From the Event Guide, July 2008
The Beautiful One
By Aoife Barry
New York-based Nina Nastasia is a woman blessed with a voice that has the power to stop the listener is his or her tracks. It’s beautiful, strong yet fragile, and utterly compelling. Her debut album, ‘Dogs’, gained cult status after John Peel played tracks from it on his radio show after being given a copy by Steve Albini (who has recorded all of Nina’s albums) – it went from being an out-of-print album to being released in 2002 by Socialist Records and hailed as one of this decade’s most acclaimed debuts. Since then, Nina has gone on to release four other albums, the last of which, ‘You Follow Me’ was in collaboration with Dirty Three drummer Jim White and somewhat divided listeners. She recently released the single ‘What She Doesn’t Know’ on the Fat Cat label in February and is hoping to release a new solo album this year.
Those of us who aren’t musicians must wonder what it’s like to return home after being on tour – surely it’s nice to sleep in your own bed, relax at home and get away from the rigours of life on the road? Not so in the case of Nina Nastasia, it seems. “I’m good – I have been home for a little bit, for a couple of months so it has been kind of nice,” she says when asked what she’s up to at the moment. But that’s swiftly followed by: “I usually don’t like to be home but I like it this time. I prefer touring around.” This admission is one that is quite startling. A softly-spoken, funny and seemingly shy person, one would imagine she would relish the time spent off stage.
So is it the case that, as Alan Sparhawk of Low said in a recent interview, getting home after touring can be an anti-climax because there no longer is that ‘goal’ of doing a show each day? “That is true for me as well,” agrees Nina. “I get home and a lot of the time I get a little bit down for a little while because I don’t really know what to do with myself and I am not very disciplined either, so it takes a lot for me to get stuff done. It’s a bit of an adjustment.”
However, despite battling with the adjustment of returning home, this time around Nina says she’s “taking this time to write new songs” as “I still feel a little bit of pressure to do another record”. “This time it was a bit difficult to get myself inspired to do it,” she admits. “I don’t want to do the same old thing again…am I writing about the same old thing constantly?” Trying to do something different is also a big risk, something she is well aware of. “Sometimes I want to try different things but then it doesn’t always mean it is going to be fantastic,” she laughs. “I guess I do want to be interesting and different to people…[but] in the end as long as I am happy with it I am fine.”
Part of reason for this attitude, it seems, is the lukewarm reception her last album, ‘You Follow Me’, which she made with Jim White, got. In some quarters, it was loved – in others, it was hated. “The last record, there were people who thought it was a pretty horrible record,” she laughs softly. “Someone in England called it a ‘dog’s breakfast’ or something. It was kind of people liked it or they didn’t like it at all. [Although] the critics were quite kind in that they seemed to have respect for Jim and myself.” Some musicians would find it quite hard to handle such negative press, but for Nina, it means something good, in a way, to be slated. “I felt actually like I had arrived,” she laughs again. “Because it’s like getting a bad review is pretty great because it means you are someone important now. Someone has been paid to review your album and hated it!” It’s refreshing to hear this – there’s no sense of her being petty or taking things too seriously. As long as she likes the music she is making, she’s not going to lose sleep over a bad review.
One of the names strongly linked with Nina’s is Steve Albini, who recorded her five albums. The two have obviously struck up a close working relationship, and Albini has sung the praises of ‘Dogs’ many times in the past. What is it like working with him? “I think we went into it in the best way,” she explains. “What Steve does is he is an engineer and he just is an incredible engineer and he can get an amazing sound. He has the best studio and incredible equipment. The best way probably to work with him is to know what you are recording and to know what you are doing when you get in there. And that is probably the best way to work because he is really not a fan of getting into doing take, after take, after take – he has a kind of idea that you should get it in three takes.”
Having never recorded that way before – Albini prefers bands where possible to record live, rather than each person playing separately – Nina found it was something that really works for her. “I really loved recording like that way together,” she says. “I think I get a better performance than everybody playing different tracks. All of our personalities kind of worked together.”
However, there’s also another, unexpected bonus to recording with Steve Albini. “I really enjoy working with him – especially as his studio has a great kitchen,” enthuses Nina. “The kitchen is bigger than my kitchen, and I love to cook so I end up being the caterer during the recording – it is really fun for me. Running back and forth…” You can imagine her smiling broadly at the other end of the phone line.
Another pivotal figure in Nina’s career, and someone who promoted he music at every turn, was the late, legendary, DJ John Peel. She even recorded a Peel session at his family home-cum-studio, which must have been an amazing experience. “Absolutely it was,” says Nina. “I went into it just having been ignorant of the whole thing, of John Peel and the sessions and everything there, so I came to realise how much he meant afterwards. He was such an interesting character and had such interesting stories that maybe in a way it was better to go and not know what was going on ‘cause then I could probably be a bit more relaxed about the whole thing. I came to figure that out much later on. I don’t imagine I am going to have that experience again.”
Nina revealed in a recent interview that on one of her last trips to Ireland there were issues with the promoter of one of her gigs – has this coloured her view of the country? “I don’t judge the whole country by that guy!” she reassures. “I really do [like performing in Ireland]. I haven’t been as many times as I would like to be – I really enjoy it. I think my favourite one was in Limerick. I thought it was going to be a disaster, as we walked in it looked like everybody looked kind of mean and not really interested in listening to me, but it wasn’t the case at all. We were all crammed into a tiny, tiny stage.” She laughs again. “Then we just drank with everybody after the show.”