- Great Possesion
“Call Me the Witch” by Cotton Mather with Nicole Atkins
I See Dead People
Last Christmas at her annual Christmas caroling party, my friend Jenifer Jackson made me promise that I wouldn’t “tell everybody about the songs.” She said, “I want to have my own experience with the songs Robert, just talk about the readings” – and I took her advice. I don’t like songwriters telling me what their songs are about. And so I haven’t. But there will be a few exceptions, because otherwise the song in question will have no apparent connection to the reading.
A few years ago I was contacted by a wonderful singer, Nicole Atkins, who told me she was a Cotton Mather fan and thought we should co-write some songs for her upcoming record. I checked out her music, was really knocked out, and said yes. I wanted to have a few things in progress when she arrived but didn’t know where to begin. George Reiff and I listened to her music together and he suggested I might be able to furnish something for her that her music had yet to capture. He asked me, “what do you want to hear that voice sing?” So I did something I’d never tried before embarking on a song…I consulted the I Ching.
The reading I received was 14. Great Possession. The specific portion I was pointed to spoke of understanding ones greatest gifts and making the most of them. So I asked myself George’s question and realized what I wanted to hear “that voice” do was shoot out the lights with a Lulu, or a Connie Francis-type number, one that would hearken back to the great brassy divas of the 1960’s, but in a contemporary soundscape. And in so doing I could create a different sort of musical persona for her, and re-introduce her as it were. But if my job was to make the song “about her”, as Great Possession implied, I needed to know more about her.
So I emailed Nicole and asked for biographical details, “tell me all about herself” and so forth. What I got back was a charming but fairly standard litany of woes from a young artist whose life was beset with relationship trouble and touring headaches. Then, remarkably, at the end was a P.S. which read…”By the way, I think I can see dead people in my hometown. Ghosts… pretty crazy right?” So I wrote back and said, “Tell me about the ghosts,” and we were off to the races.
I was on tour at the time, but stayed up late one night after a gig, sitting in the bathtub of the Kansas motel room my whole band was sharing (the room not the bathtub), and wrote most of the song. When she came to Austin the following week, she helped me out with a few details about her home town, Asbury Park, New Jersey. Then we wrote the bridge lyrics together.
“Out in the rain I saw the face of Stephen Crane, and he said to me…” were her lines. Then she looked at me and said, “What would he say”? And we answered at the same time… “Thanks for the memories”! My favorite line.
Ultimately Nicole decided the songs I had written with her and my silent partner (the I Ching) didn’t fit with the other material on her new record. But she had no objection when I asked if she minded me taking the acoustic guitar and vocal demos we cut to completion with our Cotton Mather/Future Clouds team. There are some great musicians on these tracks and the songs were so fun to make. I’m proud to share with the world, “Call Me The Witch.”
Performed by Nicole Atkins, RH, George Reiff, Conrad Choucroun, Jon Sanchez, Jason Garcia. Recorded and produced by RH and Lars Goransson. Mastered by Bob Ohlsson.
Written by Robert Harrison and Nicole Atkins