Nicole Atkins Premieres 'Darkness Falls So Quiet' From 'Goodnight Rhonda Lee': Exclusive

Anna Webber
Nicole Atkins

In the midst of recovery from alcoholism a couple of years ago, Nicole Atkins met a music industry cohort who offered a bit of career guidance.

"He listened to some of my stuff and was like, 'Darling, you're a soul singer. I don't know why you're messing around with this indie rock bullshit,'" Atkins tells Billboard. "I never figured my stuff to be indie rock bullshit; I figured it was kind of retro. But that was always kind of in my head when I started doing this."

"This" is Atkins' fourth album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, which comes out July 21 (pre-order available here) and features the track "Darkness Falls So Quiet," premiering exclusively below. The 11-track set, recorded during a four-day session in Forth Worth, Texas, with the Niles City Sound team (Leon Bridges), indeed adopts a more soulful flavor than Atkins' previous work, a transition that came naturally.

"My shows always sounded bigger and more emotional on stage than (the songs) did on record," Atkins acknowledges. "When somebody says, 'OK, write a soul record,' I thought I was going to write a bunch of stuff that sounded classic 60s-by-numbers. I was nervous about it coming off like that. But once it started I realized I was able to incorporate all the other things I like in my past writing into just, like, a more focused kind of style."

"Darkness Falls So Quiet" was, in fact, one of the eureka songs for Atkins in that process. "I had the song forever and I really liked the words and the melody of it but I hated the style that it was in, this kind of like Americana thing," she recalls. But working on a demo with Binky Griptite from the Dap-Kings and Joe Russo and Scott Metzger of Joe Russo's Almost Dead helped find a new path for the song. "I had heard this Bobby Blue Bland song and I just started singing my song to his song and I was like, 'Holy shit! This'll totally work!' So we just got together in a room and put a groove to it, and once we flipped it to an R&B groove in the rehearsal space it immediately gave it the left side of old soul vibe I was looking for on this record as a whole. It was the first track that turned out this way, and it created a map for the rest of the songs on the album."

Niles City Sound, meanwhile, proved to be a perfect place to pursue that direction with Robert Ellis guesting as a session player. "It's the best recording experience I've had," says Atkins, who worked with the production trio to knock a set of 25 songs down to 14 for recording. "We got together in the morning and we just started right in and recorded from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day, rarely breaking for food and cigarettes, and everything was done in four days. Every time we would lock in on a groove it just clicked right away and moved very fast. It was just so fun."

Lyrically, Goodnight Rhonda Lee -- whose title references her "drunk alter ego" -- reflects Atkins' life experiences during the past couple of years, which in addition to recovery also included moving from Asbury Park, NJ. "My life is kind of all over all of my songs, but I was able to go deeper into stories in my life with this record and was able to fear no more and talk about things more," says Atkins, who starts touring to support the album on July 21 at the W.C. Handy Music Festival in Florence, Ala. "A reason I decided to stop drinking in the first place was I couldn’t create anything. I didn't want to write, I didn't want to journal, I didn't want to sing but I still had to do all those things, and I hated being in a place where music was something I had to do. I knew that was false. But even as soon as I got my first two weeks sober, everything started to come back."