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First Play: Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee

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Andrea Gin

It’s not easy to figure out which category to file Nicole Atkins under.

The singer-songwriter and gifted vocalist has been variously described as "vintage soul," or "classic pop" or “sunny, laid-back blues rock.” Her music is filed under “alternative folk” in iTunes. When you hear the opening strains of the album you’ll understand why.

It starts off in vintage ballad territory with “A Little Crazy,” edges into soul by the second song, “Darkness Falls So Quiet,” slides into country on the title track and then grooves its way to retro-pop near the end with “Sleepwalking.”

Goodnight Rhonda Lee was recorded at Fort Worth, Texas's Niles City Sound using the same team that collaborated on Leon Bridges’ debut album, including his backing band. Atkins recorded the whole thing in five days, live to tape. As a result, the album sounds warm, fresh and pleasingly imperfect.

“We spoke the same language,” she says of Niles City Sound. “We wanted to make something classic, something that had an atmosphere and a mood of romance and triumph and strength and soul.”

The mash-up of sounds is still a bit of a departure from Atkins's previous effort, 2014’s blues and psychedelic-tinged Slow Phaser. It’s also the result of some soul-searching she did after deciding to stop drinking alcohol and finding out that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. In the midst of all this, she also decided to relocate from her hometown of Ashbury Park, N.J., to Nashville, Tenn., where she slowly found happiness in making music again.

“This record came to me at a time of deep transition,” she says, via press release. “Some days were good, some not so good. What I did gain, though, from starting to make some changes and going inward, and putting it out on the table, was a joy in what I do again. Joy in the process and a newfound confidence that I don’t think I’ve ever had until now.”

Her renewed outlook on life can be heard on the first song Atkins wrote for the album, “Listen Up,” a pep talk to herself about learning from past mistakes.

Goodnight Rhonda Lee will be out on July 21 via Single Lock Records. You can pre-order it here.