Features | Interviews

Nina Nastasia

By Peter Hepburn | 15 October 2007

Singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia has a new record out -- a collaboration with the drummer Jim White titled You Follow Me -- and we here at CMG think it's pretty great. We thought her 2006 album, On Leaving, was pretty great too. Hell, there are a few of us on staff who think that over the course of the last ten years she's put out nothing but great records; she has, in so doing, effectively established herself among the best singer-songwriters currently making music. We jumped at the opportunity to talk with Nina about her songwriting process, the anxiety of performing, and bringing the noise with Jim White.

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CMG: So you and Jim have played together since 2002, and he's played on both Run to Ruin and On Leaving. How did you go from that to the full-on collaboration of this new record?

Nina Nastasia (NN): It just seemed to come kinda naturally. We've been playing for a while, and Jim's come on tour with me. We've played live in many different set-ups. We'd have seven or eight of us on stage, and then we did a tour in Russia where it was just three of us -- drums, a viola player, and myself. He just came up with this idea of doing a collaboration. It seemed like a natural thing to do. It also felt like a challenge: making it complete with just the two of us.

CMG: How did you change your writing style to work with Jim?

NN: I wish I could say it changed, but the writing process wasn't really all that different except that I was writing for the record. Usually I have a combination of a bunch of old songs and some new songs, but this time I actually wrote for the record.

CMG
: It feels like a lot of your songs have very specific, noteworthy single lines or couplets. On "Jim's Room" there's "for a month I wasn't me" or that line "and I never came down from the roof" from "Treehouse Song." Part of it is just how you enunciate and work these lines into the songs, but they're nonetheless pretty striking even when just reading through the lyrics. Writing the words, do you start with these specific lines or small ideas, or is it more a question of capturing a given mood or image?

NN: It's more about capturing an image. I'm not really the sort of person who has a notebook or is writing poetry all the time. I'm not like that at all. I'm much more like that with the melodies. Not that I carry around a recorder or anything. More often that's in mind head than ideas or words. A lot of times the music will come first and then an image or idea from that.

CMG: Is there anything you do to help you write? Listen to anything, read something in particular?

NN
: I feel like maybe movies do. I am a huge fan of horror movies, and any sort of frightening stories. I imagine that those kinds of things influence me.

CMG: Who else, off the top of your head, would you be really psyched to collaborate with?

NN: It's a new thing for me to do, and I haven't really thought of anyone else. I mean, in terms of really collaborating in the writing process, I like the idea and I'd like to do it, but I'm not very good at it. I get very insecure and I can't just sit down with someone else and come up with music and lyrics. It's way too embarrassing or maybe I'm too self-conscious. I'm a little bit down on myself that I'm not better at that. Maybe I'd do something with another musician.

CMG: "Our Discussion" was originally recorded with Boom Bip for his Blue-Eyed in the Red Room album. How'd that work?

NN: Oh right, yeah. That was a kinda funny thing. That was one that ended up not really working as it was originally intended. He'd sent me some recorded music and was saying, "why don't you write some lyrics over that." And it was beautiful music, but even though I was by myself in the security of my own bathroom, I still didn't know what to do with it. I didn't have the time to spend on it to figure it out. So I had "Our Discussion" finished and I sent him that, and that was fine with him. He did his version of the instrumental -- he remixed it -- and that was really fun and I really liked it.

CMG: What lead you to revisit it?

NN: We had played it before [as a band], and then [Jim and I] recorded it earlier on. We really liked [the new] version, and it fit the record.

CMG: When did the recording on You Follow Me actually happen? Was it concurrent with On Leaving?

NN
: We recorded You Follow Me first, and then On Leaving, but around the same time.

CMG: You said you wrote these songs specifically for You Follow Me, but do you think they would have worked with the full band approach as well?

NN: Yeah. Some of the songs I felt like I really wanted to hear how they are on record with a full band. I mean, I really like how they turned out am very happy with them, but I've played them with a full band live. I don't like to rerecord a song. I don't know why I have that thing, and I don't judge people for recording their songs again and again. I actually like to hear them played in different ways. I just feel like I should write another song.

CMG: Are you and Steve Albini in it for the long haul? Do you expect at some point to work with a different producer, or engineer?

NN: [Laughs] Well, who knows. I might at some point. I really enjoy going over to his studio and I really enjoy working with him. And as long as I'm recording this way -- recording live, making vinyl records -- I might as well do it with the person that's best at it.

CMG: I would expect it to be somewhat intimidating.

NN: Yeah, well the whole thing was incredibly intimidating. I didn't have this dream all my life of being a musician. I decided to do it relatively late in life. I just sort of found myself in that studio working with him. It was kinda nuts. But it also felt very comfortable. He's quite easy to work with.

CMG: You've talked in some past interviews of being both somewhat prone to stage fright and somewhat uncertain about your desire to be a professional singer-songwriter. At the same time, though, on the last two records you've gone from musically sparse to nearly skeletal; on You Follow Me there are three elements -- vocals, guitar, and drums -- and the first two are all you. You are now pretty much totally the focus and there's less and less to distract. You seem to be putting yourself out there more than ever. How do those two instincts jibe? Do you feel more comfortable with yourself as a musician and performer these days?

NN: Yeah, I don't know why I do that, but I don't feel more comfortable. I'm very undisciplined. I should be working my ass off to be better. But with You Follow Me those songs are incredibly challenging. Those songs are hard to play. I try not to get stuck in a comfortable place, writing the same song over and over. A lot of times the songs are beyond my real capabilities for playing. I have to really practice to get up on stage and play well, and sometimes I don't. The stage fright doesn't seem to go away. I seem to stay insecure.

I really don't know what the next thing I'll do is. I have some songs that are already recorded, and maybe I'll piece together a record from those. But it's true: the stuff that I end up writing about, and how I play, it does seem to be quite intimate. I'm putting myself out there, even when I don't always want to do that. But when I think about doing something different it feels kinda silly.

CMG: Were you worried about the reactions to You Follow Me? I mean, it's doing really well on the critical front, but it's not an easy album by any means.

NN: Yeah. I mean, it came out earlier in the UK, and it got real mixed reviews. Some reviews quite respectful but didn't seem to get it. It seems to be overall a little more positive over here. I was kinda surprised by that. Steve and I talked about it, and it sounds like a very easy record to the two of us. It doesn't seem that abstract. We just listen and say, "yeah, sounds like a pop song to us." But for a lot of people it's considered kinda difficult.

CMG: So after releasing The Blackened Air and Run to Ruin in pretty short succession in '02/'03 you had a three-year break. And then, in less than a year -- just barely over six months, actually -- you've released two more records. Where do you go from here? Can we expect more material sooner rather than later?

NN: I actually really don't know. Like I said before, I do have some things already recorded. But I'm just not really sure about what to do next.

CMG: Did you feel the same way after Run to Ruin?

NN: No, not really. That hiatus was more about logistics. We changed labels and all that stuff. But now, I don't know. It could be anything.