where the woman is in a car crash. Is it super morbid that I was recently in an almost car crash and I thought of that story and it gave me comfort?
BG: No, I like that. The end, where she wrecks her car? I will quote from myself. I am clearing my throat: "Sylvie is out on the road under the hood. Inertia had brought her there. Broken glass is spread around like rhythm. A bone comes through her arm. An artery in her thigh is laid open for all the world to see. ‘Look at my blood!' she wants to say. It is healthy blood, and it is running out. Time is running out with it. She is growing lighter than air. She has a sudden urge to weigh herself."
NA: That's exactly what I thought about.
BG: Also, that story has explicit music. Billie Holliday is in it, not as a character, but as a thought in the woman's head.
NA: Do you ever write from dreams?
BG: Sure. Less now. A few books ago, I did one called "A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both" that was largely from dreams. I had a dream about a dead dog on the sidewalk, and I went around the block, and something was missing, and there were kind of old-fashioned policemen. It was also about a woman I knew who had a big head and cried all the time. I am doing a terrible job describing it. I'm going to quote from the end again. It's when the main character, the narrator, comes back to make piece with this sad girl with the big head:
"We sat. She said nothing and I was kind of in that mood, too. Another policeman came by on patrol but this one was quite a different matter, with coarse features that were to be frank canine and a handlebar moustache of the deepest blue-black. Geraldine looked at him, knowing full well that he was not the policeman who had killed the dog, and all at once she began to cry. ‘I don't know,' she said. ‘Maybe it is something. I just don't know.' Her lovely large head rolled around tearfully. The policeman did not stop to look and I was glad. It was none of his business. It was not a pretty sight. It was a beautiful one."
NA: And you see... this is why you do not need melody. That made me sad and it's not even me.
BG: See, I feel like singers have access to beauty and I do the best I can with words, but I am operating in the absence of really being able to make a physical sensation in the air around me.
NA: I feel the opposite.
BG: This is like Freaky Friday!
NA: The only thing I can say about my singing is that certain times, when I sing a certain something, I get a really amazing feeling at the side of my ribcage, and that's when nothing else matters. But at the same time, I don't know what that means to anyone else, because it's my ribs.
BG: It means quite a bit, because your ribs get to be other people's for a little while, like in "The Tower," which is a great song from the new record. A song like that franchises your ribs.
NA: Although, when I sing that song, especially towards the end, I feel a ton of bricks and heaviness coming down on me, and I hope that the audience isn't feeling that the same way I am.
BG: Oh, that's another question I wanted to ask you. Singing songs more than once. How can you do that? It boggles my tiny brain. I reread stories to audiences, but the repeats are so perfunctory compared to the original writing of them. The composition is like a lighthouse and every repetition is like a tiny little glow stick. How do you keep getting it up to make it intense more than once?
NA: Have you ever read to a friend or a girlfriend in bed? This is kind of weird to say, but when I sing my songs, I think of the audience as a collective single person that I'm confiding in and having conflict with. It's almost like we're in our own little play.
BG: It just impresses me how you – not just you, but singers in general—repeat and intensify the effect as you go. I'm not naïve, but it's a part of my brain that doesn't really work. So much of writing is about capturing certain kinds of spontaneity and complexity and fixing them on the page, in prose. But revisiting that for performance isn't something I understand at all.
NA: Well, from a reader's perspective, your stories are extremely dramatic. How is it for you when you write in switched gender roles? You do it well.
BG: Well, I think it's not so different. I assume women are just as pissed off and smart and demanding and cynical and hopeful as men.
NA: What is your favorite of your female characters in What He's Poised to Do?
BG: I like the woman in "Her Hand," though she's a little abstract. I like the woman in "A Bunch of Blips," who is having a comedy of errors with unsuitable mates and then has sex with a French academic she worships, only to find out that she can't remember a thing about him. How about you? Do you have a favorite song? "This is For Love" has been stuck in my head all day.
NA: It depends on the day or situation. Name a situation or mood and I'll tell you what comes to mind. "This is for Love" is the "positive" song on the record.
BG: It's "positive" but it says "this is the love" so many times that you start to think that maybe it's asking, not telling. That's one of the things I like about it.
NA: Its' about wanting things to change for the better so much at the same time that you're so far gone that even hearing the lock on the door turn makes your heart pound like a heart attack.
BG: I have one more quick question for you. You talk about breakups with a boyfriend, and that's universal. But you also disbanded and reformed your band during the course of making this record: you went from Nicole Atkins and the Sea to Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea. Normal people might not understand the trauma of a band change, because you're thought of as a solo artist. How traumatic was that?
NA: Extremely. I'm a singer, but I'm also an arranger, and the arrangements mean as much to me as the actual songs do. The people I play with help me realize what I hear in my head. It would be easier if I could be a solo artist, financially and logistically, but when I write something I hear it layered and as a whole piece. The people I play with play what I hear, then add their own thing, then we become close friends, and the whole thing is just that, very close. So when my first band broke up I felt like I had no legs or arms.
BG: That's hard for me to imagine. Most of my ideas are in my own head door-to-door. There's an editor, of course, and there are a few friends who have most favored nation status as readers—I have one friend I like to send everything to, and if she doesn't at least acknowledge it, I get frustrated. What they say matters greatly, but I don't feel like I need them to make the things in the first place. It sounds painful.
NA: It was.
BG: That's a happy endnote: you without legs or arms. Should we stop here?
Ben Greenman links:
Nicole Atkins links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)