The Jersey Shore may bring to mind Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and Bon Jovi, but Nicole Atkins and her band The Sea hope to become just as synonymous with Jersey after the release of their first album “Neptune City” on Oct. 30.
If Nicole Atkins and the Sea ring a bell, it might be because of the recent American Express commercial that portrays the band’s life on the road. Luckily, Atkins fit the bill for what Amex advertising executives were looking for — a not-that-well-known up-and-coming girl singer. There were a few others in line for the job, but after two advertising executives attended one of the band’s shows at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., they closed the deal.
“My parents got them really drunk, so I think that’s why,” jokes the 29-year-old Atkins, a native of Neptune City, N.J.
Atkins, who picked up guitar at age 12, almost took a different career path, having studied illustration and painting at the University of North Carolina. “The first year of college kind of sucked all the love I had for drawing out of me, that’s why I didn’t want to study music.” By the time she graduated in 2001, she knew she would build a music career, but not before establishing her own mural company along with taking many odd jobs to make ends meet. After returning home from college, Atkins found herself sleeping in her Eighties Dodge Ram Charger four nights a week so she could immerse herself in the East Village music scene before spending weekends in New Jersey playing more shows.
It wasn’t until 2004 that she decided to ditch her solo act by forming her band The Sea with drummer Dan Mintzer, 27, and keyboard player Daniel Chen, 29, then adding guitar player Dave Hollinghurst, 35, a year later and bass player Derek Layes, 34, about 12 months ago. Atkins grew up listening to her parents’ favorites, like Frankie Valli, The Animals and Johnny Cash, so it isn’t surprising the band cites Sixties band Love, Roy Orbison and classic rock as influences and developed a sound Atkins calls Pop Noir, pop music that’s kind of gloomy and kind of retro, but is still hopeful. Dark movies by directors David Lynch and Tim Burton also play a role in influencing their distinctive sound. “I look at how David Lynch presents things, being so normal on the outside but really dangerous and mysterious underneath.”
This story first appeared in the October 29, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
And obviously, Atkins’ hometown is a huge influence since she named the album after it. “In the summertime it’s bustling, and then in the winter there’s nothing here, it’s like a Stephen King novel.”
In 2005, Columbia Records took notice of Atkins and her band and signed them, but not without a few setbacks. “Once I got signed, everybody that signed me got fired and then the new people that took me over got fired and then all these bands were dropped, I was really surprised I wasn’t,” she says.
Legendary record producer Rick Rubin stepping in as president of Columbia last spring was an added bonus for Atkins. Although the album was complete by the time he came on board, he decided to strip the mastering and remix the album, pushing it from a July release to October. “At first I didn’t give a s–t who he was, I was like, ‘Why are you messing with my album,’ but after talking to him I’m so glad he’s there.”
As for her personal style, Atkins describes it as “very Monterey Pop mixed with country-Goth-whimsy, like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ meets June Carter Cash going to a funeral.” And she’s a firm believer in putting on a real show, wardrobe and all. “I feel like performers should put on their costume and entertain people,” she explains.
Adding to the drama of the band’s sound, Atkins prefers to wear black onstage. “I feel like black is a mixture of authority and sympathy and that’s what you want, to command an audience but also sympathize with them.”
She looks forward to celebrating her album release by appearing on the “Late Show With David Letterman” Tuesday, followed by a show at Union Pool in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her career so far has been more than she could have imagined, “until I have to go babysit my brother’s four kids tonight,” she says. Then it’s back to reality.