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NPR Arts & Life

Nicole Atkins Embraces Her Mistakes In New Song 'Listen Up'

Nicole Atkins' new album, <em>Goodnight Rhonda Lee</em>, comes out July 21.
Nicole Atkins' new album, <em>Goodnight Rhonda Lee</em>, comes out July 21.

Maybe you know the feeling: You screw up somehow — get embarrassingly tongue-tied in a meeting, trip over your feet in front of someone important, send the wrong text at the wrong time — and your brain won't stop replaying the memory. Instead of laughing it off and learning a lesson, you get stuck reliving the painful moments, to the point where berating yourself for the past prevents you from living in the present. (Or so I hear.)

Nicole Atkins' "Listen Up," the first song she wrote for her upcoming album Goodnight Rhonda Lee (out July 21), is meant as a palliative to this sort of self-paralysis. "I wrote 'Listen Up' as a note to self — to stop beating myself up over bad self-talk and fear and listen to the good advice of others," Atkins tells NPR via email. "It's basically, 'Don't be your own worst enemy. Surround yourself with good people and let them help you.' "

The Nashville-by-way-of-Asbury Park singer makes her point by surrounding her timeless voice with a good groove — a sunny, laid-back blues-rock sound that she calls a "soul-meets- Fraggle-Rock treatment." From the first, Atkins takes herself to task: "Sometimes I feel like I ruined everything," she opens, pulling no punches. But, in keeping with the song's encouraging message, she forgives herself by the end of the chorus, reflecting on what she's learned: "You gotta make mistakes to know / Takes mistakes to grow, and now I know / Gotta listen up." One off-kilter, broken-down bridge later and she's turned the tables with a throaty roar.

Nicole Atkins, <em>Goodnight Rhonda Lee</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Nicole Atkins, <em>Goodnight Rhonda Lee</em>.

In the video for "Listen Up," directed by Tim Duggan, Atkins lies immobilized in a hospital bed, comically forced to watch an America's Funniest Home Videos-style TV program starring herself. Over and over, the on-screen Atkins fails dramatically: She gets beaten up by kids at a circus-themed party, has her wedding dress set on fire and doused with red punch, falls klutzily off a yoga ball ... On and on the parade of mishaps goes, until the convalescent Atkins — neck brace, casts and all — attempts to fight her way to the television set. You can imagine how well that turns out.

Atkins recorded Goodnight Rhonda Lee live to tape at Fort Worth, Texas' Niles City Sound, the studio that also helped lay the soulful foundation for Leon Bridges' debut. Atkins has staked her claim among the new generation of artists calling upon the organic spontaneity that a live, full-band session offers — another way of embracing the little screw-ups that make life interesting.

Goodnight Rhonda Leecomes out July 21 on Single Lock Records. Nicole Atkins is on tour now.

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