Kentucky-born cellist and composer Ben Sollee likes to keep moving. He kicked off 2014 with the release of his score for the documentary film Maidentrip. In March, he performed at Carnegie Hall as part of a tribute to Paul Simon. Throughout April and May, he was out supporting song-writer William Fitzsimmons. This September, he toured for two weeks in Europe and returned to the United States to perform with the Charlotte Ballet. If you’ve seen him perform, you know it’s not to missed. For listeners just discovering Ben’s music, you’ll find that there’s a lot more to it than just songs.
To borrow a phrase from heaven’s new poet laureate, Leonard Cohen, Nicole Atkins was “born with the gift of a golden voice.” But somewhere along the way she misplaced it. Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the story of Nicole finding her voice, and how, in doing so, she went a little crazy.
Great Art is born of struggle and Nicole was struggling. The problem was that she felt nothing. Her fans responded to her performances with the same fervor they always had, but Nicole felt nothing. Her new husband loved her and doted on her, but she felt nothing. She traced it back to her drinking and decided to try to learn to live without booze. But that first day of sobriety brought with it an unexpected additional test — Nicole’s dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. This Jersey girl, whose big voice was tethered to a big heart, and whose reaction to the mundane setbacks of everyday life had always been equally overblown, suddenly faced a real problem. “It toughened me up,” she says.
And the songs started to come. Little bursts of therapeutic creativity. Thorny feelings transubstantiated into melodies. Beginning with “Listen Up,” a wake-up call to a lucky girl who hadn’t realized how lucky she’d been, Nicole started to find her redemption in these songs. They rang true in a way no songs ever had before. They came from a deep, vulnerable place. If Nicole had been living an unexamined life, she wasn’t anymore.
She needed her newfound toughness though, as in the midst of all this turmoil, she prepared to move from her native Asbury Park to Nashville. Having spent more than a decade as the de facto queen of Asbury, Nicole was finally leaving the warm, but often stifling confines of her hometown. During one of her final nights before the exodus, a song came to her in a dream. “I Love Living Here Even When I Don’t” summed up the complicated feelings she experienced as she said goodbye to the only real home she’d ever known.
In Nashville, Nicole’s once hectic life was very different. Left home alone as her tour manager husband plied his trade out on the road, Nicole found herself writing songs that examined “feelings of separation and being scared of new surroundings.” In particular, the songs “Sleepwalking” and “Darkness Falls” echo like ghosts through an empty house.
Unsurprisingly, her sobriety faltered. She drifted in and out of it. Nicole knew the wagon was good for her, but she had a hard time staying focused on what was good for her. As it went on however, the clarity of those sober days started to shine through. And she was able to string them together in longer stretches. For the first time, she was able to offer a shoulder for others to lean on, rather than always being the one in need of a shoulder. It helped that she had to be strong for herself in order to be strong for her dad. Much of what she was feeling was painful, but it beat the hell out of feeling nothing.
She reconnected with her old friend Chris Isaak who encouraged her, in the midst of all the soul-searching and soul-baring, to write songs that emphasized the one trait that most sets her apart from the mere mortals of the industry, telling her, “Atkins, you have a very special thing in your voice that a lot of people can’t or don’t do. You need to stop shying away from that thing and let people hear it.” To that end, the two of them collaborated on Goodnight Rhonda Lee‘s standout track, the instant classic, “A Little Crazy.”
Great Art is a journey — and Nicole Atkins traveled quite a distance to bring us Goodnight Rhonda Lee. As Nicole explains it, “This record came to me at a time of deep transition. Some days were good, some not so good. What I did gain, though, from starting to make some changes and going inward, and putting it out on the table, was a joy in what I do again. Joy in the process and a newfound confidence that I don’t think I’ve ever had until now. The album title, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, also came from those feelings. Rhonda Lee was kind of my alias for bad behavior, and it was time to put that persona to bed.“
The direction in which these songs were headed was obvious. Nicole’s voice had always recalled a classic vinyl collection. She is the heir to the legacy of “Roy Orbison, Lee Hazelwood, Sinatra, Aretha, Carole King, Candi Staton.” She is untethered to decade or movement or the whim of the hipster elite.
In order to capture the timelessness she sought, Nicole enlisted a modern day Wrecking Crew: Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, TX, who had just risen to national acclaim as Leon Bridges‘ secret weapon. “We spoke the same language. We wanted to make something classic, something that had an atmosphere and a mood of romance and triumph and strength and soul.” The album was recorded in five days, live to tape. The album that Nicole and the boys came up with in those five days, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, is nothing less than Great Art and a quantum leap forward for Nicole Atkins who, no matter how much she grows up, will always be a little crazy.
The Wild Reeds
The Wild Reeds' sound is highlighted by the interweaving vocal harmonies of three phenomenally talented front-women - Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva and Mackenzie Howe - who swap lead vocal duties and shuffle between an array of acoustic and electric instruments throughout the set. They are backed by a rhythm section of Nick Jones (drums) and Nick Phakpiseth (bass).
Each with their own style, The Wild Reeds' three songwriters make music that is dynamic and unpredictable. They write lyrics and melodies with the thoughtfulness of seasoned folk artists, and perform with the reckless enthusiasm of a young punk band in a garage. Warm acoustic songs and harmonium pump organ seamlessly give way to fuzzed-out shredding and guitar distortion.
With the upcoming release of 'The World We Built' on April 7, the Los Angeles-based quintet continues a national breakthrough that has been rapidly growing since the release of their EP 'Best Wishes' this summer. NPR Music critic Bob Boilen championed the band, saying "great singers aren't easy to come by, so finding three in one band is something special." The New York Times praised their live show, saying "the communal experience was amazing," while KCRW (Los Angeles) called them "top-notch vocalists."
The first single from the new album, "Only Songs," is catching the attention of radio programmers around the country, like John Richards of KEXP (Seattle), who after listening to the track declared, "we just decided this is the best song ever."
"Only Songs" was written by Howe, and highlights her rock-centric approach, inspired by the '60s and '70s rock songs her mother raised her on. "It's about the feeling that music gives you," she told NPR in an interview. "There's a freedom in music found nowhere else and it doesn't discriminate, it's in the garage and the cathedral."
Lee penned the second song on the album, "Fall To Sleep," a lament to her own mental health under the strains of both a nine-to-five job and the extremes of a touring musician's life. True to her roots in folk music, it begins on a soft note, as a dreamy acoustic ballad, before taking a slightly darker turn, breaking into distorted guitar parts and a Pixies-esque chorus.
Silva's contemplative, complex lyrical approach is best represented on the anthemic standout track "Capable." When asked to describe her songwriting style, she explains, "lately, my songs have been like stories with high highs and low lows - sort of like yelling at someone and then whispering an apology."
Despite their distinct viewpoints, each songwriter complements the next, with each song building on the anticipation created by the last. "What brings us together is the three part vocal harmony," says Howe. "When we're all singing together, it really becomes one unique voice."
The band takes a humble approach to their recent success. "I think that when you write earnestly and honestly, people will relate," says Silva. "But there are lots of bands who do that and don't receive any attention, so I think any success we've had must just be pure luck."
When watching them perform live, it quickly becomes obvious that luck has nothing to do with it. Each of The Wild Reeds is more than talented enough to front their own band, but when all three are singing at once in harmony, their music reaches its emotional apex.
"I don't think that we have figured out how to detach from our emotions yet. We take it all on stage. The voice is such a personal and vulnerable instrument," says Lee. "We aren't as concerned with sounding 'pretty' as we are with sounding real. Everything we do is very raw and I think that's why people tend to find comradery in our lyrics."
Recreating that feeling in a studio environment is an ambitious task. Recorded by producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol, Local Natives) at Tarquin Studios in Connecticut, 'The World We Built' captures it perfectly, and elevates their sound to a whole new level.
"Our sound has evolved as we have evolved as people. We've grown to love a lot of records on the road, sharing music with each other during the hours we spend in the van, which has broadened and united our taste," says Howe. "We've also grown as musicians and it's allowed us to explore new instruments and sounds. This new record is a much more accurate depiction of what we sound like live. It's got more punch and depth."
Along with musical growth, the content of their songwriting has changed with the band's life experiences since they started out. "The songs on the album were written over the last three years, and it's apparent that we are more empowered now as women," says Howe. "The title 'The World We Built' refers to the social constructs we've had to face during the last three years touring as a female fronted band. A lot of these songs illustrate our disillusionment with the myths we've been taught in a patriarchal society, and how we've experienced them in different aspects of our lives - love, success, self esteem, etc."
"As we got older and started to witness the world from a different perspective, we started to write about human issues in a different light," explains Lee. "It's so easy to write about love when you're young because that's the only thing you have to worry about. Now we have a lot of other things in life to occupy our thoughts and songwriting, like experiencing the struggle and exhaustion from following your dream, coming of age, and doubt."
"Releasing music and touring the country have been amazing and eye-opening experiences," says Silva. "I'm still majorly pumped and grateful that I get to play music for people every day."
That optimism resonates with audiences. When they perform live, their passion is infectious. They look like artists living out their dream on stage - the kind of band you idolized as a kid, and as an adult, the kind of band that reminds you why you loved music in the first place.
"Our live show has been how we've gained most of our fans. We've learned that people are just looking for authenticity. If we're vulnerable, people feel it," says Howe. "We always want to put on a show that has energy and leaves peoples feeling more hopeful than when they arrived."
'The World We Built' will be released April 7 via Dualtone Records, an Entertainment One company.