Nicole Atkins: “Red Ropes”

Nicole Atkins‘ songs have a strange way of breaking the fourth wall. It’s not necessarily the lyrics; instead, Atkins’ voice reaches out from the speakers and grabs your attention. She’s trained in the way Roy Orbison and many Brill Building singers were: big, sweeping gestures, swinging for the fences with each operatic crescendo.

Likewise, her career has been somewhat dramatic. She debuted in 2007 with a major label deal and budget, but with each release, Atkins gets more independent (literally and creatively). The indie-assisted Mondo Amore courted the alt-country crowd with an energetic looseness and harmony vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, but this year’s self-released Slow Phaser is a revelation in Atkins’ trajectory. She sounds completely uninhibited, matching smoky country-rock elements with neat production tricks, ranging from electronic drums to marimbas. It’s all in service to that powerhouse voice, which Atkins has developed into a dynamic instrument.

Just before kicking off a tour with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds here in Austin, Atkins stopped by our Studio 1A with her backing band to play a few songs from Slow Phaser. “Red Ropes” was actually written during a bout of writer’s block with the Bad Seeds’ drummer Jim Sclavunos. The song definitely has some of that Bad Seeds’ dark energy, from the lyrics (“You said you’d show me the ropes / As you tied me to the tracks”) to the propulsive, almost rockabilly-like strangeness. Throughout, Atkins is at the center, weaving her potent spell.

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