by Alex Teitz
The Nields are fast becoming a band to watch for. The Nields have played The Newport Folk Festival, The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and many other prominent festivals. Their folk pop sound has many hooks and catchy phrases that stick with audience long after a show.
The Nields are Katryna Nields on lead vocals, Nerissa Nields on acoustic and electric guitar, David Nields on electric guitar, David Chalfant on bass, and Dave Hower on drums. The Nields new album If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now follows in the success of Play. Both are theme albums, and both were done on Zoë Records. FEMMUSIC was able to spend a few minutes with Nerissa Nields before an acoustic show.
FEMMUSIC: Describe your songwriting technique. How do you come up with your songs?
NN: Getting an idea for a song is like Christmas. It’s just the greatest thing when you get that first little seed to write a song. I really feel like more and more the older I get the process is more and more just kind of letting the song grow itself, and almost being a midwife to it rather than kind of building it myself. I don’t need to like compare myself to Michaelangelo but I once heard him say that he just let the rock dictate what the sculpture was going to end up looking like. I think that’s a wonderful description of an artistic process. More and more that’s how I feel how my songs come about. I just kind of let the song tell me what it’s going to be about and scrape away the layers until it just sort of emerges. There’s definitely a lot of craftsmanship that goes into it. These days it’s almost more polish, polishing rather than building. I don’t think, think, think through the songs anymore. I just let them come almost from my subconscious.
My technique is (pause) well I keep a journal and I write every day. I write three to six pages every day. I just sort of keep that muscle going. I tend to write songs on a schedule, in batches. (laugh) If we’re doing a lot of touring I’m not in songwriter mode. If we’re recording a record I won’t be in songwriter mode. I’ll be in recording mode. Our manager will give us vacations two weeks at a time. I will take advantage of those to write. I will know ahead of time that those two weeks are on my schedule, and sort of know to nudge my subconscious into action, and sort of send a telegraph to the muse, “Hello out there! Could you please visit me around March 12?” Like that.
FEMMUSIC: Both Play & If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now are done around a theme i.e. Play was a play, and If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now is a description of a town. Why do you choose themes, and how do you come up with them?
NN: I don’t think they were themes to start with. It’s not like we said, “Let’s right a bunch of songs from different characters points of view.” In fact we didn’t even think of the meaning of the word Play in that sense. Our friend Blair, who did the artwork, he’s the one who suggested that. We were like, “Oh yeah. That makes sense.”
The same with If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now. It was when we were trying to name the record that we started to look to see if there was a theme in the songs, and there was. And again it was all subconscious. It wasn’t like we all made this big plan.
But I think we’re in a time in our life where we’re really realizing what’s important to us both as individuals, and as musicians, and as a band. What was coming up for us all a few years ago when we made Play was the sheer joy of being able to be musicians. Having that be your way to make a living, and how we are among the few people for whom work is play, and play is work. We were celebrating that with that record.
And with this record, If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now, we’re celebrating being in the moment, and living where you are at. Wherever that may be: good, bad, ugly, indifferent, glorious, sad and it’s always all of those things. So it’s sort of a call for that, but also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that were always out on the road. (laugh)
FEMMUSIC: Tell me a little bit about the characters that make up the town?
NN: I’m drawing a complete blank. Help me out here.
FEMMUSIC: Jack for example.
NN: Well that’s an interesting song (“Jack The Giant Killer”). That’s a song that David Nields wrote, my husband. Well we wrote it together, but it’s really his song. When he wrote that, I thought it was about an abused kid. He said, “No. He’s not really abused. It’s more like realizing that… just getting to that age, 13, where you realize, all the sudden, that you’re a capable person and that you’re able to make your own decisions. Sort of like Malcolm in the Middle. The song was written like in 1997 so it definitely pre-dates Malcolm in the Middle, but when I see that show, I always think, “Oh, he’s like Jack.”
And also realizing, and the scary part of realizing that you’re in control of your life is realizing is your parents aren’t necessarily. Daddy’s not all he appears, and there be giants here.
When I was five years old I began to understand that their was a difference between fake scary things like witches and monsters, and ghosts, and real scary things like robbers and murderers. That there were things to be literally afraid of, and things to be figuratively afraid of, and I think that’s one of things that song explores.
I think you can also read that song as a psychological thing that we all have of the id and the superego battling with each other. We all have this kid inside of us who just wants to do what the kid wants to do. And we have this authority figure who says, “No you can’t do that.” So I think that’s part of what’s going on in that song.
FEMMUSIC: This is your second CD with Zoë Records. How has your experience been with them?
NN: Yes! Oh, we really love them. They let us do what we want to do. They get things done in a timely way. They don’t tell us that they’re going to make us superstars, and promise us the world, and at this point in our career we’re glad we’re not living under these illusions that that’s going to happen. We just want to sell enough records to make the next one, like farmers. (laugh) We just want to get enough back so we can plant the soil again for the next batch, the next crop.
FEMMUSIC: How long did it take to make If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now, and what are your goals for it?
NN: We started pre-production on May 3rd 1999, and we finished mastering in early December. That was our part of it ’cause we did it all ourselves. This is the first of our records that we did without any outside help at all, including mixing and mastering. Our bass player, Dave Chalfant engineered the record. He mostly produced it. We’re all listed as co-producers but he’s really the producer, and he mixed it, and he mastered it. No! Sorry, somebody else mastered it. I can’t remember who (Greg Càlbi at Sterling Sound, NYC). That’s the way it goes. So it was finished, finished, finished in early December.
FEMMUSIC: What was your best experience making the CD?
NN: Just, it’s going to be hard to pick just one. (pause, thinking) Ugh! So many of the songs I wrote I felt like were just gifts. “This Town Is Wrong,” “Jeremy Newborn Street,” “A Hundred Names” those three pop up for me right away. When they came out, when they were finally finished, I just felt like, “Oh my god. These are the best songs I’ve ever written.” The same with some of David’s songs on the record. “Maybe It’s Love,” I just think is one of his best songs. “I Still Believe In My Friends,” I can’t believe what a great song that is. So that was the songwriting part of it.
Then just getting to make the record. Getting that amount of time. We were really given all summer to record, like I said, early May to late August we were recording. Then Dave was mixing September, October, November. Being given that amount of time was just glorious. It was great to be able to be home and have a little bit of a life, and make a record at the same, and be paid to do so. Which we were. I can’t even begin to tell how much that meant to me, and how important that was.
Then I guess the other thing that was really especially great were the guests that we had on the record. Getting to really explore all of our musical ideas. For example the string quartet on “Maybe It’s Love” and the piano and organ playing throughout the record. We’d never done that before. Really explore that. The trumpets and other brass on “Jeremy Newborn Street,” and “Mr. Right Now,” and “May Day Cafe.” That was such a delight to get to work with all these other musicians, and our friends . The Kennedys came and sang, and Moxy Früvous, and Jump Little Children and Dar Williams, and Ben Demerath and it was just so wonderful to have. Oh! and Beth Amsel, another up and coming woman. So great to have the support of all our friends, and the joy of working with them. (pause) Those are starters.
I mean this whole record seems so blessed to me. I’m just really so excited about it.
FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry, have you ever been discriminated against?
NN: (pause) I think we’re incredibly lucky to have come along when we came along because if we’d come along ten years earlier there was very much of a scene for women. I know there was a lot of discrimination. I grew up…I feel like the discrimination I absorbed growing up as a teenager reading Creem Magazine, and Rolling Stone and Spin and that sort of macho journalism, very cynical, sarcastic style of journalist writing that I loved because I was a little bratty teenager, you know. I felt like there wasn’t any room for me. It was the only area of my life where I felt like, “God I wish I were a man.” I remember when I saw Mick Jagger for the first time I just thought, “I want to do that. I want to be that.” Which is so ironic because I think Mick Jagger studied striptease artists, or something. He studied women. He’s very feminine in what he does. I somehow got it in my head that I couldn’t be a powerful figure as a woman in the same way that a man could. I know that’s not true now, but I did have that idea as a girl growing up.
I honestly, I know that there’s discrimination against women in the music business but I feel like I personally haven’t really experienced it, yet.
FEMMUSIC: What would you like to see changed most about the music industry?
NN: (long pause) I’m going to answer the question this way. I could bash the music industry very easily. I have a lot of bitterness, but at the end of the day…Well we were on two major labels essentially. We saw two major labels fold that we were on. Guardian which was a subsidiary of EMI, and Mercury, which is still technically around but it’s…. The people who had us there, Danny Goldberg, and Dana Millman were fired, and have gone to do other things. (pause)
I guess what I want to see, and I think it’s happening, is a more educated population who seek out music from sources other than MTV, and commercial radio. I know that’s a backwards way of looking at it but the music industry is not pro-active, it’s reactive. I can’t say, “I wish the music industry wouldn’t have these pre-pubescent girl singers or these boy bands like the Backstreet Boys because I don’t like that kind of music.” That’s a very backward thing to say. But somebody does like that kind of music and it’s popular so the music industry is going to keep producing it. And I there’s room in the world for the Backstreet Boys, and what’s her name, Christina Aguilera. Who I hear, I know nothing about her, is actually a very good singer. God bless her. Or Britney Spears, who I also know nothing about, who I hear she’s a bad singer. I don’t listen to that kind of music so I don’t know. It’s not my thing. I don’t have anything really against it. What I think is unfortunate, as in any business, there’s a lot of fear and so when something gets popular everybody goes “Oh! Let’s get another one of those.” And then they all go looking for the copycats, and people lose interest. Or it sells a lot right away, in the first three weeks and then people stop buying it, and look on for the next big, exciting thing.
I guess what I want to see from the music industry is a wider field. A wider domain. I wish that people didn’t expect artists to have to sell over a million copies of their record. I wish that artists who sold 50,000 were given a little more support. I think that’s also the choice that we as musicians make.
I really think as an artist, in any field, you have to divorce yourself from the people responsible…Not divorce. That’s too strong of a word. Not become too dependent on the people in the business world. Be true to your art, and try to get to your audience in the most direct way possible. Avoid going through the normal circuits like the radio, and MTV, and the press. And right now we have this window where the internet is really, easily accessible to all of us, and that may not last. I don’t know if it will or if it won’t. Nobody knows. But there’s always going to be some way of accessing…When we first started out we had an 800 number. Now that’s really tiny, and you have to be really interested to call up our 800 number. That’s like the most primitive version. We also had a newsletter and a mailing list and we sent out a newsletter four times a year to 20,000 people, and that was very, very effective. Very expensive for us, and it meant we had total control over how we were getting across to our fans. You know as long as you play small clubs like Swallow Hill you can get to reach, not 5000 people, but a hundred people or three hundred people. You can reach who you need to reach.
I also have to say that I’m glad I’m an artist and not a music business person because those people lose their jobs every six months. I don’t blame them for being scared, and for making conservative decisions. They have have their skin to look after, and that’s just the capitalist system that we’re all a part of and that we all buy into. You can’t rail against the music industry without railing against capitalism and again I could and I have but I really don’t feel like doing that anymore. (laugh) I choose to live in the United States, you know.
FEMMUSIC: What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
NN: Find your own voice, and that might take you awhile. Figure out what you want to say, and work on saying it in the finest way you know how. Keep in touch with your friends. Stay healthy, don’t abuse yourself with any of the millions and myriad of things out there you can abuse yourself with. Develop your relationship with your muse. Don’t buy into the fear. Don’t buy into the idea that you have to do this when you’re in your early twenties. Practice your instrument. Take care of your voice. Don’t overwork. Also don’t buy into the idea that this is your only chance or your last chance to do such and such ’cause it probably won’t be. Be kind to the people who help you on the way (grinning), because they’re the same people you meet on the way down. Be really, really grateful that somebody wants to hear what you have to say. Be grateful to your fans.