Nicole Atkins Talks Songs of the Summer

From Led Zeppelin to R.E.M. to Broncho, a good song of the summer evokes both a sense of anticipation and a nostalgia for the recent past.

Every summer, there’s that song — the song that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll forever associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2015, and to kick it all off, we asked Nicole Atkins, an excellent songwriter, for her thoughts about what makes an ideal song of the summer.
— the editors of the Talkhouse


A perfect summer song evokes a feeling of romance and anticipation. It’s the kind of song that, while you’re singing it under the hot summer sun, you’re also counting down the possibilities that the nighttime holds. It makes you feel like anything can happen.

I find that most of the songs that become my summer jams deal with traveling, driving, moving, nighttime, night swimming, the moon. Weather also comes up a lot, as does trying to figure out how to get someone to be yours. Musically, a lot of these songs have in common a pulsing single-note bass line, staccato vocals on the choruses, real piano and, most of the time, tremolo guitar. Lots of fuzz and buzz. There’s also a healthy dash of melancholia.

Maybe the melancholia thing is why, for my personal anthem for the season, I’ve always gravitated to songs that signify the end of summer, almost like an end-credits of everything that happened on that particular holiday that year. I guess I’ve always had an easier time looking back than looking forward. There’s a certain sort of music that has always helped me make sense of the summer by turning its events into a romantic music video in my head.

It all started for me when I was 13 and had just graduated from eighth grade. It was the summer before high school, and that meant that it was the first summer I was allowed to go to the beach and the boardwalk, at Avon-by-the-Sea in New Jersey, without parental supervision. But it wasn’t like this “holy shit, let’s fucking go insane!” thing. It was more like my own private Wonder Years situation. I was a ’90s kid listening to music from the ’60s and ’70s, finally getting a more flexible curfew and praying to god that I was someone’s Winnie Cooper.

As a graduation present, my older brothers put their money together and bought me the cassette version of the Led Zeppelin boxed set as a gift. I wore that thing out, day after day. Riding my bike to the beach. Trying to smoke cigarettes behind the pizza place. Having crush after crush on the kids with accents from New York City on their summer holiday. It was freedom. We felt older, smarter; we had nothing but time to kill.

At the end of the summer when everyone was packing up their rentals and heading back to the city, I was in my room listening to Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” all of the scenes from that summer playing over in my mind, covered in a pre-Instagram Valencia filter. Jimmy Page’s hazy melancholic guitar work sounded like the beach looked. The bendy riff at the end of the intro seemed to say, “Remember this.”

All of the adventure and experiences and the romance of new friends were going by, play-by-play, in slow motion through my head in time with every swell and crescendo. The song made me feel nostalgic for a time that I was experiencing at that very moment. It was like the end scene of my first great life movie. There were even times the following winter when I would want to go back to that feeling. I’d sit under a lamp with my eyes closed with that song on repeat and just pretend I was living it all over again.

So much time has passed since the summer of ’92, but I find that most of the songs that I would consider my “summer jam” fill me with that same romance and longing that “The Rain Song” did back then. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t sound exactly like that song. They’re the same in the way that they give me the feeling that I’m looking at my own life through a Super 8 camera — a trip to the beach and all the drama that ensued, or a feeling of missing someone or something even when they’re right there in front of you.

Here are a few other examples of my summer songs or, rather, my end of summer songs. Nineteen ninety-three was the first summer I had real high school best friends, and we would sneak out in the middle of the night and swim in the ocean and sing “Nightswimming” by R.E.M. at the top of our lungs. “The Golden Age” by Beck (2002) was my song of the summer while I was driving all of my stuff from New Jersey to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to become a singer after my Australian boyfriend got deported. More recently, last year’s “Class Historian” from Broncho has become a staple in the tour van as we set off on our trips this summer, filled with anticipation.

Shoot, now I’m just realizing that Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” (1976) was one of these songs too. I would drive home along Ocean Avenue when the sun was just coming up after night-swimming with friends, and that song would come on the classic-rock radio station and leave me crying tears of joy as my summer movie ran in my mind.

A good summer song fills me with the possibility that anything could happen, while keeping a part of my soul blissfully rooted in the past.

Nicole Atkins is an Asbury Park, NJ-based rock singer, songwriter, producer and comic illustrator. She also dabbles in the dark arts. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram