Nicole Atkins doesn’t like to stay in one place. The New Jersey native makes no bones about her attachment to her home state — her debut, “Neptune City,” is proudly titled after the town where she grew up — but she’s spent stretches in North Carolina, Brooklyn and Malmö, Sweden. And while she currently lives in Asbury Park-adjacent Ocean Grove, she’s itching to relocate once more.
“We’re going to drive around the country on this tour and maybe pick a place where we’d like to live next,” says Atkins. “I think it’s fun to move around every few years. I’ve just always been that way, to experience other people’s towns until I find one that feels like mine. New Jersey’s always going to be there for me. I’ll always live there off and on. But it’ll be a fun thing to do before I have kids and can’t.”
Atkins (who plays Brighton Music Hall on Valentine’s Day) displays a similar restlessness, a reluctance to become too entrenched in any one spot for too long, in her music. Each of her three albums possesses its own distinct character, from the deep-focus expansiveness of 2007’s “Neptune City” to the rustic architecture of 2011’s “Mondo Amore” to the burbling prog-pop of the excellent new “Slow Phaser.”
Holding the disparate threads together amidst Atkins’s eagerness to explore is a flair for high drama that flatters the dark, full-throated alto she was blessed with. So it’s only fitting that she was involved in theater as a teenager, saying, “I was a theater geek that hated theater geeks. It was practice in self-loathing.” Or that she considers her performance in a school musical to be a turning point in understanding her own voice.
“ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was a big influence on me,” Atkins says. “Not just on this record; on me. I played Judas when I was a senior in high school. It’s still my favorite musical moment. I wore the beard. That was actually how I realized I could sing in the way that I do, from singing ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Before, my singing was really clean. Then I did that, and people were like, ‘You sound like a gospel singer.’ I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah. . .’ ”
But while grandness is practically encoded into the bones of her music, Atkins somewhat counterintuitively opted largely to rely on a compact band and live takes for the recording of “Slow Phaser.” Rather than diminishing the songs, she found power in those limitations.
“It was intense, because you really have to be in the moment and be really present, and also be really patient,” says Atkins. “Sometimes we would literally just sit there and no one would say a word for what seemed like a half an hour, but really was maybe 10 minutes. Then finally somebody would start playing something. It was five or six people sitting in a room in deep concentration.”
Rather than stripping them down, the resulting focus retained the songs’ complexity, says the singer: “I thought it made everybody work harder to come up with a really important, necessary and complex melody for their instruments, so we wouldn’t have to keep layering on stacks of things. It was like a project in intent.”
Producer Tore Johansson (Franz Ferdinand, OK Go), who helmed “Slow Phaser,” acknowledges the intensity of the sessions, saying, “I remember there was a lot of screaming going on. Not because we were angry, more that we were excited.” But he admits that there was no particular strategy laid out ahead of time. “The whole recording process was very kind of spontaneous,” says Johansson. “We didn’t plan it very much.”
“It’s not deliberate,” says Atkins. “I don’t really set out to try to sit down and write a certain type of thing. These things just come to me. It’s almost like I’m not really in control of it.”
That can have the benefit of leaving the singer open to the unexpected, like the way that “Gasoline Bride” (which Atkins calls “the bridge into the dark side” for linking the poppier first half of “Slow Phaser” to the artier second half) came to her fully formed “in literally five minutes.” Or how the inspiration of Italian singer Mina’s Ennio Morricone-written song “Se Telefonando,” with its constant modulations from one key to another, transformed opener “Who Killed the Moonlight?” from a “bummer, stoner folk song” into something bigger. “The song is so foreboding in the verses,” she says. “When that chorus comes in, it’s such a relief. But then it keeps building and you’re like ‘What the hell’s happening?’ ”
So Atkins knows that disorientation, done properly, can be thrilling. But she recognizes she still needs somewhere to land. It’s having those options that lets her decide where that will be.
“When you’re writing a record, you write — or I do — so many songs,” she says. “You keep whittling them down and down and down until [there are] some songs you might love a lot and they might be great, but I’m a big fan of the actual album. So if it doesn’t fit in the album, you put ’em aside until their time is right. If it ever is.”Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.