SALT LAKE CITY — Singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins has a name for the person she'd become whenever she got drunk: Rhonda Lee.
A bowling name-turned-alter ego, Lee was loud and in control.
And Atkins decided she needed to go.
"You get to a certain age, and you start to realize that certain habits and ways of life don’t really serve you anymore,” Atkins told the Deseret News. “I just wanted to wake up in the morning and feel good about the things that I do, and feel good about my job and my family and all of these things. I noticed that drinking was kind of keeping me in this constant state of getting out of the hangover. And it was keeping me from doing the work I really wanted to do, so I decided to just change that and see what happened. It freed up a lot of spots in my brain to enjoy what I do again.”
This change in Atkins’ life led to the release of her fourth album, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,” earlier this year in which she puts Lee and her self-destructive habits to rest. Atkins performs at the State Room in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 14.
A lyric from the album’s title track, which was co-written by roots-rocker Chris Isaak, states that “change don’t come easily.” And for Atkins, that certainly reflects the difficult process of reaching sobriety.
“It was something that kind of took me many years,” said Atkins, a New Jersey native. “It was a lot of like, 'I can do this! No I can’t. Yeah, I can do this. Nah, let’s have one drink.’ Getting sober is very complicated, and a lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you just stop drinking?' Well yeah, tell anybody that has an issue with it how easy it is for people that don’t have an issue with it. I didn't really think I’d be able to get it, but you just keep trying and it happened.”
Getting to collaborate with Isaak on the album was a high point for Atkins. The two first met in 2007 when Atkins released her debut album, the more indie-pop driven “Neptune City,” and Isaak gave Atkins her first three tours as his opening act.
Fast forward to when Atkins is a host for SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s The Spectrum and gets a chance to interview Isaak. The two hadn’t seen each other for seven years, but in their reconnection, Isaak encouraged Atkins to showcase her voice more and invited her out to San Fransisco for a songwriting session.
Atkins jumped at the opportunity, even though she didn’t really have the money to fly out to California — she ended up opening a credit card just to charge the airline ticket. But the gamble proved worth it. While in San Francisco, not only did Isaak give Atkins direction and inspiration for her new album, co-writing the opening track "A Little Crazy," but he also let Atkins try on a couple of his famous bright pink and bright blue-sequined suits, something she'd always wanted to do. Their collaboration on "A Little Crazy," which is about a relationship gone wrong, channels Roy Orbison and features raw emotion that sets the tone for the rest of “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” In all, Atkins said the album took around three years to write.
“I took a lot of time to write it, and I was going through that whole ‘Who am I?’ kind of stage and having a lot of dreams where other people were on the radio singing the type of music that I always loved the most,” she said. “I’d get really angry because it’s like, ‘Why am I not doing the things that I like the most — this kind of ‘50s-crooner-rock meets soul music?' My other records, I loved them, but they were always at the mercy of who I was working with. I just wanted to make a record that sounded like what we sound like live. I just basically wanted to stop messing around.”
And much to her surprise, she did.
“I really didn’t think that I’d be able to pull it off until I pulled it off,” Atkins said. “The whole time I was writing I was like, ‘This is not a ‘50s-crooner-pop-soul record’ until my husband walked into the living room one day when I was listening back to all the demos and he said, ‘You did it!’”
Now, Atkins has taken the music that’s true to her soul out on the road, and she hopes that people in Salt Lake City will take to it. As an album that chronicles life changes and transformation, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” manifests a variety of emotions that Atkins hopes will resonate with audiences.
“People are dancing and singing at the top of their lungs and then they’re crying,” Atkins said. “So it’s a safe space to let all of your emotions out, which is pretty cool. It’s almost kind of like how emo shows used to be but more like for adults. Basically, this is a public version of your shower so feel free to sing and dance and cry.”
If you go
What: Nicole Atkins
When: Thursday, Dec. 14, 8 p.m.
Where: The State Room, 638 S. State
How much: $18