With her throaty vibrato and lush pop orchestrations contributing to a self-professed "pop noir" sound, Nicole Atkins made her full-length debut in 2007 with Neptune City. She ventured into blues and psychedelia on the 2011 follow-up, Mondo Amore, and her first appearance on the Billboard 200 came courtesy of her eclectic third album, 2014's Slow Phaser. In 2017, Goodnight Rhonda Lee committed to a strong retro demeanor that she maintained on her fifth long-player, 2020's Italian Ice. It was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with members of the classic Rhythm Section.
Atkins was raised in Neptune, New Jersey, and relocated to North Carolina during her late teens to study illustration at UNC Charlotte. After befriending members of the Avett Brothers and logging several years with the alt-country band Los Parasols, she briefly returned to the tri-state area, where a series of open-mike performances in Manhattan's East Village helped her hone a sound that was more indebted to pop music than her work with Los Parasols.
The singer and songwriter spent the following years traveling between North Carolina and the Northeast, eventually settling in New Jersey at her parents' house. Performances in New York City helped her attract the attention of several local musicians, and she began piecing together a backing band comprising guitarist Dave Hollinghurst, bassist John Flaugher, drummer Dan Mintzer, and keyboardist Daniel Chen. Operating under the name Nicole Atkins & the Sea, the band secured a residency at Piano's — a popular nightspot in the Lower East Side — and struck a deal with Columbia Records on the strength of Atkins' demo recordings and impressive performances. She released the Bleeding Diamonds EP in 2006, and the group decamped to Sweden later that year to work on a full album. The resulting Neptune City arrived in late 2007, followed by an EP of cover material in 2008.
After lending her vocal talents to A.C. Newman's album Get Guilty, Atkins went through a period of transition during the making of her second album. She parted ways with her original backing band, broke up with her longtime boyfriend, and found herself at odds with Columbia. As a result, Mondo Amore wasn't released until early 2011 (via Razor & Tie), and it found Atkins exploring new influences, including blues and vintage psychedelia. She toured extensively in support of Mondo Amore, playing shows for close to a year, and then began work on a third album, writing material with producer and percussionist Jim Sclavunos. In 2012, Atkins' home in New Jersey was hit by Hurricane Sandy; she was in Memphis when the storm battered the East Coast but was still left temporarily stranded. Word of her troubles got back to Tore Johansson, a producer and musician who had worked on Neptune City, and he invited her to join him at his residential studio in Sweden. There, Atkins sorted through the lyric ideas and song fragments she'd stored in her iPhone and fashioned them into an album, the ambitious and eclectic Slow Phaser. Rather than deal with yet another record company, Atkins opted to release Slow Phaser through her own label, Oh Mercy! Records, financing the project through a successful crowdfunding campaign. The album arrived in January 2014.
Atkins eventually signed to the Florence, Alabama-based Single Lock Records for her fourth studio album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee. Recorded in Fort Worth, Texas, with production trio Niles City Sound (Leon Bridges), it reached number 18 on Billboard's Independent Albums chart and number 21 on the Americana/folk chart upon its release in 2017. Doubling down on its retro approach, she recorded her next album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, with guests including Spooner Oldham and David Hood of the classic Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Other artists appearing on 2020's Italian Ice included members of the Dap-Kings, the Bad Seeds, and the Avett Brothers as well as John Paul White and Spoon's Britt Daniel. ~ Andrew Leahey & Marcy Donelson