It’s the last night of Nicotine Dolls’ headlining tour at Nashville’s Exit/In. Fans – some of whom have traveled from across North America, bearing their favorite Nicotine Dolls’ lyrics as tattoos – are taking in what feels like a defining moment in the band’s career.
At every show, the rising New York rockers deliver performances that are hard to ignore – easily moving from playful, comedic bits (like an impression of Randy Newman performing “Sk8er Boi”) to their ’90s pop/rock punch to the sternum that’s equally painful, cathartic and exciting.
Most of the shows sold out shortly after they were announced, and the audience packing the 500-seat venue hangs on vocalist Sam Cieri’s every word and action – a point proven when he intros the confessional “30 Somehow.” The room goes numbingly silent as he talks about his fears.
“I wrote it and listened back to the demo and were heartbroken and hopeful at the same time,” Cieri tells SPIN backstage ahead of the show. “It’s one of the more honest things we’ve put out. I’m very scared for some people to hear it who are mentioned in the song.”
That vulnerability is part of the appeal. The goosebumps on Cieri’s tattooed forearms are visible when he talks about audiences reacting to “How Do You Love Me,” the deeply personal title track on their upcoming four-song EP. When performed at the band’s shows, the song carries the emotional charge of a defibrillator serving its purpose. When the Nicotine Dolls ramp up to the third verse and Cieri dances through the words “narcissistic paranoia,” the audience is a ball of loud, raw energy.
“It’s me listing everything I believe is wrong with me, so it was a really scary thing to put that out and I love it so much. It’s been overwhelming to stand in a room full of people, who are blowing back the lyrics because they need to,” says Cieri, who’s sunken into a faded brown leather couch; one foot anxiously tapping the floor, the other outstretched and immobilized in a walking boot.
The injury is the result of an otherwise tame round of laser tag before the second-to-last show in Kansas City. If anything, the injury strengthened his determination to wade into the audience and sing with fans who crave the connection as much as he does.
“I’ll hobble my way out there and balance on one foot – it’s too good of a moment,” he says. “The last time we solo-toured like this years ago, there were five to ten people. So, to come out and play these shows, it’s overwhelming.”
There’s also an overwhelming sense of gratitude. But it’s not a line thrown into the audience at the end of the night like a setlist or a used guitar pick.
“We want to create an experience that feels like hanging out at a friend’s house, listening to your favorite songs, and having a good time,” says guitarist John Hays, whose position on the couch, seated next to Cieri, is symbolic of their friendship struck up nearly a decade ago during a national Broadway tour.
It’s that experience and connection that’s helped the band, which in addition to Cieri and Hays, includes bassist John Merritt and drummer Abel Tabares, cultivate a cult-like following while earning the respect of fellow artists whose songs they’ve covered on TikTok.
Tracy Chapman, LeAnn Rimes, Teddy Swims, Gary LeVox, and Tim McGraw have all liked or commented on the posts, with Swims and McGraw both recently posting flattering reaction videos to the covers, and LeVox co-writing a song with Cieri that’s yet to be released.
The draw is in large part due to Cieri’s delivery and willingness to put his “flaws” on display in lyrics written by a guy who seems comfortable poking at his bruises.
At 31, he’s soft-spoken and sometimes goofy but transforms into a charismatic, gravelly-throated powerhouse with the rasp of Bruce Springsteen and the emotion of Lewis Capaldi.
What makes them even more appealing is an impenetrable commitment to their core values. This was tested when Cieri walked away from America’s Got Talent last year— integrity intact — when producers tried to rebrand him as a solo artist. However, he never considered the offer.
“When you do something like AGT and they say ‘we only want you’, they don’t understand – this group blows me out of the water,” he says. “I remember watching Springsteen’s 1975 Hammersmith Odeon and it was the show that changed my life. It was raw and emotional and connected to the audience. You do that, you get that kind of group of people together, that’s unstoppable!”
That’s the feeling captured on the EP, which is out on Dec. 8 through Nettwerk. It offers listeners a range of emotions: from the casual, seemingly light-hearted “SLIP” about giving into the familiarity of being with an ex; to the heartbreaking “Real House,” which brings a cinematic conclusion to that relationship.
“It’s not just music,” says Tabares. “Before every show, we huddle up and say the same thing, ‘Listen to each other and listen to them’. We are becoming closer and closer, and I think that’s what comes through and what the audience picks up on.”