Good Night Rhonda Lee, Hello Nicole Atkins

By Reggie Allen

What began as an inside joke, metamorphized into a full-fledged album.

Nicole Atkins first donned the name Rhonda while bowling with friends. It was a tradition to use pseudonyms during their outings. Whenever the singer-songwriter had a little too much to drink, they’d call her Rhonda. The name stuck. Years later, while recording what would be her fourth studio album, Atkins knew she had to incorporate the alter ego into the mix.

The question was how. After hours of songwriting with fellow musician Chris Isaak, nothing clicked.

“The day before I went to record the album, I just said ‘Say Good Night Rhonda Lee,’” Atkins explained in a phone interview. “And it really fit. I wrote the words in like 20 minutes and I went and recorded the record the next day. That was it. It’s weird that a lot of the biggest ideas come at the last minute. It’s funny because people come to the show and share their drunk names with me”

For the New Jersey native, “Good Night Rhonda Lee” marked not only the departure from her signature indie-rock sound, but her addiction with alcohol. After years of drinking, Atkins decided to go on the straight and narrow by checking herself into rehab. However, during this time of healing, misfortune did not stay its hand. Sometime after she began her journey, her father was diagnosed with Lung cancer. And yet, the fire within Ms. Atkins continued to burn brighter than ever. With three studio albums and four EPs to her name, the singer-songwriter called this project “the most focused.”

“I was drinking for a long time and I’m proud of the records before that,” Atkins said. “It could’ve been a great record but I think everyone comes to time in your life where they get a little bit older and they make changes. I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my life drinking.”

The hands of fate began to play in her favor. Not only did it leave room for recovery, it allowed a space for change. There Atkins crossed paths with an unnamed hip-hop producer that bluntly stated that her true calling was singing soul. The artist formally known as Rhonda Lee, was bewildered by the accusation. Pushing Atkins to embrace her voice, the mystery man really put things into perspective.

“I’ve always had a big voice and approached singing from an emotional place,” Atkins said.” This guy was like ‘You’re a soul singer. I think you should stop fighting that and just be it.’  Kept trying to mold myself into this modern indie rock world and not do what comes naturally.”

That isn’t to say that Atkins wasn’t singing from the heart.  She just needed a push in the right direction. Recorded at Florence’s Single Lock Records, the album features a bevy of autobiographical songs, including “A Dream About Pain”, “Sleepwalking” and the title track, which pays homage to her battle with alcohol.

However, this new discovery was not without its oppositions. The vocal transition was a challenge as soul was her calling, but her niche was indie-rock. Her discography speaks for itself.  Atkin’s hit her mark with 2007’s “Neptune City”, which earned her the prestigious Sammy Cahn for its title track. The success continued with follow-up albums “Mondo Amore’ and “Slow Phaser.” Diving into a new genre required time for experimentation.

“I think that’s what took a long time for the writing of the record,” Atkins said. “I wanted to write a soul record, but I didn’t want it to sound like a soul paint by numbers, insert catchphrase here. I wanted to make it, you know, uniquely mine. I took a while to craft that.”

Atkins kicks off her national tour at Birmingham’s Saturn Bar with an April 18 performance. The Magic City isn’t just dear to her heart, it’s also the closet city to Nashvillle where she resides with her husband. A regular at the Nick, the singer-songwriter joked that it was time for a change and she’s heard great things about the Avondale venue.

“They can expect an emotional experience,” Atkins said. “There’s lot of dancing, lots of crying. Music to cry to while you dance.”




About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.