Getting Down to Essentialsby Katy Henriksen
Nina Nastasia and Jim White
It was no surprise when singer/songwriter/guitarist Nina Nastasia chose the Old Town Bar & Restaurant near Union Square as the site for an interview. Nostalgia and an appreciation of old-time Americana have always played a big part in Nastasia’s brand of experimental folk music, and the century-old watering hole, with its original pressed-tin ceilings and compartments used for hiding drinks during Prohibition, was a fitting locale.
Nastasia’s latest release, You Follow Me (released stateside in August on Fat Cat Records), is actually a collaboration with drummer Jim White, and though the two have played together for some time now, this is the first album to bear both their names. White was the percussionist for Nastasia’s last two solo recordings, Run to Ruin and On Leaving, and they’ve performed live together since 2002. “We played together in a lot of different setups,” Nastasia explained as we waited for White to arrive. “Only recently have we played shows just the two of us.”
White soon showed up, ordering hot tea and a salad, as we discussed how the project came together. “It was quite deliberate. I think it happened naturally,” White said of the project. “It was really fun to have something that came together like that.”
The drummer for Australian instrumental trio The Dirty Three and the go-to percussionist for artists such as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Cat Power, and PJ Harvey, White initiated the idea. “I thought the drums went well with Nina’s sound. It ended up being way more than that, more developed,” he said. “Nina had always had these pretty big renditions with cello and such.” Indeed, her four solo releases are larger productions, with violas, piano, and other embellishments. White was interested in stripping down her haunting songs to just drums, guitar, and Nastasia’s voice for a recording of just the two of them.
“After Jim suggested doing that, it inspired me to write a handful of songs,” Nastasia said. The two then decided to rent a studio for a month, which Nastasia described as a dumpy little space where they got together each day along with Nastasia’s longtime companion and musical organizer Kennan Gudjonsson to compose the ten songs that make up the album.
Although You Follow Me clocks in at under forty minutes, these ten delicately crafted first-person narrative songs have a staying power. “I didn’t want it to sound like a little record. I wanted it to sound really kind of forceful,” Nastasia said. From the pacing velocity of “I’ve Been Out Walking” through the closing notes of “I Come After You”—a dramatic, tiny little epic of a song—there’s not an extraneous note to be found on the album. With only a guitar, drums, and a single voice, Nastasia and White have crafted a sparse epic where tenderness, fury, and despair mesh seamlessly. White’s delicately textured percussion perfectly complements Nastasia’s distinctive strumming. Add Nastasia’s voice, which can shift from a wail to a whisper in an instant, and You Follow Me becomes a perfectly wrought dialogue between two musicians that use instinct and skill with equal command.
Reflecting upon what made this album so distinct, Nastasia mentioned her songwriting process. “It’s quite different for me from the other records because for most of my albums I’ve had all the songs for a long time,” she said. “They’re quite old and I hang on to them. This is the first time where I was writing specifically for this one thing.”
Having returned from tours in Europe and Australia earlier this year—the album saw a May release for the rest of the world—Nastasia and White have had a chance to practice their live performance of You Follow Me prior to the week-long U.S. tour that begins October 3 at the Mercury Lounge. “It’s really exciting because the songs change quite a bit,” Nastasia said regarding the live shows. “It’s been very good for me because I have been trying to improvise a little more, because I have gotten really rigid in my playing.”
Nastasia and White both seem very satisfied with the way the experiment has turned out. They’re so happy with it in fact, that they don’t think they’d want to try it again. “You want to try and do a different thing every time,” Nastasia says. “I think I’d want to do it again if I felt we’d not quite done it. Then I’d be like, ‘Let’s try to make it right.’ But I think it’s just right.” White agreed.
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.