Nina Nastasia – Like Time Spent With Family

It’s always felt like I’m trying to do something, rather than doing something” – Siobhán Kane spoke with Nina Nastasia ahead of her April 3rd gig in Whelan’s.

From Dogs (2000), to On Leaving (2006) and 2010’s Outlaster, New York-based Nina Nastasia‘s take on folk music is arresting, challenging and moving in equal measure. Championed by John Peel in the early stages of her career, she recorded six sessions for the much-missed DJ, and developed an interesting kinship and working relationship with Steve Albini, who has been something of a guiding light, and who has recorded all of her albums so far.

Another kindred spirit is drummer (and Dirty Three alumni) Jim White, who has worked with her many times, through performing live, and on their collaborative 2007 record You Follow Me, which was a document of a real dialogue between both musicians, which veers from the austere to the emotional, a mysterious place – the “easy unknowing” she sings so despairingly of.

She makes the everyday toil sound like the saddest thing in the world; her natural, nudging vocal addressing themes as diverse as lost love and lost childhood, creating a confiding atmosphere that allows the most tragic of tales to unfold; amidst an atmosphere that can bring in string arrangements and exposing percussion, to a place that is nakedly honest, often unsettlingly so.

2010’s Outlaster might have expanded its musical remit, with more luscious-sounding, fuller arrangements, aided by Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and including a small orchestra (conducted by Paul Bryan) but the terrain is the same – yearning over loss, and yearning for more. Siobhán Kane talks to the very gifted Nina Nastasia.

I believe you often suffer from nerves with all of this – I understand that very well. Randy Newman recently said that when he writes a song, he always thinks he can never do it again, he says he “has never been confident in his own abilities” – do you think you are the same?
Yes, I have those feelings. It’s always felt like I’m trying to do something, rather than doing something. There are tasks you know how to do, know all the steps, know when they’re completed. Then there are tasks that demand you always be solving new problems and coming up with new ideas. With the latter, you can improve, but you can never be a master, really.

There’s also that feeling of cringing at the sound of your own voice played back to you. It’s hard to imagine that people hear you this way, because it’s so different from the way you hope to be heard. But it’s impossible to judge what people find novel about you, and that makes it hard to judge yourself fairly, you know?

Over the years there have been people who have ardently supported you, which must have helped you feel a little better – I am thinking in particular of Steve Albini and John Peel. With Steve, how did you actually meet all those years ago, and how would you describe your working kinship? He seems like a generous man.
He’s good. The meeting was simple. I sent him a cassette, we talked, I brought a band over. I remember when we first met face to face he was a little stand-offish. But he just wasn’t much of a hobnobber. That all changed after a few jokes. We make records together a lot because we have a lot of the same tastes, because he know what he’s doing, he’s got the right equipment, and he, Kennan [Gudjonsson] and I have developed a shorthand that makes it easier to get what we want.

As for John, he is one of my heroes, and I miss him so much, there always seemed something nurturing about him, as well as fun – how would you have described your time spent with him?
Just like time spent with family — like Christmas without the stress.

Do you think anxiety filters throughout your work? There is something very unsettling and beautiful about all of your records, even though they are all different.
I think that what you’re describing is happening deliberately. I mean, words can do that. Ideally it would feel like empathy to you, even if it’s constructed.

Outlaster took four days to record with Steve, do you think that there is a shorthand between you now, so that the recording time is getting shorter and shorter? I keep wondering if his three take thing has anything to do with it, I believe he can be quite strict.
I wouldn’t say strict so much as tried and true. I would say that the majority of bands Steve has recorded have needed to make a record on limited funds — with me being no exception. Steve wants to give them their money’s worth, and one of the ways to do that is to weigh in when he hears them being bogged down by details that are eating up valuable time, and are probably too subjective to worry about. Recording makes it possible to “perfect” what you’re doing, which is a dangerous temptation.

But we booked less time because we were using a bigger band, flying more people over, and such. The costs were higher, so we needed to get more done in a shorter time. So that was just our call.

Outlaster seems very much about time, marking and honouring it – is time something that weighs heavily on your mind?
I don’t want to die. I would like to not die. If I could figure that out, I would love watching the time pass.

You have been based in New York for many years now, do you love the city? Is it a muse of sorts to you?
I’ve always lived in a city. Maybe I see more people, meet more people, hear more stories. Maybe. If so, then I guess I’d owe what I make in part to the City.

I believe you love films, and also great television shows – I actually think some of the best writing that is being done at the moment is for the small screen – with The Thick of It, Mad Men, The Wire, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development (RIP), The Office (American) and several other shows that are subversive and brilliant, what are your thoughts and what are some of your favourite shows?
Mad Men, definitely. Peep Show, too. I loved The Killing — the Danish one – I didn’t see the other one. I think TV’s finally caught up to film, and even surpassed it in ways. It can be so much more immersive, especially because you don’t know when a series will end. It’s easy to stop caring about making stuff when I get into watching stuff other people are making. That’s the one hitch.

Coming back to John Peel, and the Sessions you did for him – especially at Peel Acres, they sounded special over the radio, so I can only imagine what they were like for you – do you think something might get done with them in the future?
Yes, I promise, at some point. I’ve got some other plans I’ll tell you about at some point, too.

Did you grow up listening to folk music? I like how sometimes younger musicians pay homage to older musicians – for example, Cass McCombs recently played in London and had Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band support him – I felt perhaps that would encourage people to look into them, if they had never heard of them before.
Every time I think maybe I’d like to do that for someone, a record comes out where somebody’s already done it. But for the most part I’m very self-conscious about doing covers, because if I really love a song I’ve generally fallen in love with the performance and couldn’t imagine hearing it any other way.

You manage to cram so much nuance into so few words, there is a sparing quality you have which contains so much – have you always written that way, or is something you keep refining? And which other writers do you love, and go back to all the time?
A good way is to write some kind of story and figure out what details work, what details are lacking and what details get in the way. The hope is that your judgement gets better, and your songs subsequently improve. I have to think about the other writers question, because books come in kind of randomly, and I can’t say really… I just can’t quite put my finger on that one.

Which song of yours mean the most to you? I remember reading an interview with Steve [Albini] in Mojo, where he said of the thousand of records he has produced, Dogs was one of his favourites, and one he continues to go back to.
You know, I wouldn’t answer this, but I will say the song ‘Stormy Weathe’r is special in a way, because It all kind of came out at once, with very little thought.

I was also wondering if you ever collect songs that you have heard elsewhere and put them in a rainy day box of sorts, to breathe new life into them at some point down the road?
Hmmmmm. Any suggestions?

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