February 20, 2011

Album Review: Aretha Franklin - The Great American Songbook

If all Aretha Franklin ever recorded were the sorts of songs represented on The Great American Songbook, which highlights her relatively brief tenure at Columbia Records prior to her groundbreaking run at Atlantic Records, she would still have etched her legend as one of the all-time greats.

Signed to Columbia in 1960 by John Hammond, Franklin was groomed in the mold of a jazz-disposed balladeer, interpreting standards and other comparably mainstream fare of the day, all of which called more for restraint and nuance than spontaneity or grit. Such secular material presented a marked contrast from the vibrant gospel roots of her upbringing. And yet throughout this newly released retrospective—a precursor to the forthcoming, twelve-disc set, Take A Look: Complete On Columbia (scheduled for release on March 22)—Franklin enlivens what are for the most part lush, orchestral arrangements with considerable verve, conviction and, yes, soul.

Highlights include soft, entrancing renditions of “Skylark” and “My Little Brown Book” as well as the zestful blues of “Trouble in Mind,” yet it's Franklin's versatility which most comes across. It's what gives her performances credibility, whether she's crooning all suave and sultry or bringing some back-to-church fervor to an otherwise innocuous tune. And though manifested in much different contexts, that same versatility has sustained and inspired her in the years and decades since.

Once at Atlantic Records, Franklin was well-served by gentleman like label president Ahmet Ertegun, producer Jerry Wexler, and engineer Tom Dowd, who recognized her potential and, more to the point, how to best accommodate her innate talent. That said, the recordings on The Great American Songbook reveal an emerging artist on the threshold of her sweet spot, engaging a variety of styles while, perhaps unwittingly, seeking out how to best express her creative voice.

February 09, 2011

An Interview with Nicole Atkins

After a near-four-year stretch of setbacks, false starts, and irreconcilable differences both professional and personal, singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins is back in a big way this week with her sophomore LP, Mondo Amore.

On this, the follow-up her 2007 debut, Neptune City, she paints a canvas of kaleidoscopic rockers (“You Come to Me,” “This is For Love”), sentimental weepers (“Hotel Plaster,” “War is Hell”), and honky-tonk redeemers (“My Baby Don't Lie,” “Cry Cry Cry”) that altogether illuminates some rather dark and forsaken themes.

As Atkins explains, “Even though this record is really, really personal, it’s surrounded by a lot of music and lyrics that help either build up the story into something way bigger than it was or, in certain songs, turn a story into something completely different from what it really is. It’s more of a surrealist’s approach to heartbreak.”

How have you evolved as a songwriter since your first album?

I love the songs on that first record, but I feel like now—and I don’t know if it’s more of an age thing—it’s a lot less self-conscious. It took me a long time to write a song back then. There’d be little snippets of ideas and then sometimes a whole song would come, but then months would pass or weeks would pass... It’s really only been since the summer that songs have been coming out of nowhere. It isn’t something that I do sometimes; it’s something that I do all the time. It’s more so a part of me rather than something I do, or can do.

I used to get really neurotic about the style of the song, like, “This song needs to be this style,” or “This needs to be this.” Now I’m kind of appreciating the fact that every day I write a different type of song, but I know that I can spin it into a way that sounds exactly like me. That song, “My Baby Don’t Lie,” I almost didn’t put that on the album. I was like, “This is so traditional, country, almost kind of Zydeco,” but now I’m so thankful I put that song on there because it’s one of my favorite ones. I’m learning more so [that] everything I’m making is because it’s a part of me so I shouldn’t really censor it.

While you’re struggling through something in your life, does writing about it become more difficult at the time? Do you have to wait until that’s over to gain some perspective?

I was writing out about it probably for a year before it shit the bed. [Laughs] I’ve always found that writing about harder things is easier for me. The happier things are harder for me [to write about]. It’s harder to make cool songs out of happiness because most of the time it ends up sounding cheesy. Writing this record was hard, but lyrically it was easier because I’m more attracted to going to the darker places lyrically. I feel like you can get a much prettier, more haunting landscape from the sadder things in life. It was more of a hard situation trying to play it and to record it when all you want to do is get drunk and cry. Making this record definitely saved me from getting drunk and crying every day.

Right, because it’s hard enough sometimes just to get through certain circumstances, but then to have to document it all… How do you even muster the concentration to do that?

It’s not really something you think about. It’s just something you do. Being a songwriter, you write about what’s going on in your life, especially when you’re a songwriter writing for yourself. If I were somebody like a Nashville writer writing songs for other people I could say, “Well, let’s pick a subject and write about it.” But I do this as a way of documenting my life.

When you look back at these songs, do they make sense to you still in the context you wrote them? How do you relate to them?

They do [make sense] in an historical sense now. But time has passed and the things that I wrote about, they’re definitely in my past now. So it’s more like I’m just as much a spectator as somebody going to one of my shows hearing the songs.

So you're not sitting backstage before a show, thinking, Damn, I have to go through this again?

No. In a way, it’s kind of fun to play the role up there. Now that I’m in a spot in my life where I’m pretty stable and happy and independent and having fun again, it’s kind of fun to play that role of the dramatic, couch-fainting girl.

Do you then have to revisit those emotions when playing them live?

I do, but as a singer—even singing somebody else’s song; if I were to sing “Unchained Melody” or a Roy Orbison song—I would access the emotion of what is being sung about, and that’s how I would sing it. I’m doing the same thing with my own songs. Those feelings are something I experienced and they will always be a part of me. It’ll never go away.