Nina Nastasia Rediscovers Herself In The Aftermath
The indie singer-songwriter discusses the dark road to her first album in 12 years, Riderless Horse, and the new freedom she feels on the other side of it all.
Warning: The following story contains references to suicide and psychological abuse.
Great music terrifies. And hearing Nina Nastasia — one of the late John Peel’s favorite artists — feels like coming upon the marrow of the universe. Contained within her skeletal, acoustic-led songs are rarely sung gradations of joy and pain; emotions seldom denatured and turned into music, delivered with the urgency and immediacy of a deathbed breath. It overwhelms. It terrifies.
Since the release of her 1999 debut album Dogs on Socialist Records — an imprint which Nastasia briefly ran alongside her artistic and romantic partner Kennan Gudjonsson — there has existed a troubling tension in her music. “Under your thumb/ Am I suffering/ From being tired?/ Keep it easy/ I’m not one to fight,” she sang on “Smiley,” an early, representative song. In the six albums she released between 2000 and 2010, Nastasia has been singing to a subject prone to emotional torrentialism and to a death-drive that contrasted with her own survivalism and need to be alive.
In 2010, after the release of her album Outlaster, in which she sung, “Her voice was settled on leaving trouble behind,” she disappeared. In the years since, I, among other fans, have been trying to reach out to her. In March 2020, right when the pandemic began, I heard from Nastasia for the first time. “I hope you’re doing okay,” I felt compelled, perhaps even supernaturally moved to message. She replied a day later. “I’m just getting back into music now. I’ve just lost my partner of 25 years to suicide. Let’s talk soon,” she said.
Gudjonsson, her partner, died by suicide less than 24 hours after Nastasia decided to leave him in January 2020. Riderless Horse — her first album in 12 years, recorded by longtime collaborator Steve Albini — was written in the immediate aftermath of Gudjonsson’s death and performed like a fresh report of everything she’d felt in her first months without him. It also serves as a frantic retrospective of her years with him. Like each Nastasia album, it contains every shade: joy, terror, sweetness, dourness, true love, pure hatred. But unlike her previous releases, which included baroque flourishes of accordion, strings and scattershot percussion, Riderless Horse is remarkably stark. As heard on the album’s finale “Afterwards,” out today, it sounds almost improvisational, unedited, documented off-the-cuff like a field recording.
“It’s been a really, really long time of not doing it and I’m really happy to be back. It’s a bittersweet kind of thing,” she says, picking up our Zoom call with a grin, glowing skin, blond highlights in her hair.
She’s staying at a hotel in Ohio, traveling east towards her new home in Vermont, calling in to family and old friends on her way. Nastasia has just spent the past month supporting Mogwai on their tour across the States — her first tour in well over a decade.
Talking to journalists had once been her least favorite part of the job. The writer almost always remarked on her deep unease in previous interviews. Today, she appears desperate to talk. Speaking for several minutes at a time, she goes between laughing and crying; intense contemplation and playful whimsy. She treats me like an old family friend.
During her dozen years of disappearance, Nastasia made little signs of wanting to resurface. In 2018, she released a Christmas song without explanation. Three years prior, a children’s clothing brand named Fitcher’s Bird followed me on Instagram. I’d suspected it may have been Nina herself (the person behind the account “liked” a photo of Nastasia I’d posted two years prior). “Yeah, that was me!” she says. It was a kind of midlife crisis, she explains. While others who enter their mid-forties might decide to buy a motorcycle and galavant across the country, Nastasia chose to embark on a niche business venture, designing funereal clothes for toddlers. She hardly knew how to sew. The outside of her designs were clean and elegant; inside, they were a tangled, Frankensteinian jumble. She brought to fashion a similarly amateurish and untechnical approach as she does to music — unrefined and unedited but wholly, chaotically, gloriously her.
For the next several years, Nastasia took on odd freelance jobs, assisting styling and makeup work, trying to make money in order to support herself and Gudjonsson.
Music had become too difficult “because of the dynamic with him,” she says. She no longer felt able to pursue music alongside him, and going it alone “would have felt like a betrayal.” His contribution to her music career was enormous; for years, he practically shaped it. “All those records sound the way they sound because of his choices,” she says. “We worked together in terms of instrumentation and how we wanted the records to sound.”
Gudjonsson, she says “was very, very smart,” a “fantastic editor.” She learned how to become a better writer through him; she had the feeling and the verve while he had the discipline and technicality. He wanted her songs to communicate better. He’d tell her when to lean into poetry and vagueness and when to embrace specificity and objectivity. “I’d sit in the bathroom and write songs and come out, play, and he’d get very excited about it and say, “I don’t really know what you’re saying here, and I think it might be useful to know what you’re saying here'” So it went.
Gudjonsson had a very clear vision for Nastasia; he chose where she played, the size of her band. Those decisions were often financially risky, which made Nastasia — a parsimonious pragmatist — buckle. “I’m sure I would have done things differently, but then a lot of his big risk-taking got us some great opportunities,” she says. “The difference now is that I can make choices that I would make.”
While Gudjonsson had considered suicide from a young age, she says, Nastasia has never considered it. She is stubbornly, vehemently alive. She wants to learn everything she can — multiple languages, at least. “I need at least 200 more years,” she says. She shares her mother’s tenacity in that way. Despite living with “a brutal illness” (Nastasia chooses not to expand upon this), her mother was a beacon of life. When she became pregnant with Nina, the doctors told her to have an abortion. “But she said ‘nah,’ and so here I am,” she says.
It’s Nastasia’s desire to live that moved her to finally leave Gudjonsson. She remembers the moment when it dawned on her that this was it: this was her final “opening.” She was in her fifth decade. The tiny New York apartment she shared with Gudjonsson was stiflingly dark — literally — blackened with damp and mold. “We weren’t whole people with or without each other, and I knew that this would just be the rest of our lives, and it would probably get even worse,” she says. It was the hardest thing Nastasia has ever had to do. “I didn’t just leave,” she says, putting her hand to her forehead, “I stayed in the action with him,” letting him talk through his feelings with her.
A close friend made sure she didn’t see the body. “Thank God,” she says, playing rapidly with her fingers, squinting her eyes. “It’s hard not to feel responsible, because it’s as though my action caused that reaction.” She’s still trying to let that feeling go. “It’s one of those things where you can start to feel like you can have that power to really hurt someone to that degree,” she says, putting her hand to her heart, “but intellectually, I know I can’t do that.”
When he died, Nastasia was left with all of Gudjonsson’s unfinished art projects. “Everything he did had to be perfect and he could never achieve it because he always had to go higher and higher, but sometimes he did, and he created amazing pieces of art,” she says. She made a space for them in a large storage unit in Manhattan, setting up a memorial to him — an installation of his life. His friends and family came in and took what they wanted. For Nastasia, the process was vital.
She began writing and making music straight after. “It was almost like vomiting out that record,” Nastasia says. She shared the songs as soon as they were written with a handful of close friends, something she’d previously only done with Gudjonsson, “because God forbid you had a line in there that you’d feel stupid for later.” Nastasia has shirked this attitude from her art entirely — not that it ever really belonged to her, anyway. She doesn’t believe in “perfection,” “greatness,” “the best” when it comes to music.
Creating without those impossibly high expectations looming over her “felt like jumping into ice cold water,” she says. “‘This is going to feel super uncomfortable but eventually it’ll feel great to do,'” she told herself, “because if you’re so concerned about that, you can never become better. You learn a lot from other people and allowing yourself to fall on your face.”
She felt the difference in playing shows straight away. “Before, if I screwed up a note on the guitar there was always that feeling of, ‘I’m going to get it’.” Nastasia stops herself for a moment. “I want to be careful to not paint him as a total monster, he just had insanely high standards that I couldn’t fulfill,” she says. “Touring with Mogwai,” she begins again, her hand gestures becoming erratic, “was perfect. I finally felt present in a way I hadn’t before. I felt like, ‘Well, if I screw up, that’s OK.’ I can fall off the tightrope and go, ‘Oh wow, fuck! I fell off the tightrope,’ and then get back on it and do it again and continue, as opposed to being so terrified that I was gonna fall off the tightrope that I could never recover.”
The tour proved to Nastasia that she could do all the things she was made to believe she couldn’t. “Now I’m coming down from that feeling,” she says, “and it almost feels like a betrayal. It’s incredibly sad that I would feel such incredible freedom, but I do, and that’s a tricky thing. In a way, it feels like Kennan checked out so that I could live.”
She’s a riderless horse now, to be sure, but she still feels responsible for Gudjonsson’s legacy, the ways in which he’s kept alive. She’s careful not to divulge specifics (“because if I did, he’d be vilified”) and to present him as a man who held contradictions. This is, and it cannot be understated, an incredibly difficult thing to do. It feels all too easy to exalt or demonize the dead, in a way that’s almost impossible when they’re alive — when you’re faced with the whole flute of their existence, their moods, their mutability, their inconvenience. You can’t bicker with the dead. You can’t tell them to put the toilet seat down. But Nina talks about Gudjonsson with the complexity of the living. “He had so many things he wanted to do,” she says. “But it’s a strange thing to be so open and talk about us in this way. We’re all so flawed and complicated. It’s hard to be a person in the world. It’s fucking hard. People aren’t simple. People aren’t just abusers.”
Nastasia doesn’t have any wisdom to impart from her “incredibly complicated and convoluted situation,” but it feels important for her to tell this story, to have it connect with anyone who may need it. “The psychological and controlling aspects of abuse are so confusing because you don’t necessarily look at it as abuse. Even now, it’s a very, very weird thing to call it for me. But it’s pretty clear that’s what it was,” she says. “It’s like, yeah, I wanna talk about it, but I have absolutely no idea what I wanna say about it.”
We don’t tend to realize it until we’re faced with it, but freedom can feel terrifying. “It’s true,” says Nastasia. “And I was terrified, but not so much anymore, because I’ve ‘looowered my expectations’,” she sings, referencing a ’90s MADtv sketch. “And you know, I need to learn how to drive a car again, I need to drive across the country because I’ve never done that. Those sorts of things, they’re terrifying, but because I’m on a fast-track to do them, it overrides the fear.”
Riderless Horse is out 7/22 on Temporary Residence.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org to chat with someone online.