Interviewing Manhattan singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia is more like casual conversation--once the cell connection starts to hold (she's driving through Oregon), the first thing Nastasia asks me is if I know of a good place to camp near Mount Shasta.
We talk about her "experiment" touring with Tuvan band Huun-Huur-Tu, what it's like to record with Steve Albini (who has said Nastasia's 2000 record, Dogs, is one of his favorites), how she writes her poetic and haunting lyrics, and about recording her new record, On Leaving (Fat Cat).
Lots of people are talking in the background, so the recording will prove to be unintelligible. Then Nastasia asks me if I've ever had a Gin Caesar, the Canadian drink of choice of her touring mates. "It's kind of like a Bloody Mary, but with gin," she explains. Seems they've set up a bar in the back of the van, and are embracing the reality of a long drive from Seattle to Davis, Calif., by making the most of things.
Which is a lot like Nastasia's music--beautiful, sparse renderings of painful things, like finding a friend electrocuted in a bathtub, or one's doll dropped in a well. Nastasia's voice--high, clean and soft--lifts over minimal arrangements of guitar, piano, the occasional strings and brushed drums. Her songs don't need much; the rise and fall of notes and changes of key are enough to convey the particular emotion.
The conversation continues--we talk about Tucson and how she loves it here. "I don't know if it's typical to New York City, maybe it's everywhere, but you can get stuck when you have a good situation where your rent is not so expensive, and you have a fear of leaving; you're afraid to leave, because you'll lose your place, your rent," she says. "I'm stuck in a good situation but a tiny little place. So every time I go on tour, I'm looking at places that I might want to live. Tucson was one of those places, I thought, that might be an interesting place to live. I really loved Portugal; I thought I could live in Portugal, and I thought I could live in Italy. And in Portland, (Ore.), it seemed really nice."
It becomes clear that this kind of openness to life is what makes her songs breathe.
Nastasia currently lives in Manhattan, and after talking about Chelsea for a while, I say I should ask her another question relating to music. Despite the fact that music is the whole pretense for this conversation, Nastasia says, albeit a bit sarcastically, "No, don't give me those questions! Nothing related to music." She then points out that music "seems a funny thing to talk about.
"Some people, they can explain themselves--what they think, why they think that way, why they wrote that way and how they write that way--I mean, I can't do it. Or I could do it, but I feel really silly talking about it," she explains.
So she lets her songs do the talking for her. Her songs have a classic quality to them--folk arrangements, jazz sentimentalities and sometimes that feeling of something familiar in a strange place. "Counting Up Your Bones" begins with Nastasia slowly picking her guitar and singing: "Your bones glide in, a silent tear that mingles marrow when you disappear." She begins to strum the guitar, and just that small change of pace elevates the entire energy of the song. Likewise, "Lee" is based on a guitar arpeggio that changes key and then slows. Strings and piano build, but again, it's Nastasia's swaying voice that turns this song into something more filmic and gorgeous than just a folk song. At times, she's reminiscent of Suzanne Vega, other times, fellow New Yorkers Ida, and still others, a jazz singer in a sleepy city café.
On Leaving is the sort of album that, in its casual simplicity, gets better with each listen.