Before heading back into the studio to record her forthcoming album, Nicole Atkins packed up her guitars, her record collection and the rest of her apartment in Brooklyn and moved back in with her parents in Shark River Hills, New Jersey, about two months ago. Her three guitars found a new spot downstairs in the basement of the house she grew up in, and Atkins lugged one of the boxes of records upstairs to her bedroom. When word got around that a terrible storm was gunning for the East Coast last week, the singer-songwriter called home to check in with her folks only to hear the worst: the roads were flooding, the winds had revved up to 80 miles-per-hour gusts and the house next door was burning to the ground.
Her family evacuated and made it to her grandparents’ place in nearby Neptune City, but Atkins’ home — with her guitars, records and family photos tucked away in storage — was one of the many along the Jersey Shore that was mercilessly ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
“My mom, God bless her, they’re stripping the whole downstairs to the nail studs right now, but she took all my photos and just started peeling them apart and laying them out on the top floor to dry as soon as she got back in there,” said Atkins before heading into the studio in Memphis last night. “She took my records out of their sleeves and laid them out on the porch to dry. As far as the guitars go, I do have them insured, so I can get new guitars, but with everything that’s happening, I kind of don’t give a shit about my guitars, you know? It’s just so surreal. The hardest thing is that I’ve only been able to talk to my parents twice since [Hurricane Sandy]. My parents kept saying ‘Please Nicole, don’t come home. It’s overwhelming here. Stay there.’ And I can’t. I can’t just stay there when this is happening to my family and my neighbors and my friends. Every place that we grew up going to on the shore is just ripped apart or gone. I’m coming home anyway.”
Today, Atkins returns to New Jersey, where Shark River Hills and its neighboring towns have served as first her stomping ground and later on as her muse. “Neptune City,” the lead-off single and title track of her 2007 debut, was named for the borough across the river from her hometown, and it’s the song she re-recorded last night in support of the Shore.
“It’s weird; I keep thinking about ‘Neptune City,’ and it seems really, really creepy now,” she says. Given the lyrics –“I used to love it/ It used to be pretty /I’ll come down, walk around awhile/ Until I’m sure I can never go home again”– it’s easy to see why. Still, its eerily appropriate with its pervasive melancholy and spectral airs, and Atkins is looking forward to repurposing the hit for the sake of Shark River Hills. “I talked to Columbia, and they’re going to let me re-record the song, and all of the proceeds from the downloads are going to go to the relief efforts in my town.”
Atkins supports Rebuild Recover, a fundraising effort helmed by local nonprofit Move for Hunger and Sounds To Go, a DJ and entertainment services company. She’s also working on coordinating some PSAs for Rebuild Recover that feature other recording artists, including Mick Fleetwood and longtime friend Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers. The Avetts Brothers, who were college friends of Atkins’, crashed frequently at her parents’ house, as she booked their New York and New Jersey dates for years. “I spoke briefly with them [about the storm],” she said, “and they were like, ‘Aw, man! The couch! Did the couch get ruined?!’ The couch downstairs at my parents’ house is epic; so many bands have slept on it.”
Though the devastation extends far beyond her family’s living room and the decimated streets of the cities that have shaped her, Atkins is heading back east to do what she can to bring comfort and strength to Shark River Hills, Neptune City and the other towns of the Jersey Shore that she proudly calls home. And not only is she going home again, to “Neptune City”– she’s going home, and she’s going to help rebuild it.