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How Getting Sober Helped Nicole Atkins Find Her Voice

Photo by Shervin Lainez

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How Getting Sober Helped Nicole Atkins Find Her Voice

Nicole Atkins had to get sober to make her latest and most critically acclaimed album, Goodnight Ronda Lee. The indie singer, songwriter and Nashville transplant’s latest project is unlike anything she’s ever done before. “I wanted to meld soul and Roy Orbison crooner-rock together,” she tells me as we drink coffee at Cafe Volan in Asbury Park; her old stomping grounds.

But before making the record — a soaring send-off to her drinking alter-ego, “Ronda Lee” — Atkins had to go on an important emotional journey. Back in 2013, she was struggling with life in her home state of New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy. The storm was a harrowing experience that destroyed the first floor of her parents’ Asbury Park home and left the singer grappling with the idea of impermanence. Her drinking escalated. “As soon as [Sandy] happened, I couldn’t drink without blacking out. It was like PTSD,” she admits. “I saw my dad age 10 years in one year, just dealing with his house.”

Atkins was also newly married and recording her 2014 hit album Slow Phaser at the time. “I was making a record with Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds, and it was something I’d been wanting to do for so long,” she says. But even making the record of her dreams wasn’t making her happy.  “I noticed I was constantly drinking and nothing I was doing was fun. I was going through life in this fog. And after we were done recording that record, I knew I needed to make a change. And I thought, let me try to quit drinking.”

Meanwhile, her father was diagnosed with cancer. “He was in surgery the day I went to rehab,” she explains. “But it was actually a godsend. I would always have nightmares about my dad getting sick or dying, and a friend of mine was like ‘Nicole, you drink too much, and you freak out too much about every little thing. What are you going to do when something real happens?’’’

She pauses for a moment to reflect. “This time, something real had happened and I was like, thank god I’m not drinking right now! My thinking shifted and I was able to be there for him. That gave me comfort, being able to help him. I didn’t think about myself for once.”

Unfortunately, long-term sobriety wasn’t quite so simple. Like many people trying to overcome addiction, Atkins experienced starts and stops. As her father went into remission, she and her husband decided to move to Nashville to pursue a new lifestyle in October 2015. “All of our music friends lived in Nashville. So we were like ‘why don’t we move somewhere where we can make friends together?’”

Atkins immediately began working on her album, but the adjustment to life in Nashville proved difficult, sending her on a rollercoaster with her sobriety. “When we moved, my husband went out on tour and then I was meeting all these new people, but I was sober. And then I wasn’t sober,” she quips, letting out a morbid chuckle. “And I just kept diving back and forth. I was writing music the whole time, but my relapses just kept getting worse and worse.”

“After a while being back and forth [with sobriety], I got it together. I made a decision: both feet in the boat. It was shitty and hard, but after a while,” she takes a pause to knock on the wood table we’re sitting at, “it was like a switch-flip where I stopped craving it.”

Shedding herself of her Ronda Lee persona wasn’t easy for Atkins. The gregarious and fast-talking Jersey girl had been partying hard for decades, and she quietly feared what life would look like on the other side of sobriety. Thankfully, in her new, clearer state, her world came alive. “At first I was like, ‘I wonder if I’ll be able to enjoy concerts anymore,’” she reveals. “But then I went to see LCD Soundsystem and danced my ass off. Even more than I used to! I’ve become the big weirdo I was when I was six.”

The rediscovery of her inner child has given Atkins a new lease on life. I ask if her creative process has changed, and she nods vigorously. “When I first started writing music, I was writing in this lucid state. I was like semi-drunk and riding this inspiration wave,” she explains. “And now, I have all this space in my brain to access that wave whenever I want. It’s really cool.”

Clearly, her new outlook and lifestyle have paid off. Goodnight Ronda Lee was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, not to mention emotional responses from fans. “People are really getting it and loving it,” she gushes. “I have people coming up to me and telling me about their lives!”

Despite her progress, it’s a constant struggle for Atkins to fight the demons and keep her addiction at bay. “Even when you stop drinking, the alcoholism is always there,” she says somberly. “It’s that thing that tells you when you’re little that your parents don’t love you or that your friends hate you. It’s this weird little creature that wants you dead and sad.”

Goodnight Ronda Lee reckons with the difficulty of facing those demons in a way Atkins has never been able to touch on before. “A lot of the songs deal with self-doubt and thinking everybody hates you,” she shares. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine anyone hating Atkins. After spending just forty-five minutes with her, I fall headlong into her easy charm and find myself wishing we could be close, lifelong friends. Still, she hits on the crux of the critical demon within all of us: it lies.

“The one thing that has really helped me with my inner critic is work; building these things that you can be proud of,” Atkins says reflectively. “It’s my way of giving the finger to my inner critic.”

When I ask her if she has any advice for her younger self, she doesn’t hesitate, even for a moment: “No one is thinking about you. Everybody is thinking about themselves.”

It’s an apt lesson from someone who’s been there and written the album to prove it.

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