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Her new world

Nicole Atkins finds her own voice on 'Neptune City'

Email|Print| Text size + By Marc Hirsh
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2008

Nicole Atkins's appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" this past fall wasn't her debut, but it was the first under her own name. And it was clear from the start that something special was happening. Letterman made a point of thanking the singer for performing before he even introduced her, and she spent the next few minutes throwing her rich voice to the rafters as the music whipped her into a fierce, torchy abandon. When it ended, a rapturous Letterman resumed gushing over her, and Atkins responded by leaning her head against the host's shoulder.

Atkins, who headlines T.T. the Bear's tonight, might soon have plenty of other shoulders to lean on. Her debut album, "Neptune City," has received strong reviews and landed her on a few artist-to- watch lists (including the Globe's), and that was her getting out of several struggling-musician jams thanks to American Express in a recent commercial. Her 2005 ASCAP Foundation Sammy Cahn Award for songwriting gave her reason to smile even more.

"I'd just got my wisdom teeth out," says Atkins. "So my wisdom teeth bill came, and then I found out I won the award. And I was like, 'I can pay for this! Yes!' "

When she discovered a guitar in her attic (one that belonged to her uncle, who had died before she was born), Atkins took it as a sign and began learning. She played with alt-country bands in college before jumping into New York's anti-folk scene, but her own songs never quite seemed to fit.

"I would always have these songs that I thought were weird-sounding, because they would sound really cool and orchestral and fleshed-out in my head," Atkins says. "But I was just a solo artist, so when I would play them out, it would sound really weird. So I never really played them for anybody, because I couldn't put a name on it."

With the help of the Sea, her sympathetic band, she has finally found a name for her music. She calls it "pop noir," and the orchestrated guitar pop of "Neptune City" swells and swoons, whether on the danceably ecstatic "Love Surreal" or the dramatic emotionalism of "The Way It Is."

It's a sound that Seth Avett, singer and guitarist for rock-bluegrass group the Avett Brothers, was only too happy to praise in the liner notes for "Neptune City." Vaguely aware of each other when they were both students at UNC-Charlotte, the two musicians later became friends thanks to a mutual acquaintance. Avett says Atkins's sound developed over the years.

"What she presents on the stage and in the recorded realm becomes more and more dynamic and seems to be developing more and more layers and more depth," says Avett. "Whatever she's doing right now is completely different than any other sound in the whole world. And I feel like that was noticeable early on."

The common thread may be the distinct perspective in Atkins's songs, which are shot through with a sense of wonder and vulnerability, as though she accepts that it's impossible to truly explore the world without occasionally taking substantial emotional risks. It results in an openhearted mournfulness best exemplified by the title track, written in part from the perspective of her departed uncle, watching over the town from afar. Atkins insists her family didn't mind the personal subject matter.

"They loved it, and it made them really emotional, and I told them I didn't want to talk to them about it ever again," she says with a laugh. "I don't like talking to my family about that kind of stuff."

But there's another constant throughout "Neptune City": The album is suffused with a genuine sense of place, with the titular locale (her New Jersey hometown) taking on an almost mythical atmosphere that might be described as Coney Island Gothic. The reality is far different from what fans have come to expect from listening to the record.

"All these people write to me, and they're like, 'I can't wait to visit Neptune City someday,' " Atkins says. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, there's a pizza parlor and a tombstone carver.' But I wrote a lot of those songs at a time when I was moving back to New Jersey after not living here for a really long time. So it was almost like trying to create a new world on the old one for myself and trying to return to living here again."

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