Suggest to Nicole Atkins that the songs on her forthcoming debut album "Neptune City" (Columbia) are sweepingly symphonic in a way that seems practically an anachronism — if not recklessly over the top — and she beams in acknowledgment. "I'm overly dramatic and really annoying and loud and big," the singer-songwriter says. "There was no other way to do it but super-epic. You listen to Roy Orbison or Neil Diamond, and there's so many things going on. It's so dramatic, but it's so fun."
Ms. Atkins, an unreconstructed Jersey girl who titled the disc in honor of her hometown, has cause for exuberance. Major labels don't usually go for her brand of boardwalk rock, which may have sounded more timely in the early 1960s or mid-'70s, when Jersey heroes Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith staked their claims on New York City's scrappy rock scene. But after years of knocking around in various creative guises, the 28-year-old performer is bringing it all back home.
Three years ago, after writing a batch of odd songs whose dark longing she was struggling to decode, Ms. Atkins hooked up with her friend David Muller, who was playing drums with art-rock veterans Fischerspooner. He had access to the group's rehearsal space in the basement of the Deitch Projects gallery, and little else. "Instead of using drums, we had a bag full of broken light bulbs," Ms. Atkins said. "Alright. Smash!"
The demo caught ears at Roadrunner Records, a metal-oriented label. But before she could sign, then-Columbia executive Steve Greenberg caught Ms. Atkins at a showcase and made her a deal. The next thing she knew, a producer named Tore Johansson was on the phone. "He's like, ‘You know how children and dolls are really creepy but beautiful?" Ms. Atkins said, mimicking an austere Swedish accent. "‘I want to make really creepy, sad, and strange music with you.' And I'm thinking, ‘Get me to Sweden! This guy speaks my language. He's way weird.'"
As she spoke, rapidly and with Italian-American flourish, Ms. Atkins perched in a window seat at Café Pick-Me-Up on Avenue A, wearing the dark dress with a red bow below the neckline that is her signature outfit. Even though she just arrived from a photo shoot, she is very much in pre-fame mode. She still lives at home with her mother while she awaits the stardom that can pay her $500 a month for rent.
"My car has 248,000 miles on it," she said, then joked about running into friends during her brief breaks from touring. "I'm like, ‘Dude, it's not what you think it is. You have to buy me dinner still.'"
Ms. Atkins has made other records — the kind that are sold on MySpace — but the chance to work in a real studio was a thrill. "When we made the demo, we used like 20 layers of Casio keyboards for fake clarinet, so that was the idea of signing with a major label, because they can get me a string section."
Boy, did they ever. Though "Neptune City" is primarily about Ms. Atkins's voice, it vaults upward from a full proscenium. Each song begins with an instant of aural combustion that feels something like the pleasurable disorientation of an orchestra tuning up before the curtain rises: a discordant tangle of strings, an unsettling percussive rumble, a second-long inhalation of breath. And then, swoop! The drama booms, and Ms. Atkins is emoting in the footlights. The feelings were very real.
"We were in the middle of nowhere in the Swedish winter," she said. "It gets dark at 2 p.m. every day, raining and hailing. Tor was going through a breakup and was depressed, the string arranger was depressed. We were so pathetic. We delved into the dark sounds. That's how we felt and it was the only thing that made us feel better. We called it ‘the Dark Side of the Moan.' I thought I was on the brink of dying. I never liked New Jersey winters. After the tourists leave it's sad. But New Jersey seemed like Barbados when I got back."
Ms. Atkins jokes that fate gifted her "a man voice," yet it's the deep, throaty resonance that propels her singing into the Orbisonian realm — at once urgent and dreamy. Her childhood idol, though, was Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, a pioneer of the high-register cry. "I had a shrine and I used to pray to him to make me not suck," she said. "It was a picture of him I drew with a sharpie marker and it had Christmas lights around it — and guitar picks. I was also obsessed with the Sundays. I always wanted a voice like Harriet Wheeler's. There's two dimensions to my voice. There's ‘Thelma,' which is today, and when I drink and smoke the night before [she drops into froggy lower register]. She can whip your ass at pool and bowling and eats pork sandwiches." Ms. Atkins pauses to laugh, and affects an airy, tea party tone. "Then there's ‘Thea,' when I'm being well-behaved."
Not that there's much chance of that, as Ms. Atkins embarks on a cross-country tour opening for the Swedish all-girl band the Long Blondes. She's a woman on a mission.
"Search the dial for what I need to know," she sings over a crisp backbeat on her album's opener, "Maybe Tonight." "They don't play those songs on my radio." It's a lament.
"Music on the radio has sucked for so long and now finally people are sick of it," she said. "And now there's no more radio. And there's no more music videos. Look what they did. They made it so bad, now it's like we don't sell albums, we sell ring tones. Whatever happened to fidelity and making things sound good?
"I never tried out for ‘American Idol,'" she continued. "Even though I needed the money, and my dad was like, ‘I'll give you a grand if you go try out.' And I was like, Wilco will never want to tour with me if I'm on ‘American Idol.' Never mind the fame or money thing, you don't want to f--- up your relationship with the music you love."
Ms. Atkins will perform Wednesday at Luna Lounge in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "Neptune City" will be released July 24.