Let’s get one question out of the way before we go any further: Who is Rhonda Lee?
The fourth and newest album by Nicole Atkins — the Jersey songstress with towering vocal chops and the pop smarts as a writer and performer to put them to expert use — is titled “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” Alright then, who in creation is Rhonda Lee?
Ah, but there’s the key. It turns out that’s exactly what Rhonda Lee is: a creation. She is, in effect, Atkins’ fictitiously evil twin — the character who acts with unapologetic recklessness. She is, if you will, a trouble child.
“She’s the girl who always has a little too much,” said Atkins, who makes her Lexington debut on Thursday (the night before the release date for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”) at The Burl.
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“You know when you have a friend that drinks too much and you give them a different name? That’s what’s she’s like. In my family, it’s when they tell me, ‘Oh, we’re having dinner tonight. Don’t bring Rhonda Lee.’”
Turns out, though, Rhonda Lee was making her presence quite known in Atkins’ life long before she was immortalized in song. Even as the singer was rewarded with a new and happy marriage as well as a move from her longstanding New Jersey/New York roots to Nashville, she was duking it out something fierce with her uneasy alter ego. Specifically, she was battling for sobriety on top of dealing with news that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
I feel that this is the album that taught me how to be a good songwriter.
On top of all that, she was facing an everyday artistic dilemma — maintaining a career that had been gathering momentum since the release of her debut album “Neptune City” a decade ago. Fueling such mounting visibility was a vocal charge that regularly summoned the spirits of pop giants like Roy Orbison and encompassed inspirations of vintage pop, soul and country but with a literary flair all her own.
“I was under the delusion that it mattered to keep putting things out and moving fast — you know, the fear that things could go away if I didn’t keep moving. But for this record, I really just wanted to take my time until every song was a song that I wanted to hear, a song that told a story about my life. I feel that this is the album that taught me how to be a good songwriter.
“I’ve always been really connected to that big crooner type of singing — you know, Roy Orbison or Jay Black, that kind of stuff, as well as classic country, soul music and rock music in the 1968 kind of vein. I didn’t think it was possible for me to make a record that combined those things. It wasn’t until three years had past and I had moved, gotten married and went through rehab that I kept saying, ‘I wish I could just move forward.’ Then, while sitting and listening to the 16 songs I whittled down from maybe 100, my husband popped into the room and said, ‘You did it, babe.’ I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got your soul record.’ It’s funny because sometimes I can’t see when things are done until somebody else steps in and tells me.”
Among the heroes in Atkins’ corner during writing sessions for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” was veteran rock and pop stylist Chris Isaak. Longtime friends and touring mates, the two collaborated on one of the true gems of “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,’ the epically orchestrated and ultra Orbison-esque “A Little Crazy.”
“Chris was, like, ‘Your voice has this special thing that I don’t think you utilize enough. It’s kind of your superpower.’ When we were having burgers for lunch, I came up with this chorus that was kind of Righteous Brothers-ey. Then I was like, ‘Well, what do I write it about? I’m happily married now.’ Chris said, ‘Remember that horrible relationship you had when we were touring together? You got anything from that?’ I thought, ‘I have a lifetime of stuff from that.’
“I remember having an old boyfriend saying to me, ‘You know what your problem is? You’re defined by your music.’ Well, okay. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m absolutely defined by that. It’s my life, no matter what happens. I won’t stop doing this until I can’t physically do it anymore. There’s no Plan B.”
If you go
Opening: Joslyn and the Sweet Compression
When: 8 p.m. July 20
Where: The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.
Tickets: $8, $10