Like many creatives, psychedelic indie rock songstress Nicole Atkins had to hit rock bottom to rise to a reawakened level of musicianship. Not only did she move from her longtime home along the Jersey Shore to Nashville, Tennessee, but she faced writer’s block, alcoholism and she literally fell into a sinkhole.
Atkins, who will perform at the Lockn’ Festival on Thursday, soared into her music career, debuting with 2007’s Neptune City, followed by 2011’s Mondo Amore and 2014’s Slow Phaser. Her newest album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, was released on July 21 and is her most transparent album to date, as it exposes her personal problems.
“I come from a long line of high-functioning alcoholics and it doesn’t really suit me emotionally,” says Atkins. “So, I did a lot of hard work to get rid of that need to feel like I need to drink in order to have fun or be myself.”
On songs like “Rhonda Lee,” “Colors” and “A Night of Serious Drinking,” Atkins confronts her battle with alcohol abuse. The name Rhonda Lee started out as a bowling alias that Atkins used, but later it turned into the name of her drunken persona.
“I was really nervous telling people and the press what these songs are about, but I can’t say it any other way, because that’s what they are about,” says Atkins. “The cool thing about talking about it is that I get to talk about the good things that came from it and how my mind has free space to think about music and arrangements, and to make music for other people.”
Last summer during a weekend at Bonnaroo, Atkins realized she’d overcome her addiction. During the long weekend with friends she didn’t crave a single drop of alcohol. “That’s when I knew ‘Okay cool, I can still have fun doing the things I love,’” she says. “I love being in bars and I have to be in bars for work and I love going to festivals and I love live music.”
Acclimating to her new life in Tennessee was also a challenge.
“The first year was really hard because it was a big adjustment, she says. “I grew up on the Jersey Shore and lived in New York for a long time, so landscape-wise it was a big adjustment—not being by the beach and having to drive everywhere. Also having a husband that’s a tour manager and friends that are working musicians, I was home in a new town by myself.”
One night after a gig in Knoxville, Atkins fell into a 10-foot sinkhole in a parking lot. After a trip to the hospital she returned to Nashville feeling uneasy about who to ask for help—her family was far away and her husband was out of town.
“When word got out about what happened, I never had more people coming by and checking on me and taking me to the doctor and bringing me food,” says Atkins. “They just showed me so much love and care. I hit rock bottom literally, but something really good came out of something really shitty.”
On Goodnight Rhonda Lee, Atkins delves into the isolation she felt in her early stages of that relocation, as well as depression and failing relationships.
The album’s first single, “A Little Crazy,” co-written with Chris Isaak, is a heartbreaking ballad exposing deep regrets that Atkins channels through her cavernous vocal chords.
“With this album I just kept thinking about what musical genres sum up who I am, what I listen to and what I can physically do best, and it was Roy Orbison, Lee Hazelwood and Aretha Franklin,” says Atkins. “I really focused and honed in on those kinds of sounds because I feel like the combination of those sounds is who I am.”