Nina Nastasia: An Appreciation of Her Music and Survival
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Lots of music and art is inseparable from the realities of the creator’s life. But then there’s the work of Nina Nastasia.
Her debut album, 2000’s Dogs, features on its cover a picture of her and her then partner, the artist Kennan Gudjonsson, close up: her, holding up a drink and staring blearily but determinedly towards the viewer, he, hunched, his brow furrowed and eyes shadowed, leaning intensely into her space.
That record, recorded with legendary alternative producer Steve Albini, self-funded and self-released, would very quickly make Nastasia one of the most beloved alternative singer-songwriters of her time.
With the keen patronage of BBC DJ John Peel, it achieved international reach and a passionate following.
It demonstrated a writer and performer fully formed, as if from nowhere: indeed Nastasia apparently had never had concrete musical ambitions before she wrote the songs for Dogs.
It’s a record completely out of time, existing in a hinterland somewhere in between Weimar cabaret, the darker end of post-hippie singer-songwriter styling, and the rawness of Kurt Cobain.
Then there were the lyrics. Every song radiated an unmistakeable sense of realness, a sense that here was someone so fiercely observant that she could pierce through the veils of convention to the brutal truths of life wherever she looked.
Tiny observations – of parties, relationships, churches, flowerbeds and, yes, a dog in the street – are small windows on the other side of which you sense in your gut the struggles of real lives are being played out, and beneath that something more profound still.
This was the arrival truly of one of the greats: a literary figure to match short story writers like Raymond Carver, Alice Munro or Paul Theroux, but with every word fitting into her musical logic too.
And this continued on an incredible run of albums through the 2000s. With each the musical ambition increased – not in grandiosity, but in ever more curious and exploratory minimalist arrangements, particularly after collaboration begun with the extraordinary Australian drummer Jim White on 2003’s Run To Ruin.
But however complex and unorthodox arrangements got, Nastasia’s knack for instantly memorable melody remained, and so did her ability to sketch scenes in a very few words that spoke of both the magic and fathomless darkness of everyday life.
This run continued through 2007’s You Follow Me, a duo album with White, where his drums dance around Nastasia’s voice and acoustic guitar creating a sound that still sounds startlingly distinct from anything else before or since, and 2010’s Outlaster where the shadowy cabaret vibe returned in excelsis with some incredible string ensemble work that made it her densest, grandest work yet.
Rumours of ill health or retirement swirled, only a Christmas single emerged in 2018, but otherwise… nothing.
Until finally in 2020, a quiet announcement that a new album had been recorded, and then the gradual announcement of what had been happening in the meantime.
The entire duration of her career and its decade-long pause, Nastasia had been in an abusive, coercive relationship.
Gudjonsson, who had overseen design and production of all her records, had obsessively exerted the same micro-control over every aspect of her life and actions, leading to spiralling mental illness for both.
When Nastasia finally ended the relationship, Gudjonsson ended his life the following day.
And this album is the document of that: of the relationship and its aftermath.
It is Nastasia’s first true solo record – both in the sense that there are no other musicians on it, and in the lack of Gudjonsson’s oversight.
It is produced once again by Albini, but this time in partnership with Nastasia. And, unsurprisingly, it is a painful listen.
“I guess I’ll just stay in hell with you if this is love. Throw a punch or two and take a few then rise above” goes “Is This Love?”.
Even more horrifyingly, “The Two of Us” is full of lines like: “The two of us make one. Deep in the shit trying to crawl out of this dung. The stink of it overwhelms the good we’ve done.”
It's painful, but astonishingly, not impossibly so.
For one, Nastasia’s absolute honesty about reality in all its minute detail is undimmed, and that is compelling.
There’s nothing so abstracted as blame or guilt here, but there is a detailed anatomy of the sadness and pain, and incredible analysis of the mechanisms that locked into cycles of behaviour.
And secondly, Nastasia has not just survived but is, in her way, thriving.
There’s no easy redemption, no exorcism here, though.
In “Afterwards” she sings of Gudjonsson still exerting control on her: “You still won't let anyone but you. Hold on to me until it's hard to breathe.”
Where her first album featured his face, and every other sleeve was his work, this one features a stark black absence in the centre of the cover.
But still she is moving on. That, final song ends with “Oh how I wanna live”, and that resonates powerfully, and makes you want to go back to the start.
As you listen again, you hear how even through the most terrible times that desire to live, to observe, to create never left Nastasia, and her emergence undefeated is a victory for life.
As Nastasia told Laura Snapes of The Guardian in a mind boggling interview this year, “[Living on Earth] could be hell, but I want to stick around through it so I could get to something enjoyable because I just love it so much.”
The record begins with a bottle uncorking and pouring, an echo of Dogs’s sense of drinking and thinking and observing – but it ends with the sounds of a river and windchimes, no longer introspective but looking out with a sense of movement.
This is not an “it’s all going to be OK” situation: the legacy of toxic relationships never goes away, and Nastasia never pretends to be telling anything but her own reality.
But it, and the extra layers of emotion and narrative depth it adds to her whole catalogue – now finally up on streaming services after a long absence too – does give the attentive listener so much.
And that stark black absence in the cover art does dominate, but not nearly as much as Nastasia’s own voice, thoughts and personality do.
Riderless Horse is a one of a kind record from a one of a kind artist, and thankfully it promises more greatness to come.
Cover Credit: Theo Stanley
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.