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A Quietus Interview

I Want To Live Forever: Nina Nastasia Interviewed
Laura Snapes , June 16th, 2010 12:18

Laura Snapes joins Nina Nastasia for a whiskey to discuss stage fright, Mad Men and Ricky Gervais

For a musician with heartfelt plaudits from John Peel and Steve Albini to her name and six marvellous albums under her belt, Nina Nastasia is curiously unconfident in her own abilities. Much as her nerves are undoubtedly responsible in part for the eerie, uneasy beauty of her music, her newest album, Outlaster, proves that there's really no need for her to worry. It's the boldest record she's made to date – rich with ornate orchestration rather than the sparse fretwork and spindly drumming of her past records, it obsesses over the notion of exponential senescence, and the possibilities and limitations that would bring.

The Quietus meets a post-tour tired Nina in Balham Bowls Club for a neat Jaimesons and a chat about the rigours of working with Steve Albini, frisking gangsters, and selling Volvos...

I've read that you can be quite a nervous performer. Are you worried about people watching you, or nervous of getting it wrong?

NN: It's worrying about people watching me get it wrong! That's what I do. I've had a really serious issue with memory, my memory... And uh, it takes me a really long time to kind of... get the songs in my – to get them to stay in my head. So I have to be constantly working on stuff. So yeah, I think I give in to my nerves a lot. I think some people can play over them or make them better, but there are times when they just can take over. That's really what it is. I'm trying to overcome that and sort of take charge!

Have you found it's got better over time? You've been playing for how long, over 15 years?

NN: I don't think... Well maybe it has been that long. I don't think quite that long. But y'know, it does get... it gets easier, I think, to keep doing it, like I was saying, back to back, a bunch of shows in a row. That's why I do love touring, I've really had to deal with the nerves of performing, if I'm doing it constantly. But if I do have a gap in between, and I don't play out for a long time, I just get terrified of screwing up.

I know that Dogs was recorded a long time ago, but I read that you were very nervous about recording back then. Have those nerves subsided?

NN: Mmm, [supping whiskey] I think when I recorded Dogs, it was really scary because I'd never made a record before, and there was a lot at stake.

The cost of recording with someone like Steve Albini on your first record?

NN: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's funny, I really don't know a lot about music, so I didn't really... I knew about him, but it wasn't like I had followed him or anything.

How did you end up working together?

NN: Well, we actually had friends that had recorded with him before, or had recorded in his studio and recommended it as a place to work, and recommended him. And then we listened to records that he had recorded and liked the sound of it. And we wanted to record everything live, so it made sense. And he's very, very accessible – y'know, we sent him a tape to see if he was interested in recording it, and he said, yes, I am! But I think he's interested in recording anybody! That's the great thing about that place – anybody can go and work with him. It's a very reasonable price too, for what you're getting.

What's your relationship with him like now, six albums in? I'd imagine you've got a good policy of honesty going on by now?

NN: Yeah, well he never really interferes with the production of it. It's like, he'll have an opinion certainly on what take he liked. He's been really an influence for me, especially in the beginning, because I got very perfectionistic about my performance, and he kind of... became more open to the idea of having tiny little screw ups, that they're sometimes the best thing – a creak in a chair, I don't know, or playing a guitar string by accident. And so, he got me out of the whole trying to get the notes right, and just tried to get a really great performance that has some kind of feeling. I mean at this point, we're really good friends. Kennan Gudjonsson, who does all the packaging for everything – he pretty much does everything except for coming on stage and singing, or doing anything original or writing. But we basically produce the records together, and a lot of times he'll come up with the bands, or he'll find musicians, and come up with actual melody lines for musicians to play. So yeah, it's quite a comfortable place to go and record. I just love it there. Everybody that works there is always great, it's always really great to see Steve and his wife, Heather, so it becomes kind of a social thing, which is dangerous because you need to get stuff done!

You were only out there for a really short amount of time for Outlaster – four days?

NN: Yeah, we do that, we do things in shorter and shorter periods of time. Most of the time you want to spend the least amount of time in there getting the stuff done, because it's less money spent, and especially if you have a big group of people, that's hard. We didn't play with that many more musicians than we've played with in the past, but it's much more orchestrated and all arranged by Paul Bryan, so I think it sounds really full. I think it sounds like there are more musicians than what's actually there. Err... sorry, a lack of sleep and the music [we stupidly sat under an obnoxiously loud speaker system] and the whiskey, it's making me forget what question I'm answering!

How did Steve react when you said there was going to be an orchestra? Was it your idea, was that something you'd always wanted to do?

NN: Well, I love hearing the songs as big as they can be, because I kind of sit with them for such a long time, very plain, just me and the guitar. And then for this particular record, it really was Kennan and Paul coming up with the instrumentation. They really did put it together – who would play on it – and I discussed it with them as well, but they really kind of got that together. And when Paul said he was going to start arranging stuff, and as soon as he decided he was going to do a couple of songs, it all fell into place and he ended up doing all of them! So everything – after we decided what we were going to do and booked the studio time, got everybody there – it ended up happening quite quickly. And then we only had a couple of... two days – I say days, but two days of two, three hour rehearsals, with just viola and violins, and that's it. Then everybody else just got the sheet music. In some places, for example 'This Familiar Way', there were big holes in it for improvising. It did fall together really, really well, I have to say, and it was one of those really, really lucky times where everything seemed to work. People were really great to work with, and fun to work with. Some of them we'd never worked with before, and others were old friends – Jay Bellerose who played drums, for example – so it all just worked really. It could have been quite a disaster, but it ended up being good!

With having more musicians, did you manage to fit with Steve's three take mantra?

NN: Oh, the three take thing?!

How strict is he with that?

NN: Well, ha, that's a funny question, and a good question. He can be very kind of... um, what's the word... strict in his thinking? And so y'know, I have had moments with him where he's said – and always with very good reasons – for example with the three takes thing, it's quite true, if you start beating something to the ground, after a while, at this point you're not going to get it. You might as well just move on and come back to it. And we've definitely even experienced that in some ways. But there have been times where he's said, for example, a take is excellent, but maybe I do some weird thing that I don't like, and I want to just do something over. And he's not crazy about that, like overdubs – you start to getting into the mode of fixing things, which could then cause another problem you have to fix, and another problem, and then you're doing some Frankenstein thing to this one little tape where it's just like, shut up and do it again if you don't like it, or just be happy with what you have! But there are times where I feel like I know it could be a hard thing to try to do – I can't think of a good example, I'm sorry – but there have been times where I've said, yeah, I want to do it again, and I know you think I can't, and remember the time where you said I couldn't do it before, well I did it, remember that?! He does really know what he's talking about, and he's a good person to listen to, with advice to keep in the back of your mind. You could end up wasting a hell of a lot of time, and not get anywhere. If you have the luxury of writing while you're recording, that could probably be quite an interesting way to work, especially if you have a lot longer. Though I can see the downfall of having your own studio, it could be an ongoing work for years – I'd never know when to stop! But I do think that that could be a fantastic way to work, you could really discover some great stuff that way. I prefer to record everybody together. I think I do a better job, a better performance that way. I like to be done with it, because I'm not good at sitting with decisions. I just would rather make a choice and then be done with it, to have documented that part of your life and move on to the next thing.

Did a theme emerge on this record?

NN: Yeah, it definitely did.

I have a theory on what it is, but I want to know what yours actually is first!

NN: No, what's yours?!

With You Follow Me, a lot of people remarked that it seemed to be more about conversations with people, but with Outlaster, two things stood out: firstly, a lot of it seemed to concern the passing of time, whether it's looking back to your high school days on 'Cry Cry Baby' or looking way into the future and outliving your own life. And then a lot of them, rather than feeling like conversations with people, they seem more like messages to them, rather than the person you're talking to being involved in the dialogue. But that could be totally wrong!

NN: Yeah – that's good, I did my job! [Laughs] I really like the idea of sort of staying here as long as possible, on this earth. I think that Aubrey de Grey [a gerontology expert] had talked a lot about viewing aging as a disease, which is an interesting way to look at it. It's a little controversial as an idea, but having this idea of trying to work towards curing aging, or trying to reverse it – then what does that mean, what would it mean to society if we didn't age any more? Or if we could reverse it? Or if we could live for over 1000 years? I'm actually quite into that idea!

Living forever?

NN: Yeah! I would really love that. I think probably because I've always been a kind of late bloomer, and it takes me a really long time to sort out things in my life, so I feel like it would be great if I could just have another 500 years to figure stuff out! So I think it just seems like such a short time, even though it's a not longer now, what we have, than it used to be. But it still doesn't seem quite long enough. So a lot of the songs kind of deal with that, and certainly the song 'Outlaster' deals with the discomfort of the idea of living for a long time, especially if your loved ones didn't go along with you. I've thought about it a lot. I've met a lot of people that are friends, who say ‘oh my God, I wouldn't want to live any longer, I'd be ready to go' – and I'm like, God, I don't want this to end! Or that they would be bored...

Do you worry about missing out on stuff in the future?

NN: Yeah! There's some excitement in every period, but it feels right now as if technology's getting nuts, everything's going at such a fast pace!

It'll be really funny to say to our grandkids in 50 years that we lived in a time where the internet didn't exist.

NN: I know! Ahh I know! Just that alone, it's so wild that that's changed everything. It seems like it would take so much longer to take advantage of everything that this life has, so I'd be into that!

This is probably a silly, flippant question, but could you see yourself being a musician for all that time – do you see yourself doing this for a long time?

NN: Certainly yeah, because I feel like it would take me so long to even get close to mastering it! [Giggles] I don't know, just the guitar playing alone – it seems like I could use the time to just get... there's so many aspects about doing this as a career that I feel like I've not been particularly good at, and things that have been a real struggle, and it would be fantastic, can you imagine, for in 50 years to be brilliant and have a handle on performing! But at this stage, in 50 years, you won't be on stage any more.

This might be another very silly question, but given that this is your sixth record and they've all been really quite acclaimed, is that something that sticks with you? Does it stick in your mind that a lot of people like what you do, is there pressure when making new records to try to sustain that? You don't seem to have all that much faith in your own considerable ability!

NN: They're not silly questions at all, actually! I don't think about – when I'm writing and recording – I don't really think about an audience. Y'know... I believe in what I'm doing – you kind of have to. And it's exciting, and there's this feeling when you hear the music back after everybody's recorded everything, you just think, 'Oh my God, this is great! Everybody's going to love it!' But y'know, I don't think about that really, or bother about that really – because it's like, who knows? I'm so in my own world at that stage, of doing things that I've got no sense of what it would do or who would listen to it. I mean, actually it's a funny thing. After we recorded this record, we put it in the car stereo, and we were listening to it and thought, oh my God, we've made this pop record, and there was something exciting. It seemed all shiny, and like, woah, we're going to go platinum on this one! Then the record stopped, and I don't know who was playing because I never listen to the radio, and we were like, oh yeah, that's what pop music is. I have no idea!

You said earlier that you don't know a lot about music – do you feel you don't keep up to date with it, or you're not so interested in it historically? What did you mean by that?

NN: Well, it's not something that I seek to collect. I'm much more interested in things like movies and stuff like that.

I've heard you're a big horror movie fan.

NN: I love horror movies. The last great one I saw was Let The Right One In, I loved it. That was really, really good. It's not particularly scary scary, but it was fantastic. So, I listen to music – friends' music, their bands, stuff that people recommend to me, but I'm very passive about it, and I don't always remember what I'm listening to and all that stuff. I mean, I know enough about some stuff I suppose, from the internet and YouTube, but yeah, I end up feeling really lame when people kind of – rightly so – expect that you would expect about music, and the history of it, everything about it. Somehow, I don't. I don't listen to a whole lot of music. I don't know why that is.

Were you brought up around a lot of music? You have Russian lineage, is that right?

NN: No, I don't! I don't have any!

[Quietus ed] John Doran has been telling me porkies.

NN: Well, when I went to Russia, everyone thought I was Russian. I was just touring there. My name is Italian, but somehow in Italy, they didn't really think of me as Italian.

How far back does the Italian part of your family go?

NN: My father's father was from Calabria, and so I would, but I haven't gone back and figured out that whole family tree. It's a big mystery, that side of the family – my dad's side. He didn't want me to know anything about his family. I think he just hated them, he had a really hard time growing up, and I think he didn't want to deal with it at all, but so much so that he wouldn't even show me pictures. My mom would show me little pictures of him as a kid, she'd be like [whispering], 'Don't tell your dad!' So he was super secretive about them.

Was your dad born in America?

NN: Yeah, he was born in New Jersey, actually. I was born in Hollywood.

Why did you decide to move to New York?

NN: It was not even thought out or planned out. I moved with a friend, but the friend had turned into something more than just a friend, and I knew it shouldn't have been at the time, but I gave in to it and moved to New York, signed a one year lease on an apartment, and right after that, we knew it was not happening! [laughs] It was one of those nightmares...

What kind of jobs were you doing in New York in the ‘90s? I heard that you worked in a gangster bar or something?

NN: Well that's cool...! Ha! [sounds very amused and slightly confused]

This is John's dodgy information again! He said you worked in some shady bar and had to keep a knife down your bra for your own protection?

NN: Oh wow...! That's interesting...! Well, God, I don't even want to tell you because I like that one so much, maybe I should keep that. The silliest job I had – I was one of those people who worked at a club who would frisk people to find drugs and weapons and all that stuff. I'm the last person to be doing that, because I am not...

You're not very intimidating!

NN: No, not at all! You'd just walk right over me! So I had to do that, and there were a lot of times were knives were found in other women's bras. Ooh, that is a good one though! I should start going with this story instead! That was in Manhattan, where I still live now.

I know obviously Steve's studio is in Chicago, so you have to go there to record, but is it important to you to get out of New York to record?

NN: Well, it didn't come into it at first, but I really do like getting out. It's really nice to do that, to actually be completely away and living at the studio, and just that being all you do, all you think about.

I read on Paul Bryan's recording diary that Steve's studio has an amazing kitchen, and that you make a mean quiche. What's your secret?

NN: Ha! Well, I'm sure I didn't come up with this. I came up with it for myself, but I'm sure it's been done before. Cream cheese mixed in with the eggs. Cream cheese and a lot of different cheeses, but cream cheese especially. I use regular milk, not cream. And there's something about the cream cheese that makes it super light, and it's really good with bacon if you do a Quiche Lorraine. So I do that because my mom used to make these ‘50s hors d'oeuvres, these really trashy 1950s hors d'oeuvres, with white bread, the trashiest, cheapest white bread with the crusts cut off – you should try this, it's really good – so you get little strips of bread, and spread the cream cheese on it. Then you get some bacon so it's a little bit cooked, but not all the way. Then you lay the bacon on the cream cheese and bread, roll it, toothpick it, and stick it in the oven.

That sounds like something straight out of Betty Draper's kitchen!

NN: [Huge intake of breath] I LOVE that show [Mad Men]. Kennan and I started watching it, but we were watching The Wire, which I love – it's really fantastic. I think when we first started watching it, we couldn't get into it, probably because we were watching The Wire at the same time, which was so fantastic that we didn't give anything else a chance. Now, yeah, we've seen everything that's been on so far. There's nothing new yet, is there?

Series four starts at the end of July in the US.

NN: I am so excited! I loved it. I think it's really, really interesting.

It's so incredibly manipulative – you start sympathizing with Don, then realise he's in bed with his third lady of the day!

NN: It's kind of funny, you're given a lot of room with that one. I thought it was really interesting – remember the kind of beatnik-y chick Don was seeing, and there's that scene where he's in their apartment, and they're all getting high and hanging out? They're all judging him, and they're comparing each other's lives, trashing each other's lives, and I thought it was so funny that the 'progressive' ones are the ones saying to women, 'get me a beer'! They have the exact same relationship to the women as the corporate guys do. Their worlds are functioning very similarly in some ways. It's really interesting, right? And the art direction is really good, the clothing and so on. That kind of thing just looks so fun to do – it'd be great, if I was any good at it, to write for a show like that. Have you seen the American Office?

No, I hated the British one so never watched it...

NN: Are you kidding me?! I love the British one, it's amazing. Oh my God, I just love Ricky Gervais, he's fantastic!

Oh God, I can't stand him...

NN: He's uncomfortable to watch, right?! But he's so good at that. So when that finished and the American one came out, we were like, really? You're going to try and do The Office?! But then we watched it, and it's fantastic. It definitely holds its own. It's really good.

Do you ever write anything that's not music – stories, journals?

NN: I've been wanting to do that, ‘cos I used to do that a lot and I've not since writing music. I've become intimidated to try to write anything else. But I did start getting into it and doing some short stories and that kind of thing. I definitely want to do more of that. But um, yeah, it's one of those things that started to feel... my head gets in the way, I start to get intimidated, and it sucks! That's why I need those extra 50 years to get over my head and start something!

I've just realised we don't have much time left, and I have to ask you more about the record before we talk about Mad Men and books all evening! How come Jay Bellerose is on this record again, and not Jim White?

NN: Well I'd wanted to work again with Jay for a really long time. He's far away in Los Angeles, ad he's always really super busy – I mean, Jim is too – but I think he wanted to do more recordings together, but the timing hasn't been right. So when this really worked, gosh, it was just perfect. They're very different players – I love them both very much... Jim's very specific when he plays, and I think that we wanted to have something different for this record. Also, it was one of those things where we've been wanting to have it work for a long time, so...

I wondered if it was because Jim was off working on the new Dirty Three record. I've seen them a few times in the past year, and all Warren Ellis talks about onstage is how they're having real trouble coming up with ideas for their next record! Knowing him, he could be bluffing...

NN: Oh no! Well I don't know, I haven't heard anything or talked to him about it. I'd have a hard time believing that they have no ideas for a new record! They're so great! They do such beautiful music, I just can't imagine they'd be running out of ideas.

Given that you'd played with Jim White on a fair few records, what was it about You Follow Me that meant it was listed as a collaboration, what marked it out as different?

NN: I think it was certainly different for him, I think, because he usually... my brain is taking a long time to function, and that's probably not helping [points at obnoxiously loud speaker] and that's probably not helping [points at now empty whiskey glass]! So usually, he improvises, and I don't know how he works with Dirty Three or what they do, but the idea was to be very specific and have real specific parts. I do have to say, it wasn't all that different than how we've worked before, except that the parts were really solidified. I think I said before, Kennan who does a lot of the arranging, what we did with that record which was a different thing was that I got the songs together, wrote a bunch of songs, and then we rented a studio – this is very different actually – we really took the time to rehearse and solidify the parts.

A far more formal experience than what you're used to with Steve?

NN: Yeah, yeah, and there were times when we'd just sit there and go, [shrug] well how was your day? And then finally get around to doing some stuff. But we ended up playing the songs over and over again, and he would do certain things on them, and we would record them then. Then we would go home and listen to everything, and Jim would [coughs] take stuff home and work on it as well, and then we would reconvene and put together what worked the best. So that was very different.

I should ask you about the Peel Sessions – were they a nerve-wracking experience? Are there any plans afoot to release them?

NN: Oh, they were the best. They really were, especially the Peel Acres one. They were the best thing. I really lucked out on that one. I'm still in touch with his family actually, they're really, really good people. I love them dearly. I feel super lucky for so many reasons about that. I think we will release them, it's just trying to... figure the whole thing out, because the BBC own them. I don't know what'll happen with that stuff.

A lot of people must have been made aware of you through Peel – one of the other ways must have been through having 'Our Day Trip' on that Volvo advert. How did the Volvo advert come about, and help you?

NN: Oh God yeah, John was a major help. With Volvo, it's kind of a funny thing – I guess they had the song for a while, and hired a professional writer or something to kind of... come up with something along that line, and then I guess it didn't quite work, and then they asked me.

What kind of response did you get to it being used in that way?

NN: I don't generally read all of that stuff. I certainly felt that was a good possibility, for sure, that it would be a disappointing thing for people. But y'know, when we did Dogs, actually, I think we were up for one commercial, and at the time, we had really strong feelings about not wanting to do this. We didn't judge anyone else who did, but we didn't want to do it ourselves. Especially what it can do to a song – I'm not selling merchandise and so on, and a lot of the songs were pretty personal too. And then it kind of comes and goes, and with this one, we got another opportunity, and I have to say, it was... great to do. It was enough money to be able to make a difference. It certainly helped pay part of past records! Back when we were selling ridiculous... like the original copies of Dogs, everything was quite expensive. We were losing a dollar on every copy or something crazy like that. So it made things a little bit easier, and I mean, that is such a tough thing to try to sort out...

It seems old fashioned these days for people to accuse musicians of selling out – there's no money in labels, and if it gives the musician some more money to make another record, that's not really a bad thing.

NN: There is one thing that Steve Albini said – something like... why have a career in music, or why would I want to try and make a business out of my art? Maybe I'm saying it wrong, I don't want to misquote him actually. Once you make this thing you love into a business, it changes it. It's hard to stop thinking about what you would do, what you wouldn't do. At this point, it's enough money – I mean, I'm not going to lie to anybody – I don't give a shit about Volvos, it's not like I believe in Volvos, it's a frigging car, I don't care. But if it's a substantial amount of money that could help, then as long as it doesn't go against your morals, then... It makes things a little easier, and I think it was the right choice for us. But I understand why people feel that way – disappointed. It's a lot easier to say no when it's not on the table.