[Feature] Becoming Nancy Atlas

Nancy. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

In her entertaining take on the phrase “rock star” for The New York Times, writer Carina Chicano talks about its evolving usage in popular culture. Back in the day, rock star literally referred to a “charismatic god who fronted a world-famous band, sold millions of records and headlined stadium concerts where people were trampled in frenzies of cult-like fervor.” Today, it’s tossed out like air kisses at a rosé tasting. A celebrity chef is a rock star. A great code writer is a rock star. Hey, you’re pretty awesome at what you do—you’re probably a rock star, too!

Nancy Atlas is a rock star. And not just because Chad Smith, the rock star drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers said so (which he did). Not just because she’s inspired cult-like fervor in her fans (which she has). And not because she’s partied ‘til four, gotten up and taken care of business (that too). It’s a deeper, more nuanced package in the case of Nancy Atlas. Singer, songwriter, band-leader, wife, mother, homemaker, clam digger, beach plum picker, and surfer. A “local legend,” check.

For over 20 years, Atlas has played every type of venue. From Montauk to New York City and events large and small around the country. She’s performed with Joan Osborne in front of thousands and in front of two drunks at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. She and the band, the Nancy Atlas Project, have played over 400 gigs at Stephen Talkhouse alone. Her Wednesday shows at the Surf Lodge have garnered a cult-like following. Four years ago, she brought the band to Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and created “The Fireside Sessions.” Shows featured a rotating lineup of world-class guest musicians. Three-time Fireside guest, trombonist Clark Gayton, said of Atlas, “I’ve played for years with Springsteen and Sting, and Nancy has something about her that reminds me of them.” She’s sold out 22 “Fireside Sessions,” in the middle of winter, including three blizzards.

Over the years she’s opened, followed or played with Jimmy Buffett, Bon Jovi, Paul Simon, Jeff Buckley, De La Soul, The Roots, Leon Russell, Chad Smith, Taylor Hawkins and Lucinda Williams, to name-drop a few. Talkhouse impresario Peter Honerkamp is emphatic, “Nancy is as great an artist as has ever emerged from the East End. She has a commanding stage presence and an uncanny ability to connect with an audience.”

You’ve Got a Friend

Atlas has performed solo and with her band at countless benefit shows. From the Wounded Warrior Project to victims of fire and natural disaster to neighbors in need, she’s helped raise over $2 million, without taking a dollar. Most recently, Nancy played at a benefit and raised $30,000 for baby Sully Forbes in Montauk, who has a rare form of eye cancer. “This will help the family take time off to be with him while he undergoes treatment. My husband Thomas also performed with his band. Montauk is truly unique in that the core of the community really looks after each other.” (Add to file under rock star.)

It All Started When…

She was born Nancy Elizabeth Veprek in Huntington, Long Island, to Louis and Maureen Veprek. Nancy was the youngest of four. Her father worked as an aerospace engineer, mother the head provost secretary at Stony Brook University. As Nancy tells it, Louis had “a fishing addiction.” Every summer they would get a slot at Hither Hills State Park, and that’s where the family was camped. By the time she was seven, they’d bought a little fishing shack in Lazy Point. No TV. No phone. No baby sitters. A fishing pole or clam rake in hand at all times. (This would become an invaluable experience at a later point.) Back in Commack, she was taking piano lessons, writing songs and performing in talent shows. “I was Commack’s Debbie Gibson wannabe! And trust me, I had the hair!”

Foreshadowing. Photo courtesy of Nancy Atlas

Foreshadowing. Photo courtesy of Nancy Atlas

An extended period of restless creative pursuit began with university abroad, first at Cambridge then, after dropping out, at Richmond International College in Surrey, England, where she fell madly in love. “Then I got my heart crushed, and just felt I’d hit a wall.” It was at that point Atlas took a year off to go to Italy. An aspiring artist, she’d discovered that Richmond had a satellite school in Florence and decided to finish university in the “home” of Renaissance art. “I’d paint at night, stroll the Uffizi Museum by day, wear scarves, drink cappuccino, read Ayn Rand…and still be a miserable 19-year-old!”

Back in London, before graduation, she took an existential walk to Portobello Road and bought her first guitar. “Not that I had the money, but it was something I’d always wanted to learn.” She taught herself with a Mel Bay book and playing along with Van Morrison records, Tom Petty, and others. “I had two chords under my belt, began writing songs and playing Tracey Chapman’s “Sorry” and “Beast of Burden” at parties. I’d found my true love.” After graduating early with a degree in Art History and Fine Arts, it was time to go home—back to the Island.

But Atlas’ restless spirit was reignited when a friend, Matt Fiddler, suggested a possibility: his sister in New Orleans was leaving the country for four months and needed someone to cat-sit, rent free. She’d have to be there in two days. She jumped at the chance. “I packed my small Tascam 8, two microphones, a crap pair of monitors and drove straight through with my guitar riding shotgun. It was a beat up Mazda pickup with a sign in the window: ‘MY LAST NAME IS GOTTI, DON’T TOUCH MY SH*T’.”

Atlas arrived with a sprained jaw from puking Hurricanes in her friend’s hotel room the night before. ‘I sang like Sylvester Stallone—one side of my mouth paralyzed. But when they passed the hat, I had $19 dollars!’

She considers this chapter “my post-graduate degree.” Her temporary home on Cherry Street put Atlas at the doorstep of a hundred bars and clubs and directly in the heart of this music mecca—zydeco, blues, Southern rock…“I loved The Meters, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Lucinda Williams…” (Years later, Williams would send Atlas a note: “Just wanted to let you know I’ve been listening to your CD. You’ve got a hell of a voice! You’re a rocker girl and not afraid to scratch below the surface with lyrics. Keep it up.”) She played every open mic she could find, including the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. Her very first paying gig happened on Ash Wednesday after a night of revelry on Fat Tuesday. Atlas arrived with a sprained jaw from puking Hurricanes in her friend’s hotel room the night before. “I sang like Sylvester Stallone—one side of my mouth paralyzed. But when they passed the hat, I had $19 dollars!”

“If you want a Friday night, start a band.”

By the time the cat-sitting stint was over Atlas had realized that making and playing music was more than a dream—it was what she had to do. That meant waiting tables at the Corner Bar in Sag Harbor and taking gigs where she could find them. When asked how Nancy Veprek became ‘Nancy Atlas,’ she reminded me of the Ayn Rand moment in Florence. Of course, Atlas Shrugged. “I wanted a strong name. Something people would remember. So I tried out ‘Atlas’ in New Orleans, and it stuck. Believe me; my friends gave me ample shit for it!”

Following one of her Talkhouse shows, Honerkamp took her aside and said, “Nancy, if you want a Friday night, start a band.” After a few false starts, Atlas got together with Johnny Blood and Brett King, players she’d met at open mics. Finally, The Nancy Atlas Project came into being—a full-on rhythm section capable of kicking her alt southern rock and roadhouse blues originals into a whole other gear.

Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

The Nancy Atlas Project. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

It’s no small feat for even the most successful band to stay together. Legendary stadium punks Green Day have had four different drummers. Not surprising, then, that Atlas would hold her bandmates in high esteem. Johnny Blood handles lead guitar duties and vocals. He’s also a songwriter. “Genius,” she proclaims. “Johnny is one of the best guitar players, anywhere.” Brett King drives the rhythm on bass. “He can lay it down straight then bring these gorgeous melodic bass parts.” Richard Rosch is on drums, background vocals as well. His timing and power have been compared to Max Weinberg’s of the E Street Band (he’d probably deny it). Neil “Surreal” Thomas handles keyboards, harmonica, accordion and vocals. “When we’re rocking some blues or zydeco Neil gets to the soul of the matter. There’s genuine love in our band, and I know the audience feels it—we put it all on the table. Every time.”

What Doesn’t Kill You…

Atlas has a clear-eyed memory of the early days before the rooms were filled and before a three-hour set was even conceivable. Waitressing from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m., showering, changing, driving three hours to the City to play a gig at Mercury Lounge, driving back, crashing hard and getting up early again to put on the apron. “There were times I was waitressing with bleeding mascara from the night before. I was offered $80K a year to run a restaurant, which meant 70-100 hour workweeks and no option to play. I walked away, but it wasn’t easy pulling shifts and asking how people wanted their hamburger cooked!”

It looked like a corner was about to be turned when, in 2001, Atlas was invited to be one of the “subjects” of the ABC documentary The Hamptons. She’d be in good company, after all; stars included Alec Baldwin, Christie Brinkley, Jerry Seinfeld, Russell Simmons. The yellow brick road at last! But in early 2002, after eight years pursuing the dream—and nearly broke—she considered giving up. The Hamptons had received middling reviews and the “locals” hated its focus on the pretensions of the monied class, not the real working people on the East End—the farmers, fishermen, tradespeople and artists. Still, many felt the segments featuring Atlas were the most honest. “I didn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t. The cameras followed me around for weeks, on stage and off. Jeans, t-shirt, beach, rocking out with the band. I guess somehow it came off okay.”

Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

Nancy. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

The day after her “it’s over” moment, Atlas received an envelope in the mail from ABC. Inside was a check for $13,000.00 and a note thanking her for her participation in The Hamptons. “I went outside and cried,” she recalls. “I literally thought it was a sign. I was being told to keep going.” Following the airing of the documentary, her fan base exploded, another “sign.”

“Our first date, he took me to Ecuador.”

Thomas Muse and Nancy Atlas met and became friends at a time when both were engaged—to other people. He was tall, good looking, a successful landscape designer, surfer. Just friends. And then they were both single again, no longer engaged. “One miserable winter night, after a show, Thomas came up to me and said, ‘I will take you and your friends Kate and Lori to Ecuador for two weeks. You have five seconds to decide.’ Before he got to ‘three,’ I said ‘YES!’ That was our first date.”

Ecuador was the unofficial start of their courtship. They were married in 2004. When asked how marriage and kids and performing and songwriting all work together, Atlas shrugs (sorry). “Thomas and I are not like yin and yang—we are very much the same person. We both have very full plates and we both respect our need to create. He’s a landscape designer, a builder, a blue ocean activist and an artist, with his own band, Jettykoon. But when we take downtime it’s all about family. He truly is my best friend. I thank God every day for him and for our three kids, Cash, Levon and Tallulah, for what we have, no matter how insane it can get!”

The Race to Release the Album

These days, pressure in the Atlas world is reaching another level as she and Blood race to complete the new album at Blood’s studio in Springs. One of the songs is a soulful shanty called “The Tale Of Johnny Load” whose lyrics tell the story of a Montauk fisherman named John Aldridge (nicknamed ‘Johnny Load’) who, in 2014, fell overboard in the middle of the night and survived at sea for 13 hours. That’s the short version. The extraordinary survival and search saga will be told in a book titled Speck In The Sea from Weinstein Books, slated for publication in May; it’s also optioned for a film by Miramax.

Atlas spent a year writing the song, working closely with Chad Smith (RHCP) and Blood to nail the ‘feel.’ (It was recorded and mixed by Grammy Award winner Cynthia Daniels at her Monk Music Studios in East Hampton.) Every song on the album will get the same attention, amid the chaos of this artist’s life. “I’m a tornado most days—writing lyrics on brown paper IGA bags, then picking up my three-year-old from pre-school at 11:30 sharp! I go into the basement at night to record vocals into ProTools while the kids are sleeping.”

Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

“Cut and Run” out now. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

The album is called “Cut And Run,” a nautical phrase dating to the 1700s—if a storm was coming fast, cut the anchor and run for it. It’s the culmination of six years of writing, during which she gave birth to two kids. Atlas has learned that Speck In The Sea will open and close with the lyrics from “Johnny Load.”

‘Cause the ocean’s your mother

Your bitch and your lover

And nobody gets to ride free…

It’s a roll of the dice

If She’ll let you survive

So bow down boys to the Queen (c. Nancy Atlas 2016)

A packed Stephen Talkhouse is swaying, singing along to the soulful shanty. It somehow feels they’re singing about the girl on stage as much as the fisherman lost in the sea.

Check out Nancy’s new album, upcoming summer gigs and more over at her + the band’s website, www.nancyatlas.com. Thank you, Nancy.

Editor’s note: Need to apologize to Ken Grille for the improper photo credit on his photo of Nancy + Taylor Hawkins published in print. Sorry, Ken!