New Jersey-bred tunesmith Nicole Atkins suspected she was in trouble when she couldn’t get through a day without drinking, often to the point of passing out. When clinical depression began to kick in, she knew things had to change. Collaborating with composer Jim Sclavunos for what became 2017’s comeback album “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,” she was overwhelmed by ennui. “I didn’t feel anything — didn’t feel excited, didn’t feel like I was writing songs, just felt like I was going through the motions, I was devoid of joy,” she says. So she radically altered her world. She married her Scottish tour manager, moved to Nashville and embraced sobriety, making some of her most soulful, compelling music in the process.
You always think you’re the life of the party when you’re drinking. It’s only when you get sober that you see what a nightmare you were.
Yeah. I grew up around a lot of that, that sensibility. But I just felt like when you get to a certain age, it’s like, “You’ve seen where this goes, with people in your own family, even your friends.” And it didn’t end up in some place that I envisioned for myself. So I moved to Nashville, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know anybody here and I haven’t had a drink in a while — maybe I can drink again.” So I kept doing that, then getting sober again. And then I fell into a sinkhole. An actual sinkhole.
Yep. And it knocked me out. It wasn’t covered, it was dark out and it was raining. It was after a gig, and I just stepped right into it. So after that, there was no more one foot in, one foot out. I wasn’t even drunk then, but I was just like, “OK, my life is really important to me.” I noticed the change for the first time when we played Bonnaroo, and I was around an open bar all day but ignored it. And it didn’t sink in until I got home and I was smoking a cigarette on my porch in the morning. I was like, “Holy s—! That just happened!”
And then a veteran Nashville producer made you switch musical direction?
When I was getting sober, I met this guy and played him some of my stuff. And he was like, “Why are you f—- around with this indie-rock bulls—? You’re a soul singer, and you need to just do it!” At first, I was insulted. But then I started thinking, “There’s got to be a way that I can make soul music, sing big and not have it sound like some paint-by-numbers ‘60s soul.” And I figured it out.