Prairie Pop: Sandwiches with Nina

New York City-based musician Nina Nastasia is part of a long tradition of highly revered artists who are bigger overseas than their native country. Effortlessly mining a dark, melancholic aesthetic, she stands as a wonderful example of a genre I have long referred to as “pretty sad music.” Pretty, as in beautiful–and sad, as in pretty freakin’ heartbreaking.

One reason for Nina’s inexplicably low American profile is that she fits poorly into neat categories. As a female songwriter who plays guitar, she certainly doesn’t play it safe like Jewel (though at the beginning of her career, some people tried and failed to push her in a soft rock direction). And while at times you can hear twangy undertones in her songs, they are a bit too weird to turn her into an alt-country queen like Lucinda Williams.

When trying to describe Nina Nastasia’s music, words fail. She has carved out a niche all of her own, finding a comfortable home on Touch & Go Records, which released the skuzzy punk of Big Black and the Butthole Surfers, and more recently Fat Cat Records, the label associated with the latter day psychedelia of Sigur Rós and Animal Collective.

Since 2000, Nina has released six critically acclaimed albums, each of which have been recorded by Steve Albini–who has worked with Nirvana, the Pixies and literally thousands of other artists over the past quarter century. Given that he is known for embracing loud, jagged sounds in his own bands (Big Black, Shellac), it might come as a surprise that he’s a big fan of her music.

Albini has also earned a fairly cranky reputation over the years, and hasn’t always had the nicest things to say about those he recorded. Although he later took it back, Albini once referred to the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa as a “patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.” So when this man utters praise, it means a lot–for he doesn’t dole it out lightly.

“There are cruel ironies in making albums for a living,” Albini told British music magazine MOJO a few years ago. He laments that when making a record one has to listen to it so many times that the charms of even the best of the lot can wear thin from overexposure. Nevertheless, there are a few albums that have become favorites, like the first one he recorded with Nina.

Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly,” he says. “Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.”

Coming from a man who is responsible for the striking sonic qualities of PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Nirvana’s In Utero, the Breeders’ Pod, and other influential records, that’s a remarkable statement.

Nina’s latest release might very well be her best–though many fans still cite 2002’s The Blackened Air as a classic, while others remain fondest of her debut. Outlaster features a mini-orchestra that provides a thick, moody atmosphere that is very much the inverse of her previous album. (You Follow Me, her collaboration with Dirty Three drummer Jim White, featured only guitar and percussion.)

“The big difference from my other albums is that a lot of those parts were written out, which added to the sound,” she says. “The nice thing is that we worked with our friend Paul Bryan, who did the arrangements, and it was also a really good group of musicians.”

I was lucky to be able to speak with her in depth, in part because I’m an old friend of Nina’s and her creative partner Kennan Gudjonsson, who designs all of her records. Over the past 15 years I’ve spent many nights sleeping on a couch in their small studio apartment in Chelsea—where they handmade the highly sought after original pressing of Dogs (which easily was one of the top 10 album packaging jobs of the past decade). From that close vantage point, I’ve had the opportunity to watch her career develop.

My latest visit to Nina’s place was earlier this summer, when we talked about her decade of music making and the soon-to-be-released new album. In fact, Kennan was bent over a table furiously finishing the artwork for Outlaster, which was due to the label the next morning. Nina is notoriously press shy and uncomfortable doing interviews, something that lends her an air of mystique (some internet message boards make her out to be a haunted, gothic figure, which is pretty far off the mark). Instead of a formal interview, we had a laid-back talk over a bottle of wine and some finger sandwiches, just like in years past when she wasn’t the subject of one of my articles.

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Until our recent conversation, I had totally forgotten that Nina grew up in Los Angeles. This little factoid is totally hilarious, because her music and demeanor are about as far removed as possible from that plastic glitter pit. It wasn’t until Nina moved to New York City in 1991 or 1992 that she started playing guitar and writing songs for the first time.

“I played piano for a long time, and studied it as a kid,” she says, “but it always felt very restrictive–so I switched over to guitar. There’s something easier about writing on an instrument that you don’t know.”

A prolific songwriter, she built up a repertoire and began performing at venues like the Mercury Lounge and the now-defunct Tonic, where she had a small following. This was the 1990s, when the music industry was swimming in more cash than it had ever seen, before or since. In those irrationally exuberant times it was hard not to flirt with the major label route.

“There was someone at Sony Music Publishing who was interested in me, and we were having lunches and that kind of thing,” she says, cringing, explaining how the music biz sharks creeped her out.

That was reason enough to stay away from the culture industry’s sausage machine, but she also witnessed firsthand a few cautionary tales.

“It was classic,” speaking of our mutual friend Phil Roebuck, who went through major label hell with his band the Hollowbodies. “Phil had the fat advance from the record company, and everyone talked him up like he was going to be huge, but then he had creative conflicts from the label, and then he was dropped. We watched that happen to him, and it was kind of a lesson of what not to do.”

Opting out of the major label system, Nina went the other way–raising the money to finance Dogs independently.

“I feel really lucky to have gone in that direction,” Nina says, explaining how she has retained creative control over her music (not to mention full ownership of her songs). “But there were some trade-offs,” she says, laughing.

Without recording advances or tour support from a cash-infused label, there were more than a few times when she and Kennan were totally broke, and nearly evicted. Because Nina typically records with numerous players, their tours would sometimes lose money, but at least it built her a fan base overseas.

Despite a few setbacks, Nina has been much luckier than most non-stars, for she has had many people in her corner singing praises. Another early supporter was the late John Peel, a hugely influential deejay at BBC Radio 1 that championed Dogs–playing it often. Peel’s enthusiasm (he called her debut “astonishing”) helped spread Nina Nastasia’s name throughout Europe, though it’s not like that has made her rich.

Perhaps Outlaster will change her fortunes, or maybe not. Making it in music–even the independent world—is more about luck, timing and marketing gimmicks than talent. At least Nina can sleep well at night knowing that she has released half a dozen fully realized, stunningly recorded albums. Most artists don’t even get to make one.