"This is the record I've been wanting to make since I was 12," says Nicole Atkins. "It has so many layers, it's able to do whatever it wants without defining itself as one thing."
It's been a tumultuous three years since the release of Atkins' acclaimed 2007 debut, Neptune City, but the wait has proved worth it. Mondo Amore is a courageous, provocative work, fraught with dramatic tension, sweeping emotions, and musical ambition. With Atkins' remarkable voice commanding attention at the forefront, songs like "My Baby Don't Lie" and the searing "This Is For Love" capture the raw ache and self-reflective disillusionment of a love gone bad.Daytrotter described Atkins' recent session as "a pretty soundtrack to violent waters," which the New Jersey-born singer/songwriter sees as a spot-on portrayal of the album itself.
"When you listen to it, it feels like a movie," Atkins says. "From the beginning of it, the first song is 'Vultures,' which is a perfect intro song to what the actual record is about. And by the time you hear the end, with 'The Tower,' it's almost like your stomach hurts, because you can feel the pain in it."
Mondo Amore has its genesis in a time of extreme turbulence for Atkins, a period which saw her parting ways with her former (major) label while also dealing with the painful termination of "a relationship that should've ended two years before it actually did." As if all that weren't enough, her former backing band, The Sea, abandoned ship just a week into the January 2010 start of recording the new album.
"Things got kinda weird and dark," she says. "Writing these songs was my way of trying to work out what was happening. I was breaking up with my boyfriend, my band, and my label, all at the same time."
Having spent the past few years living in her native Asbury Park, Atkins dealt with these seismic shifts by returning to her adopted home of Brooklyn. Despite limited resources, she rallied her many musical friends including guitarists David Moltz and Irina Yalkowsky, bassist Jeremy Kay, and drummer Chris Donofrio and set to work at The Seaside Lounge Recording Studio in Park Slope. Most significantly, producer Phil Palazzolo (A.C. Newman, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists) offered his services behind the glass.
"Working with Phil has been one of the best experiences ever," she says. "I'll have an idea and he'll say, 'Okay, let's try it.' Whereas other producers would say, 'Are you serious? That'll never work.' Working with Phil felt like hanging out with my best friend every day."
Atkins' goal from the get-go was to create a more volatile sound than she had ever previously attempted, a sonic approach akin to such influences as Scott Walker and Nick Cave, while also touching on longtime inspirations like the blues and classic 60s psychedelic rock.
"The production of the last record was a little bit too cheery for my taste," Atkins says. "It was really lush and pretty and this time I wanted to deconstruct the sound a little bit. With everything that was going on, and because of the subject matter, I knew I needed something more aggressive."
Through it was undeniably painful, Atkins is strikingly pragmatic about her relationship's end, describing the breakup as "dark and sad and sexy, rather than bitter and pissed." As such, songs like "You Were The Devil" and "War Is Hell" (featuring counterpoint vocals from My Morning Jacket's Jim James) display a deep range of emotional feedback, with Atkins bravely taking ownership of her own role in the scenario.
"I don't think any of these songs are mean," she says. "I feel like they're putting blame on both people, rather than just 'You're a jerk.' It's more of a passive/aggressive apology letter for me being crazy too."
As for her separation with her label, Atkins explains simply, "I knew where I was going with the record so I said, 'Look, if you don't hear it, I hear it, so just let me go.'" One happy by-product came from an A&R rep's suggestion that Atkins team up with another songwriter in an effort to craft a mainstream hit. The idea, while misbegotten, struck a chord and Atkins entered into collaboration with one of her all-time favorite tunesmiths, Robert Harrison of Austin, Texas' psych-pop legends Cotton Mather and Future Clouds & Radar. The two came together after Atkins waxed effusive about Harrison in an Austin Chronicle interview. Moved by what he'd read in his local paper, Harrison reached out to Atkins via MySpace and a fast friendship was formed, resulting in two of Mondo Amore's standout tracks: "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Hotel Plaster."
"Writing music by yourself can be a pretty lonely thing," Atkins says. "Working with Robert was like having a musical friend to rant about your life with and then jam. He was almost living my life with me, helping me try to make sense of everything. It was cool for both of us because neither of us had ever written with somebody else before. I'm pretty sure I'm going to write songs with him until we're both really old."
The loose collective of musicians who assisted Atkins on Mondo Amore has now morphed into a leaner, meaner backing combo, now dubbed The Black Sea. Comprising Yalkowsky, Kay and drummer Ezra Oklan, the band has given Atkins still more reason to be enthused about her future.
"This is the best lineup I've ever played with," she says. "It feels like a family, like a band of brothers and sisters.
With that in mind, Nicole Atkins & The Black Sea is planning to do "a ridiculous amount of touring." An inveterate road warrior, Atkins is eager to adapt the finely crafted songs of Mondo Amore for the in-your-face directness of live performance.
"This band is really into it, almost as much as I am," she says. "We're trying to figure out how to work these songs for a trio, with me just singing. Trying to make the biggest sound possible with the least amount of people."
As its all-encompassing title suggests, Mondo Amore is a big, bold collection, a grandly romantic song cycle fraught with all the passion, anger, tenderness, and devotion of Atkins' own extraordinary heart.
"It's so much love," she agrees, "it's borderline obsessive."