Nicole Atkins knows style. I knew it from the moment she stepped on stage wearing a cape at Atlanta’s The EARL a couple years ago. A cape. But, apart from her killer style and the birth of my ongoing cape quest, I’ve never seen a room fall quite that silent. All eyes were on Atkins, and she killed it.
Atkins released her third LP Slow Phaser in February of 2014 on her own label Oh’Mercy! Records, and has only continued to grow since. What marked a new era for the New Jersey singer-songwriter, the album put her on the road with everyone from The Avett Brothers to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It seems she found her voice with Slow Phaser, and her style.
Empowering and feminine with psych-powered rock ‘n’ roll vibes, Atkins unearths style inspiration from everything around her, including Alejandro Jodorowsky flicks and French femme fatale.
“That’s my daily uniform, it makes me feel like I can just be French and steal a car,” Atkins said, laughing. “My stage outfits are usually flowy and able to make me look about 2’ taller and, like, a foot and a half wider on either side just so I can be bigger than everybody else.”
And with loose fabrics and statement shapes lining her closet, not to mention a voice that captures a rowdy room, there’s no doubt she can be. In our new edition of Style Record, we caught up with Atkins during her time home from tour. With a broken furnace in a snowy Asbury Park, N.J., Atkins sat on the other end, content with a plate of eggs and barbecue sauce, the sauce part of she and her husband’s tour loot from Memphis, Tenn. Now, how rock ‘n’ roll is that?
Photo by Bleddyn Butcher
Paste: How has your style changed since you first started performing?
Nicole Atkins: I guess the common theme that it’s kept throughout is the whole, you know, I really like ‘60s dresses and psychedelic types of dresses that look like they were worn by maybe Janis Joplin or Grace Slick. Maybe two years ago, I started getting into prog rock, and I just loved how Peter Gabriel wore costumes on stage and would make his body into different shapes that were really big. Around the same time as that, I saw the movie El Topo from Alejandro Jodorowsky. There was a woman in it, the woman in black, and she looked like this beautiful Spanish psych rock gunslinger. I found a couple of capes and I also found these big kind of muumuu dresses that were able to make me seem bigger on stage, so, when I moved around, I could actually make shapes. I guess it went from wearing small little ‘60s kind of shifts just to trying to make myself as big as possible on stage.
Paste: You put a lot into your live performances, making them theatrical. You even say on your website, “I’m going to wear a cape and shoot lasers out of my hands.” What do you think makes a good stage outfit?
Atkins: I think that anything that you put on that kind of makes you feel protected, and a little bit taller than you look in your normal life. I don’t think I’ll ever play an official show in jeans just because jeans is what I wear during the day. I feel like, you know, when people go to work, they put on their uniform, and, when I go to work, it’s a show, so I should put my uniform on. I have this one Lindsey Thornburg—I don’t want to call it a muumuu because that sounds really Boca Raton old lady, but it’s like this kaftan, I guess—it has a totem pole on it, so, when I put that on, I feel like I’m 7’5” and can cast spells, for good!
Paste: How does your on-stage style differ from your off-stage style?
Atkins: If I actually leave the house [laughs], I pretty much wear the same thing—just a black turtleneck, black jeans and a black short leather jacket, and a beret. It’s kind of a Patty Hearst type thing. That’s my daily uniform, it makes me feel like I can just be French and steal a car. My stage outfits are usually flowy and able to make me look about 2’ taller and, like, a foot and a half wider on either side just so I can be bigger than everybody else. And anything that catches the light—I like wearing the sheer kaftan so the lights go through it. I feel like a lot of it has to do with hair, too. I want to make my hair as big as possible.
Paste: I thought of that when you mentioned Grace Slick—you guys have very similar haircuts.
Atkins: Yeah, I always go with the picture of her, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop when I go get my hair cut. I’m like, “okay, do this.” I feel like, too, with the hair, it’s the bigger you can make it. I try to make my hair look like a lion on stage, it’s like the more protected I am.
Photo by Lucia Holm
Paste: Shifting gears, tell me about how your recent partnership with Free People came about, which is awesome, by the way.
Atkins: It is awesome! I love them, I love them so much. Well, my publicist talked to them and they were like, “oh my god, we want to get involved with her.” Also, my best friend Jillian Taylor—she’s in a metal band called Ruby the Hatchet, and she’s also a designer for Free People. I think she designs their jackets right now, and, so, last year at SXSW, we did a little video shoot for them of one of my songs called “It’s Only Chemistry” wearing the clothes. It was me, her and then my friend Alana Amram, who’s a country singer. So it was like three friends who’s music sounds nothing alike, really, but we’re all buds and I think they thought that my aesthetic connected with theirs pretty well. I just love it, too, how the dresses that they sent for this were influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky. They had two dresses—one was called The Holy Mountain the other one was called The El Topo, so I was just like, “this is perfect!” It took the brainwork out of it for me.
Paste: Speaking of ‘70s style and capes, I remember when I first met you, you were wearing an awesome Samantha Pleet cape.
Atkins: Yeah, I still wear that pretty much everyday.
Photo by Free People
Paste: And I still want that.
Atkins: I know! She has new ones on her website now and they’re cool, too—they have hoods.
Paste: Cool! I like how yours is long in the back. It’s so dramatic.
Atkins: Yeah, I need to keep it long in the back. I’m a pear-shaped lady. That’s the thing, you can use the shapes of clothing to make you have the body that you want without having to beat yourself up about not having it in the first place. That’s why I love designers like Samantha Pleet. She makes clothing that’s just made so well for people with all different body shapes. You don’t just have to be like 7’ tall and no hips. Also, Anna Sui—Anna Sui is the first designer that I just loved and her clothes suit women of all different types.
Photo by Greg Macvean
Paste: Yeah, I remember recently on your Instagram there was a photo of a Anna Sui tunic that was phenomenal.
Atkins: It was the one that I wore on Letterman! Yeah, it’s gorgeous. I put that on, though, and I remember growing up and going to the mall and crying because nothing would fit me because I was like a size 0 up top and then a size 8 on the bottom and being like, “what’s wrong with me?” I was always covering myself up. Then, in college, I met this woman Hope Nicholls, who has a store called Boris and Natasha down in Charlotte. She just had the wackiest and most fun clothes, and she would just be like, “try this on, try this on,” and I’d be like, “no way, this is too tight,” and she’d say, “girl, you got hips, show ‘em.” She just showed me a different way to dress where it wasn’t trying to put on dresses from the mall where, if you have big hips, it must mean that you have big boobs, too.
Paste: Exactly. So where do you like to shop? Does having friends in fashion influence your shopping habits?
Atkins: Well, when you have friends that make beautiful clothes you can always go to them first, and it’s nice just to see what they’re up to, what they’re making. Like I love Samantha Pleet’s new line. It’s all based on Joan of Arc, and I’m like, “that’s so badass!” But I’ve loved these kind of vintage couture wacky old lady stores. There’s this one, Allan & Suzi—they’re in Manhattan, but they used to have a shop in Asbury. They would just have all these old Dior dresses and the Madonna-era Gaultier stuff, and she’d just be like, “honey, come here, try this on, try this on,” and it was stuff I would never put together. I like any shops that are fun and have things that you wouldn’t expect, like Boris and Natasha in Charlotte, I always get excited to go there when I’m passing through there, and Allan & Suzis in New York. And the Anna Sui store when I have money [laughs], which is few and far between. I love looking on Etsy now, too. There’s so much great stuff. I can just type in “cape dresses” and find so many things, or, you know, you could even type in “Jimmy Page occult jacket” and find them. A lot of Internet shopping, yeah.
Paste: And how does touring influence your style?
Atkins: I’ve been touring about 10 years now, and I used to bring so much stuff. Now, I just know that I always wear the same three things. That’s what’s great about these long tunic dresses and the cape, I just have to bring the two of them and the one cape. You know, we’ll take them out every night and they don’t get that smelly for about a month, and they don’t wrinkle. During the day it’s, seriously, if you just bring two pairs of black jeans and two t-shirts and two black turtlenecks, you’re going to be straight for the whole tour. Then l just bring, like, 20 pairs of underwear. As far as hair goes, you just wear a hat everyday and you don’t have to worry about hat head if you get that hair powder. I get the cheap stuff, it’s the Got2b hair powder—we call it hair coke [laughs]. You just rub it in your roots and it makes your hair enormous, so you’ll never have hat head. It’s great stuff, and it’s like 3 bucks.
Paste: Last one—how would you sum up your personal style in a sentence?
Atkins: Old western psychedelic high priestess.