I heard Nina Nastasia for the first time two years ago on a Songlines covermount CD. She was singing “On Teasing”. I haven’t listened to that song in a long time, but I can still remember her voice. She sang firmly over a simple guitar:
Should not tease
And play tricks
For a laugh.
Ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha.
“On Teasing” had been taken from an album called Run to Ruin, which followed her earlier Dogs. John Peel championed her on his show and managed to rouse such enthusiasm for her lovely work that the out-of-print Dogs was reissued. Nowadays, she has a John Peel RIP banner on her MySpace page, and “Bird of Cuzco”, one of the songs from On Leaving, originally appeared on a Peel tribute album.
The forthright intimacy of her style has seen her compared to Chan Marshall and Gillian Welch, although she’s not as overtly anguished as the former and not as countrified as the latter.
In the back of the house in the room I used to sleep
I woke up and smelled burning wires.
For a month I wasn’t me.
A thief would wait for me outside
And there were nights I would let him in.
No one ever found out…
… she sings at the beginning of On Leaving. Her voice is so quiet that I had trouble making out ‘wires’. It could have been ‘wives’, or it might have been a different word altogether. Your enjoyment of this first song, “Jim’s Room”, is going to depend on your ability to sit very still and listen. There are no pyrotechnics. Her voice slips in without fanfare. “Jim’s Room” is underway almost before you know it. Without the lyrics it would sound like a tumble of guitar underscored with the profound, slow boom of a large drum, finishing with an alarming wriggle of sound, as if insects have been disturbed, but Nastasia’s voice singing about a thief outside and then a boy bathing (“I never saw you in your clothes”) makes the song both poignant and intriguing.
On Leaving might as well be called On Ageing and Disillusionment. Time, in these songs, brings significant and unwelcome changes. It alters the way friends think of one another, leaving the singer in mourning for the connections that have been lost. Not all of the tracks are as soft as “Jim’s Room” (“Brad Haunts a Party” is a ramping jolt of piano chords), but the mood remains one of wistful regret. The past, in her stories, is always better than the present. The future barely gets a look-in.
In “Lee”, she remembers a boy who used to be a childhood friend, an equal, “more like a girl”, until an incident one day changed everything. “As a man, you left angry”, she sings. In “Bird of Cuzco”, she is gentle to a cold and starving bird that seems about to die. In “Our Day Trip”, she wants a friend to take a journey with her, but the friend decides to go to work instead.
Your free hand waving from the gate
The metal shining at your waist
You had so much more ambition.
The woman in “Why Don’t You Stay Home” tries to persuade the father of her children not to run away again. “Why don’t you stay home where you’re loved? Where you’ll never be hungry or lost, no stranger…”. This hunger for safety and belonging is the album’s other recurring theme. It seems significant that the only character who holds out against it is mentally retarded. “Alone I go and OK I be”, this person boasts in “Dumb I Am”, and her declaration is followed by a lingering chant, “Dumb, dumb, dumb…”, leaving you wondering how OK she really feels.
The idea of loss is not new in songwriting but Nina Nastasia describes each case in a suggestive, abbreviated style that makes it seem unique. Only “Why Don’t You Come Home” comes close to giving us too much and breaking the spell. Her music has a Quaker-barn plainness, the simplicity that gives you art without artifice. It’s also terribly sad. On Leaving has an elegiac delicacy; it’s an album to make you weep.