Touching Base: How Nicole Atkins Rode Out 2020 With Variety Show Hosting, Bingo Calling And Visual Art

WNXP asked Nashville artists who released new music during the pandemic year what it was like to put their music out into a world on pause. We wanted to hear how they coped and stayed connected, and how they’re handling the return to live shows. 

Most of the Touching Base series was recorded remotely, but Nicole Atkins and her bass player Spencer Duncan came into WNXP’s studio to talk in-person. At that point, they were gearing up to play a couple of long-delayed release shows for Italian Ice, the album that Atkins released last year. She told me about her innovative plans for a two-night, pool party blow-out at the Dive Motel, and how she stayed busy during the pandemic, creating a virtual variety show, hosting Patreon hangs and making art.

Celia Gregory: So how hard was it to share a record in 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic? 

Nicole Atkins: We were on our way to go on tour and had the van packed and then unpacked the van. I just thought about all the boys in my band going home. I started this variety show up in my attic, where my husband’s a sound guy, my neighbor’s a camera guy. All I knew, all of my friends that were in bands couldn’t say “no” to being a special guest, because they weren’t doing anything. It became this really fun thing to do every week. That’s how we were able to make the album still happen. Italian Ice is a summertime record, so it had to come out in the summer. I just figured if everybody’s home and freaked out, they might as well have a record to escape to. 

CG: How have your priorities changed since then? 

NA: We’ve definitely learned to appreciate downtime. You know, thinking of an album release as a more fluid thing than, “OK, it’s this chunk of time that you have to get everything done.” Songs can have really long lives. You don’t have to put so much expectation into them doing immediately what you think they should do. A good song is a good song forever.

I started at Patreon right before we were supposed to go on tour, just because I figured it’s expensive to take a full band out on the road. I do visual art, too. I’m an illustrator. So I was like, “This could be a good way to have a little art club and make a little money on the side.” Then the pandemic started. It’s called “Natkins Funhouse.” And it just morphed into this Internet club where we played bingo and talked about what we were all doing — all these people in different countries and what was going on where they live. So it was a really cool thing. 

CG: You carved out a community that you didn’t even know you would need so much. 

NA: Totally! I got as much or maybe more out of it than they did, probably. A lot of the people on it, I have no idea what they look like, but I feel like I know them. We we just did our first week out of shows and a lot of people came up to the merch booth and they’re like, “It’s me from the funhouse.” And I was just like, “Oh my God, Toby, what’s up?” It means a lot.

But the week before we left for tour, I had a full blown panic attack. I was pretty upbeat throughout the whole pandemic, just because a lot of really hard things happened. I lost some family members, and I don’t have the luxury, really, of stewing in negative feelings, because it just takes me a long time to come back from those feelings. So I’m like, “OK, what’s next? Let’s do things!” And then the week before we left for tour, my hands were trembling. I’m like, “What is this?” And then I just did some breath exercises and got over it. And then once we got out on the road, it was like, “OK, yes, this is fine.” But it was weird. It’s been a year sitting in my house drawing pictures.

CG:  Lots of art consumption and, it sounds like, art creation in the past year. What have you all been listening to? What’s some of the music that got you through, whether it was released last year or whether you had old creature comforts, old faves that you were spinning?

NA: In the beginning of the pandemic I would listen to ESG and I would blast it from my porch and all my neighbors would be like, “Yeah!” When the sun started going down every night, I just played “Dance” from ESG. 

Spencer Duncan: I was listening to a lot of Charlie Parker and The Damned. So I got into a Damned rabbit hole for about six months. 

NA: And I’ve been writing new songs about The Damned. 

SD: Really? Yo don’t tell me nothin’!

NA: Yeah, I have a new song about my go-go dancing friend Anna Cabana, “Anna Copacabana Shook it off to The Damned.” I write a lot of songs in my dreams, and I think that when things are stressful I have really colorful dreams. When I was having that panic attack, I heard it. Courtney Barnett and I were going to meet the guy that invented the first light bulb for vanity mirrors for vaudeville. And she was singing me a song. And then I woke up and I was like, “Oh, wait, that’s my song, because it was my dream,” and I wrote it down. 

CG: So have you texted her to be like, “We have a duet coming out, because you were in my dream”? 

NA: I did! I was like, “I had a dream. You were singing this song. Then I wrote it down.” She’s like, “I can’t believe you can remember that stuff.” But half the songs that make it on my record are dream songs. 

CG: That’s a gift. 

NA: Yeah, it’s kind of awesome. And that’s why I tell my husband, if I’m sleeping, I’m working.