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Nina Nastasia
 by Matt Dornan

Not until we chose the tracks and sequence did it look like the record was full of dogs...

Written over a six year period after a relocation to New York from Los Angeles, Nina Nastasia's aptly titled debut, Dogs, is a hauntingly beautiful album awash with imagery of death, sleep, dreams and canine companionship.

Recorded by Steve Albini (We sent him a tape. I think he was interested in the instrumentation... maybe he just wanted the money.) Dogs fulfilled Nina's desire to capture the ambience of a live performance.
That is what I wanted to document, she explains. All you have to do to understand why we called Steve Albini is to listen to a record he has engineered. He knows how to leave a song alone.

Albini recently gushed to Mojo's 'Collections' special, Of the couple of thousand records I've been involved with, [Dogs] is one of my favourites and one I'm proud to be associated with. [It is] a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can't really describe it, so we'll assume that the admiration is mutual. At press time it seems likely that both parties are ensconsed in a Chicago studio working on a follow-up.

Despite having spent six years writing the wealth of material from which Dogs' 15 tracks (and this issue's compilation appearance 'I Will Never Marry') were derived, the city Nina's called home for the past decade had a less than direct influence on it's content.
Most of what's historical on this record comes from my years in Los Angeles, she begins. New York City has probably not had so much of an effect on what I write as it has on whether or not I write at all. I think that living somewhere else then might have been healthier for me.

I have gone through some lonely times here that I spent writing songs. I spent a lot of time in my room, she explains. But what came out of that isolation is probably a little more discipline than I might have had otherwise. Maybe I'll see a more definite influence of New York City life after I have moved to the country.

Having picked up the guitar in Seattle and learned a few songs from books the move East was made with no intention of pursuing a career in music, she admits.
I held a waitress job that made me so miserable I spent the rest of my waking hours writing songs, she says, explaining the shift in lifestyle. Around 1992 I began performing in clubs around New York like Sin-é and The Mercury Lounge. There were opportunities to record but I had very little knowledge about that aspect of music. I also had very little money. Eventually I was forgetting enough songs that it became a necessity to record them.

The resulting collection of songs that travelled with her to Chicago in late 1999 includes the post-death musings of Roadkill, the longing of Underground ("You're so serene / Underneath the weeds.../...Parachute me down / To your cold, cold underground"), and the haunted tales of Too Much In Between ("A friend said / That she saw you last / That you talked awhile / And it was good but sad") and Nobody Knew Her - I once had a friend who died on Pacific Coast Highway, Nina says. I thought about her the day I wrote that song. But [it] is a song sung by a ghost. And I have never met a ghost - and the comfort with which she tackles such 'dark' topics on the album, alongside the playfulness of Judy's in the Sandbox and A Dog's Life, might suggest an artist prone to daydreaming, but Nina questions this assumption.

I have a lot of wishes, she counters. I get forgetful. But nobody has ever called me a daydreamer before. It is strange to hear what conclusions one comes to about my personality from fifteen songs I wrote. It's probably all you need, really. But I really sleep a great deal, so daydreaming is not a priority.

Another noteworthy element of this record is its equally beautiful packaging courtesy of label manager and bandmate Kennan Gudjonsson, a letterpressed deep burgundy folder with lyric booklet an oddity in the age of the MP3.
The people I know still buy records and cds, argues Nina. I usually like to pick up a record and look through the other stuff while I play it. Aren't other people like that? It should age prettier, too. I do not know how to balance economics and art. Every time I am tempted to make a choice for the sake of economy, I feel like my heart is in the wrong place.

All very valid and praiseworthy sentiments I feel compelled to agree with, but then I have to remind myself that a large part of today's audience don't even remember vinyl and have grown up with the computer.
I know, she concludes. And I grew up with dogs.

CWAS #7 - Spring 2001