New Jersey-bred chanteuse Nicole Atkins always has had strong survival instincts.
Her mother likes to remind her of her childhood, how when neighborhood families got together at bars or restaurants and stayed out too late, she was the kid who could herd others into a spontaneous dramatic or musical performance.
“My uncle recently told me, ‘You’ve got something that not many people have — you can walk into a room, any room, and make something out of nothing and really make it happen,’” says the ethereal-voiced singer-songwriter, who sees herself as the MacGuyver of modern musicians. “I just like making stuff and entertaining people, and I can always figure out how to do it with whatever I’ve got lying around.”
It’s a talent that’s come in handy in during the coronavirus era’s shelter-in-place.
While many are struggling to stay solvent, Atkins, 41, this week released a soulful new album, “Italian Ice,” featuring Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section stalwarts Spooner Oldham and David Hood. She also has begun broadcasting “Alone We’re All Together” concerts live from her Nashville attic every Saturday night on YouTube.
“I’ve learned lots of new skills in the process,” she says, adding, “‘Alone’ shows were really hard at first, because the technology was really hard to figure out. How to get external sound and camera, or this site didn’t work, that site was crashing, this one sounds like s—-. For a while, it was like, ‘Oh, no. Everything’s terrible!’ But we figured it out.”
Working on “Italian Ice,” she recruited talented friends such as Jim Sclavunos, Seth Avett, John Paul White, Spoon’s Britt Daniel and The Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite, as well as Alabama Shakes mainstay Ben Tanner to co-produce.
The album was cut at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, and released on White and Tanner’s indie Single Lock imprint.
Sonically, it veers from the funky hip-shaker “Mind Eraser” to the pedal-steel loping “Captain,” a Bobbie-Gentry-ish “Never Going Home Again,” a gospel-chorused “Road to Nowhere” and “These Old Roses,” which feels like a long-lost Top 40 ballad from the 1960s.
Running through it all — especially the sparse “Forever” — is Atkins’ marvelous voice, syrup-thick and catacomb-echoey.
The disc may romanticize the Muscle Shoals sound, she clarifies, but it’s no tribute record. She says, “That’s why I brought in all these other players from different bands that I work with.”
Atkins also has launched a Patreon wares-selling site, Natkins Funhouse, boasting a cavalcade of her drawings, paintings, calendars and comics.
Having stumbled across the Patreon platform two months before the pandemic hit, Atkins remains in high demand. She has been commissioned to do a giant “Let it Be”-stylized painting of The Swampers — Hood, Oldham and their cohorts.
Also, Amazon has given her free rein to compose wacky children’s music with her now-Paris-based old friend David Miller, who helped her discover her panoramic sound on the 2006 debut EP, “Bleeding Diamonds” and 2007’s definitive full-length follow up, the Swedish-tracked “Neptune City.”
“I do art, I do music, I’m always making stuff,” says Atkins. “Musicians stay at my house, and I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s make a video of you singing a song on my porch. I have this cool new app I want to try out!’”
She says she hasn’t really minded being housebound during the pandemic. She says, “My husband’s a tour manager, so he’s a domestic god and he does all the chores. And he’s a sound engineer, as well, so we’ve been doing my Saturday night attic shows together.”
Still, her self-sufficient spirit only extends so far, she adds. “People keep trying to get me into TikTok now, and I’m like, ‘Why do I have to learn another thing? I don’t want to be on TikTok!’”