By Michael Heller
Nancy Atlas spent her childhood in Commack. The daughter of an avid fisherman, she began coming out to the East End with her family from the time she can remember. Eventually, her family bought a house at Lazy Point when she was 7. “We spent any day off there we could,” she says, laughing. “It was literally 1970’s jump into the station wagon, pee in the mayo jar and head out east.” At 17, she moved to England to attend Cambridge University, where she studied art and art history, with an eye toward a career as a graphic artist in the advertising business.
MH: So after graduating college in the U.K., how did you end up back in the United States?
NA: That was a very rough time… It was 1991, and I came back around the time that O.J. Simpson was being followed, so I had a complete and utter nervous breakdown….I couldn’t process moving back into the United States.
MH: Did you move directly here?
NA: I did. As soon as the option presented itself for me to choose where I would live, it was a no-brainer. I always knew I’d live out here in some capacity. My brother was renting a house right near the Quiet Clam, and that was the first place, but I’ve lived in almost every town: I’ve lived in Southampton, Amagansett, Sag Harbor—for about seven years—Springs, for four years, over by Louse Point…
MH: So what inspired you to pick up a guitar? Did you have any musical background?
NA: I wrote songs from a very early age. My musical education is that I did a year of piano when I was 10, and then I studied 10 years of viola—a lot of people don’t know that—but then I wrote on piano from the time that I was about 11 years old. That was around the era of Debbie Gibson—Remember her? I wasn’t trying to be Debbie Gibson; it just came naturally that I would write my own songs, so there are videos out there, lurking somewhere, of an eighth-grade talent show of me singing a song I wrote with seven girls singing three-part harmony. When I look back, of course I would have been a songwriter. So when I got into high school I was still doing the viola, but I started to take graphic art more seriously, and that was the price it paid: the music kind of veered off a little bit. But I was still known for music, like in high school I was Best Musician—Commack High School, 1989. There’s probably a good photo floating around of that too! (laughs) But I think that when my life choice came, in college and when I was becoming a young adult, I really had to stick to it, and once I picked up a guitar, I knew that I could die for this; I knew that there was a commitment to the music that I didn’t have with the art. There was always an insecurity with the art… I always kind of wasn’t sure, and with music I’m very, very confident; I don’t really write for anyone but myself. And I think as an artist you go through periods where you have to learn how to not write for people again.
MH: So at what point did you realize that playing guitar was the thing?
NA: I was very depressed before I came home—truly depressed, not just sad, but clinically depressed—and I couldn’t find a job, so I decided that I had to do something to get myself out of the funk. So I just went down and bought a used guitar on Portabello Road for 60 quid, and started learning Van Morrison songs and tablature stuff—totally self-taught, and I never looked back. I started going to open mics, and I started writing songs within three weeks of picking up a guitar. It was immediate because I had had that background of the piano from when I was younger. And when I went to the Stephen Talkhouse I think I was playing guitar a total of three months, and a producer said, “Who the hell are you?” (laughs) So I started working with a producer, and got sucked into the many dreams of rock ’n’ roll stardom…and here I am, still going!
MH: So what keeps you here on the East End, when your career may have taken off if you had perhaps moved to a bigger city like L.A. or Nashville?
NA: That’s a very layered question, because the things that keep me here are starting to disappear… and I might disappear. I’m getting tired of a lot of the crap that’s going on in this town right now.
MH: “Right now” notwithstanding, what continues to keep you here?
NA: Well, I don’t mean to be existential, but that depends on your definition of “making it.” Because I feel like I’ve “made it.” I’m a successful songwriter who has a gorgeous house a block from the ocean, a beautiful vintage car and three great kids, and am still doing it. I really don’t mean to nitpick, but people say that to me a lot, like, “Geez, do you ever get upset that you haven’t ‘made it?’” And I’m like, “Well, what’s ‘making it’?” Because is ‘making it’ playing Jones Beach, or having a song on the radio? Would I like that? Sure! Would I love to play Red Rocks and be on tour? Sure! But it’s all relative. I really, truly believe that, and if I really wanted to do that, I’m the type of person that would move to Nashville and see my kids on the weekends—I’m an A-type; I don’t talk about stuff, I get it done. But the raw beauty, the quiet… as an artist I’ve always felt that the East End calls to a certain type of artist, in that it delivers, and I draw off of the raw beauty—that’s the short answer.