Nina Nastasia is one of those acts: the kind of songwriter whose aching, lyrical tales can fill a gap in your life that you never realized was there. While she was never anything close to a household name, in the early-to-mid-2000s, critical praise for her work was matched by fervent admiration from a fanbase that cut across underground music’s various factions. From punks and metalheads to indie kids and folk fans, anyone who chanced upon her work seemed to fall under her spell. Her sketch-like songs are both perfectly-crafted and keenly observed: dark, playful, and wistfully melancholic, albeit threaded with a vein of wry humor. There’s something timeless and familiar about her music, and also something a little strange. It’s the work of an outlier artist who never particularly yearned for life as a full-time musician, and whose craft was self-taught and learned largely on the fly.
But after a run of six intense, beautiful records, Nastasia all but vanished from view. 2010’s Outlaster was her last significant endeavor, and her live performances were infrequent. It happens, of course. The well runs dry. Real life gets in the way. Or people just realize that being an indie darling doesn’t necessarily cut it when there are bills to pay. Anyone who’s lived more than a little and felt bland reality chew mindlessly away at the things they love tends to understand. But each year that passed without her felt like a loss nonetheless.
Then, suddenly, a spurt of unexpected activity: Temporary Residence reissued a chunk of Nastasia’s back catalog, and tour dates with Scottish post-rock legends Mogwai were added. A new album was announced not long after. This last news, however, was double-edged, as the music had been born of tremendous hardship and sadness. It was revealed that Nastasia’s partner, manager, and collaborator of some 25 years, Kennan Gudjonsson, was a martinet whose controlling, abusive behavior and relentless, unrealistic quest for perfection left Nastasia questioning herself and her ability, draining her of the desire to create. Gudjonsson died by suicide in January 2020, the day after Nastasia left the relationship to focus on her own survival and reclaim her future.
Released in July of this year, Riderless Horse is a sparse, surehanded, brilliant album. Stripped down to its raw core, it’s a powerful and challenging piece of work but also a very necessary one. The album, and its backstory, also demand a painful backward glance at Nastasia’s earlier body of work. These, after all, were albums where themes of escape were writ large, and where troublesome, difficult individuals made poor choices that they or their loved ones learned to regret.
“There were definitely moments where I felt real sadness at the loss of this partner,” says Nastasia. “But it also felt so liberating, because I could do a show and if I fucked something up I wouldn’t get this terrible wrath. I was starting to feel like something was really wrong with me, that I couldn’t keep up or I was constantly messing up or saying the wrong thing. At the same time, he really did pave the way for me. It was so complicated because Kennan really needed to feel validated but he couldn’t move forward because he was terrified of failing. But with me, he could have that ambition on my behalf. So I ended up feeling like the weak link in this whole scenario, and that I was ruining my chances as well as ruining this other person’s life. So there’s guilt in enjoying myself now, and while it doesn’t stop me it’s there every once in a while. It’s a tough thing to reconcile.”
There is inevitably a lot for Nastasia to unpack, consider and push through. Grief is difficult and strange and contrary at the best of times, let alone in situations as charged as these. Painful as it is, Riderless Horse feels essential—a means of understanding and self-analysis; of reflection and letting go. There’s a palpable sense of all this when talking to Nastasia, who is funny and sharp and charming—and very much trying to come to terms with past events and what the future might hold. “I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life feeling stuck,” she says. “I felt like I had to make up for lost time in a way and get going. To not waste time. I had a strong sense of urgency, after he died, to go and live.”
Here is a journey backward through Nastasia’s catalog.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Poster/Print
For all its prima facie simplicity, there’s a lot to absorb with Riderless Horse, and there’s a very real sense that Nastasia is still in the process of making sense of both Gudjonsson’s death and their time together. For all their quiet even-handedness songs like “This Is Love” and “Nature” feel like gut punches. “The songs on the record are pretty direct,” says Nastasia. “It almost felt crass in a way, almost like it was too much.” She describes the process as a “vomiting out” of songs, of bagging them as soon as they were finished—a markedly different methodology to the relentless fine-tuning of her previous records. In part, this came from being freed from a demanding, hostile overseer, but it was also a clear response to Gudjonsson’s passing.
“Things happened so quickly,” she says. “I found myself focused on what everybody has to do when somebody dies: getting to the police station; the clean-up; making sure everybody gets their everything—all that awful technical stuff you’ve got to get through. I got very, very lucky because I had a lot of friends to help me. I was staying with friends and so I had a very open time to grieve and at the same time do whatever I had to do. And the thing I’ve always done as a kind of escape is to focus on writing or drawing—some kind of creative thing. So I just got incredibly productive while at the same time losing my mind.”
This is Nastasia’s richest and most sonically-ambitious album—Grammy-winning producer and arranger Paul Bryan was brought on board to provide the record’s orchestral score. The lush instrumentation—cello, viola, clarinet, French horn—embellishes, accents, and underscores Nastasia’s graceful songwriting, from the subtle, understated heraldry of “You’re A Holy Man” and the drowsily playful “You Can Take Your Time” to the sweeping sense of tangled drama suggested by the magnificent “What’s Out There.” For all its success as a standalone piece of work, however, it’s hard not to look to the album’s musical ambitions and its talk of wanting to live a good, long life as somehow cruel given the bleak, difficult years that were to follow—and what Nastasia must have been silently enduring.
Nastasia had previously worked with drummer Jim White (founding member of Dirty Three and Venom P. Stinger, also a gun for hire who’s worked with the likes of PJ Harvey and Cat Power), but this stripped-back venture saw him serve as her de facto band on record and on tour. “I definitely learned so much from that,” she says of the experience. “I learned a lot about listening to someone else. He taught me to be more flexible because I could tend to be quite rigid. I was so nervous about playing on stage and insecure about my guitar playing, my singing, and everything. So I would stick to just trying to get it right, instead of listening and adjusting things.” The results are definitely spryer and looser-limbed, with White’s drumming an excellent foil for Nastasia’s intuitive songwriting. His nervy, skittering drum patters scuttle quietly as the standout “The Day I Would Bury You” begins and become brasher and bolder as it progresses, and scuffle uncertainly during the Mountain Goats-esque “Our Discussion.” “Late Night,” meanwhile, with its portentous lyrics sees Nastasia get her full-throated wail on, all but crowding White out as she comes off somewhere between Jason Molina’s anguish and Kurt Cobain howling out his best Leadbelly impression.
Shifting from U.S. punk powerhouse Touch & Go to the Brighton-based experimental label FatCat—home to acts as diverse as Vashti Bunyan, Hauschka, and Black Dice—Nastasia delivered an album of quiet, light-touch brilliance. Despite its homespun sentiments—“Counting Up Your Bones” talks about washing linen, while “Dumb I Am” sounds like an insolent child’s nursery rhyme—Nastasia’s lyrics frequently cut to the bone. “One Old Woman” is a savage examination of age and erasure dressed up in jaunty sing-song, and “Why Don’t You Stay Home” offers a heartbreaking portrait of someone trying to rationalize with a loved one who is neither in their right mind nor capable of doing what is in their best interest.
Rattly, squirrely-sounding, and backdropped by the passing of Nastasia’s father, Run To Ruin was a jarring and nerve-jangling album: a marked difference from the records that came before it. The clenched-jaw trudge of “I Say That I Will Go” reads as a hard-bitten snippet pulled from the pages of a Lucia Berlin story while the smudged, enervated “Superstar” has to feature perhaps the weariest declaration of stardom ever set to music. “The Body,” meanwhile, begins life with a soft, gentle flutter only to soar, swoop, and plummet, going on a zig-zagging journey that’s akin to a chase sequence or a descent into madness from an old black-and-white movie—Carnival of Souls (1962), perhaps, or else Charles Laughton’s shadowy Night of the Hunter (1955).
Nastasia’s first album for Touch & Go felt like both a leap and a flex. After a relatively unshowy debut, much of the same instrumentation—cello, violin, accordion, singing saw—returned, but was redeployed in a manner that was altogether more ostentatious. Alongside the quietly soul-crushing “Rosemary” and the lonesome country yodel of “In The Graveyard” there’s the seismic impact of “This Is What It Is”—a song whose hints of Godspeed You! Black Emperor-style post-rock would reach the fullest fruition on the marvelous, devastating “Ocean.” The change was startling, and while the ambition was laudable there were already troubling signs on the horizon. “We were on this sort of trajectory and that had a lot to do with Kennan,” says Nastasia. “Corey [Rusk] from Touch & Go said he would put out a record, so we were just like ‘we need to get going on the second one, and then get going on the third one…’ Kennan was very much ‘We need to keep, keep, keep, keep going.’”
If this sense of forward motion served to spur the musicians on creatively, it was not always practical—particularly when it came to a small indie act taking a 10-piece band on tour in support of a sophomore album. “Did I know for sure we’d lose money off that? Yeah,” she says. “But a lot of great things came of doing things that way, except we couldn’t really survive. It was too hard to keep going.”
Released in a painstakingly-crafted (and loss-making) limited edition on the Socialist Records imprint before being reissued by Touch & Go in 2004, Dogs featured a clutch of songs that Nastasia had been honing for several years. In rock ‘n’ roll terms something of a late bloomer, she was in her early 30s when she entered Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio for the first time, striking up a lasting friendship with the feted engineer in the process. “I wasn’t particularly ready because it was so new to me,” she says. “The idea of actually going into a studio with somebody and recording was pretty intimidating. But I was ready in that I had developed a band, so I was able to go in and do what I did, to record how I was performing on stage.”
For all her uncertainty and lack of in-the-studio nous, however, Dogs was a confident and assured collection that announced Nastasia as a songwriter of rare talent. From the subtly anthemic “Stormy Weather” and the childlike acid trip of “A Dog’s Life” through to the soaring “Roadkill” and the mean, sloping threat of “Jimmy’s Rose Tattoo” the album suggested a style, vision, and eye for everyday detail that had arrived in the world complete. Interestingly, however, things could have been very different. “I was getting some interest from some bigger labels,” she says. “I had a friend who wanted to help get me a record deal and I wasn’t at all prepared. I don’t think I had a strong enough idea about how I wanted to do things or how I wanted to sound. I was being pushed in a very different direction when I met Kennan, and because I hadn’t been very ambitious I was kind of floating around. So I look at Dogs and, for the most part, I’m really, really happy about it. It sounds like my choices. I guess I had to kind of be lost for a while, if you know what I mean?”