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Nina Nastasia - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 18 / 5 / 2007

Nina Nastasia - Interview


American singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia and Australian drummer for Cat Power and the Dirty Three Jim White have recently recorded an album together, 'You Follow Me'. Ben Howarth speaks to them both about their unique collaboration

I am at a medium sized, pleasant if not luxurious hotel in central London. With me are a shy, American female dressed all in black and an Australian middle aged man, in the process of organising a festival at which he will make several musical appearances, and seemingly just glad of the opportunity to just sit down for fifteen minutes. Last year these two went into the studio together and collaborated on an album, 'You Follow Me', the second Nina Nastasia had written in a matter of months. What’s the difference between collaborating with someone rather than just playing with someone? I suppose it implies that this is a relationship between equals, when generally it is the singer at the front of the stage who is leading things. So this is an odd collaboration. Nina Nastasia, a singer songwriter is collaborating with a drummer, Jim White. Drummers play an invaluable role in most of the music I like, but I have to say that there are few occasions when their presence is indispensable. Indeed White has featured on previous Nina Nastasia solo albums. When I met Nina and Jim the day before they played the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival as a duo, I most wanted to know what made this different to the times they had played together before. Nina said that the big difference was that it was structured. The songs she wrote had been specifically worked out for 'You Follow Me', and they had been elaborately rehearsed and rearranged prior to recording starting. Part of that, however, was necessity. The album was actually recorded in just two days by Nina’s regular producer, Steve Albini. "Working like that means that you can’t just wing it", Jim pointed out. "It needed to be worked out beforehand or else we wouldn’t have been able to finish it in time." Of course, it is well known that this is the way that Albini likes all his bands to work. He doesn’t view his role as a musical director. For Nina, however, this represented the least loose recording experience she has ever had . The collaboration had been Jim’s idea, and Nina admitted that she took a little while to decide if she wanted to take part. I wondered why Jim had approached Nina in particular. He has, after all, played with the likes of Cat Power (as indeed he did during her set that weekend at ATP.) He didn’t really have a specific answer. "I just thought this would work." But has it? Not wishing to offend, I wasn’t planning on mentioning a review I had read that morning in 'The Independent', where the album received a merciless slagging and a one star review from Andy Gill, their resident critic. But Jim has seen it and brings it up unprompted. He seems unbothered. "A review is just one person’s opinion, after all", he reminds me. Nina asked what I thought of the album. They both seemed taken aback when I said I found it quite hard work at first, but that it was a real grower. "I’ve never thought of it as a difficult or experimental record, it’s not meant to be", Jim states forcibly. I would, however, have to maintain that the combination of Jim White’s dextrous and layered drumming with just the stark voice and guitar of Nina Nastasia is not naturally melodic. It is an effective combo, but it certainly surprised me. Neither of them had departed radically from their previous work, but neither have ever produced something so unlikely. But, give it time, it does work as an album and it rewards lots of listens. Jim and Nina are certainly different characters. They are reflected in their music, I think. Jim isn’t exuberant but he exudes a quiet confidence. Seeing as his peers clearly rate him one of the most gifted drummers in the indie rock scene, it makes sense. He doesn’t thrash away like Dave Grohl on this album, but his style is still very technical. It is obvious that he knows full well he is a good drummer. Oddly, however, he had much more to say about sport than music. Much of our conversation involved an Aussie and Englishman ganging up on two bewildered Americans (Nina and her manager/partner) and explaining why cricket is awesome. Jim, however, having been well travelled was happy to admire baseball too. Nina, on the other hand, is probably the shyest person I have ever interviewed. She is certainly the first person to ask me to take notes rather than tape record, as the whirling tape makes her freeze up. ("I’d rather be misquoted than say something stupid and have it quoted exactly", she jokes.) To be frank, if Nina wasn’t such a good songwriter, there is no way she would have made it through this grinding little music scene. She admits to hating going on the radio, and always feels embarrassed. That is slightly ironic because it was on the radio that I first came across her, when she appeared in session on the John Peel show to promote 'The Blackened Air', her second album. "That was unlike any radio I have ever done", she laughs. "A huge privilege. We went to his home, and all his family were there, it was more like I was playing just for friends. And there was a lot of wine!" But Nina does get stage fright. "I’ve never considered not doing this, but I wouldn’t say I feel completely relaxed about going on stage." Thinking back to when I saw her play, it is actually a strength. Rather than ‘projecting’ out on to the stage, she seemed to suck everybody in. Her show was less like a communion, as we all spent the night watching and listening to her. Nina was charming company. She acts and plays music like a folkie. Which is what she is. So I found it rather strange that she dresses like a goth! But, imposing big black boots aside, it was nice to meet someone who has critical acclaim heaped upon her (give or take the odd Indy review) who had precisely no ego. ‘You Follow Me’ is a very good album. Two of the more talented figures in independent music have combined to make an album that I can certainly affirm is well worth buying. If you already love Nina’s music, it’s a subtle twist. If you love Jim’s drumming, he’s on fine form on some fine songs. And I really haven’t heard another album quite like it this year….

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Nina Nastasia - Interview

Nina Nastasia - Interview

Nina Nastasia - Interview

Nina Nastasia - Interview

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live reviews

Bush Hall, London, 8/2/2007
Nina Nastasia - Bush Hall, London, 8/2/2007
At a showcase for her label Fat Cat at the Bush Hall in London, Anthony Dhanendran watches Nina Nastasia play an empassioned, solo acoustic set
Scala, London, 29/11/2006

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What She Doesn't Know (2008)
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