After high school, Nicole Atkins moved to North Carolina to study illustration in college. This means, of course, that she has the mind not just of a songwriter but of a visual artist. This puts her at an advantage when it comes to songwriting. As she explained to me, her creative process is a visual one. For instance, she sees songs in colors: there's a lot of green songs on her new release Mondo Amore. And when she's in the middle of writing a song, she visualizes its landscape. Actually, she doesn't just visualize it: she inhabits it, from gauging the temperature to feeling the ground. As you'll read in this interview, Atkins discussion of songwriting is at times interchangeable with her discussion of visual art.
Such is the songwriting process of someone for whom creativity is a 24 hour gig. Read my interview with Nicole Atkins after the video.
One thing I noticed is that you have an extensive visual arts background.
I've been drawing and singing for as long as I can remember. Drawing is something I leave from time to time but always come back to. I'm always doodling and creating comics, but sometimes it will be years before I come up with ideas of a series of paintings or illustrations. I have a lot of characters I revisit and make up stories with.
You were a visual artist before a you were a songwriter. Why did songwriting become a mode of expression for you?
With illustration, I'm very self conscious. I know my skill level is not where it could be, but I don't have the focus to work on it. Songwriting is somewhat effortless, and it makes me more fulfilled. I am a social person, so when I go into my own head and work on my sketchbooks and notebooks, I call that "the visitation time into my own little world."
As such a creative person, you have a real advantage. You probably see beauty in things that most of us don't see.
That's true. When I look at something, most of the time I see the other side of the picture.
What's the link between drawing and songwriting in your own creative process?
My songs are really visual to me. I don't just hear them; I also see what they look like. So drawing is a literal visual interpretation of that type of thinking.
Do you ever find that a drawing triggers an idea for a song?
It's usually the other way around. Songs influence what I draw. I see sounds and colors in my head. Certain songs give me a images and a color palate, and that will inform what I draw.
That's exactly what Jesper Anderberg from The Sounds told me. They think of songs in terms of colors: one song might be blue, the other might be red.
I like The Sounds. Yeah, that's what I do too. There's a lot of songs on this album that I see in green and black and gold. Hues of underground darkness. Like a basement bar at 5am.
As a visual artist, do you start your songs with an image?
Most of the time, my lyrics are stream of consciousness, almost like they are given to me. I always start with a melody and the sounds of words, but certain lines are given to me. What I do when I start is think of a landscape and what the melody and mood of it is. I try to visualize what the landscape looks like, what temperature the air is, and what the ground feels like. Just gather all that visual information based on melody and mood, and those aspects inform the lyrics. I try to see the space it lives in first.
So melody comes first?
Almost every time.
Once you hit on a melody, how quickly do the words come?
That comes second. All my melodies come when I'm walking or doing something else. If I like it, it nags me; it begs to be paid attention to. So I record it into my phone. Then when I get home, I figure out the chords on my guitar. Almost all my songs are written by vocal melodies first.
Do you ever think about what the common element is among all those melodies that nag you?
I think it's the same way that dreams happen. Just an amalgamation of things I've heard and things that have happened throughout the day. They mix and pop out as one idea.
Yeah, I get a lot of melodies when I'm walking, driving, or on the train. It's always when I'm in motion. I wrote "The Way It Is" from start to finish in five minutes on the train. I could not wait to get off the train to sing it to everyone.
But why the train?
It's the motion and seeing things pass by rapidly. It's almost meditative or trance-inducing.
When do the lyrics come in your creative process?
I'm constantly writing lines and verses that don't have a melody to live in, constantly gathering lines or things I hear and writing them in my book. When I first create a melody, it usually has fake words that just fit the melody. There will be things it sounds like, and then I'll say them. Like I remember the line The sky looks like it's bleeding diamonds. I was like, "What the hell does that mean?" But that's what the fake words sounded like, so I went back and decoded what it meant. And it meant an image from the Iraq war: when I first saw it, the sky looked like it was bleeding diamonds when the bombs went off on black and white tv. It's almost like decoding a puzzle.
Jack Tempchin, a songwriter for the Eagles who wrote "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Already Gone," told me that he and Glenn Frey named that made up voice "El Blurto."
That's great. Yeah, my voice is called "startian" language. That's my go to fake word.
How much do you revise your lyrics? Or is the first pass at your lyrics something you feel strongly about?
It depends on the song. Some songs I don't touch at all, some a little bit, and some like "The Tower" I revise a million times. With some songs, I have everything written as far as the arrangements, and I'll record it. But then I go through like nine sets of lyrics and themes, and it just doesn't feel right. Then on the last day in the studio, I'll finally get it right. It looks like it takes two minutes to write, but really it's taken six months.
After revision, then, do some of your songs barely resemble the original creation? And does that bother you?
No, because the lyrics are the one thing I can control. And I say exactly what I want to say. The melody is the first thing to come, and that's where the divine inspiration and intent comes from, where it comes from a place other than me. Changing that gets me bent out of shape, so I don't do it as much. The lyrics in that case are secondary. And the lines that come out of nowhere that come first, those always stay. It's the ones that go around those lines, that support them, that can always be changed. Lyrics can either be fun or incredibly painful. Sometimes you feel like it's the dumbest thing you've ever read, and sometimes you feel like Aldous Huxley. Laughs.
Do you worry that if a process for writing one song is so painful that it's just not meant to be? Or does it motivate you more?
It depends. The times when I want to give up, I still try to see it to the end. Some songs that I thought at first were horrible end up being the best songs on an album. Like "My Baby Don't Lie." When I first started, I thought it was the dumbest song ever. It sounded juvenile and generic. But I kept working at it, and it's now one of my favorites on the record.
How do you know when a song is done?
When I first start recording a song, I'm never really that jazzed about it. It's like the beginning of a drawing on a canvas. It doesn't give you goosebumps. But when you add layers of paint, or layers of music, by the time it's built up, you listen and it becomes bigger than anything I'd ever imagine. Once it becomes bigger than what I imagine in my head, I know it's done. Or once it sounds like something someone else made.
How important is writing environment to you?
I need to be all over the place. If I'm stuck in one place for too long, I go nuts. Then I start thinking about having to write more than actually writing. I tend to write way more when I'm really busy.
Then are you a disciplined writer?
No. I am not the kind of clock punching worker. I'm writing at 6am, 3am, at a party. I'm a gypsy writer.
What would be your perfect place to write?
Getting ideas for the melody by walking, and writing the lyrics at a bar. Or maybe in Savannah, Georgia at an old house.
Because it's haunted!
I imagine you are a pen and paper person when it comes to writing lyrics.
Pen and paper, or typewriter. That's the one thing I do that's disciplined when I'm home. I have an old Smith Corona, and every morning when I wake up, before I brush my teeth, I write three random lines. Just three sentences. And I build them up on the page until the page is full. It's like an exquisite corpse drawing. It's weird how the lines fit together and make a totally different story.
That's very poetic. Do you write poetry?
Yeah. But I also read a lot of poetry.
I love Aldous Huxley's poetry.
It's dark and romantic. His tragic love and death imagery. I'm all about drugs, sex, and death poetry. Laughs. I also like Bukowsky, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe. I also really like the lyricism in Gabriela Garcia Marquez. His books are like poetry.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
I try to gather. I used to get stressed about it and hate myself, but now I realize that it's just as common as a writing spurt. So I watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books, see a lot of shows, go to art shows. That's what I mean about gathering. That fills the well. I think that with writer's block, like with painting, you have to write a lot of bad things to be able to create the good things.
I just finished rereading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and he says that to be able to write about a place, you can never be in that place. How do you feel about that?
I have to be removed from what I am writing about. It's not on purpose. I remember when I first wrote my first song when I was 21. I had just moved to New Jersey, and the song was all about North Carolina. Then when I moved back to North Carolina, it was all about Jersey. And now that I am in Brooklyn, I am writing all my songs about Jersey.
Is it because of nostalgia that you can write about those places later?
It's partly that, but I think you have to be removed to articulate it and not be caught up in it.
What's your ideal emotion in which you can write?
Longing. There's a weird feeling in my voice when I sing from that place. It hits a part of my ribs. It's a physical thing. When I sing with longing, it puts my voice in a register where I feel a great release in my ribs. So when I write songs from that place, it makes performing so satisfying.
Finally, how important is it to start and finish a song same day?
That's never been important to me. I have about 120 song ideas in my phone now, and four songs I am working on now. I let the songs tell me when they want to be done.