All photos by Jeff Wasilko
Every musician dreams of crafting the perfect hook to catch our collective attention, drive hot gay dudes to lip-sync and deployed soldiers to upload their dance moves to Youtube. But sometimes the knack for writing of-the-moment music traps an artist in a certain era. Maybe she becomes complacent; possibly it’s public perception that confines her, or perhaps she’s paralyzed by the fear that she’ll never transcend an early hit.
Not so for artists Nerissa and Katryna Nields, a cult folk/rock duo with a relatively small but matchlessly fervent fan base. Set to release their sixteenth album, the sisters have performed together for over twenty years.
Interviewing Nerissa, I was struck by the similarity between her take on the foundation of their longevity and a comment by R.E.M.’s Micheal Stipe in a recent salon.com interview. “I’m so glad we haven’t had a hit yet,” Nerissa told me. “Because that means the hit we have is still inside of us.”
Speaking of R.E.M.’s 1994 album “Monster,” Stipe said “in classic R.E.M. style, we were yet again out of time. We were doing something that was either a little too before or a little too behind what was actually happening.” Though he does not relate this tendency to the band’s staying power, the two seem inexorably linked.
Such is also the case for Nerissa and Katryna Nields. “We’re not willing to follow the rules in order to have a wider audience,” Nerissa said. But by making their own rules these talented siblings have ensured their permanence.
Our Town I’m sure you constantly field this question, but what’s it like to blur the line between family and career?
Nerissa Nields It’s a great question and I’m never tired of answering it. We don’t understand how people can work creatively with anyone other than their sibling. We work really hard at our relationship. We’re only two years apart and we’ve always been exceptionally close, really became best friends in our late teens and always had this dream to make music and have a career together. Eighty percent of our work together is about strengthening our relationship. We’re very intentional. I’m the songwriter and I’m the older sister and when I asked Katryna if she would be in a band with me, she said, “okay but only if you promise that I’m never going to feel like Art Garfunkel.” If one of us is getting too much attention, we say, “it’s not fair. (We talk the way we did when were little), “I need more attention,” and the other one says “okay.”
OT Your shows feel like a visit with old friends. Was it a conscious choice to let your between-song patter become so much a part of your performance?
NN We grew up in the folk world and early in our career saw acts like Cheryl Wheeler, Moxy Früvous, Ani Difranco and Dar Williams, who is one of our best friends, and it was always part of the show. Certainly Cheryl Wheeler; I love her music, I love her songwriting, but I go to her shows just as much to hear what she’s going to say. When we were sort of forming our identity as an act we were watching a lot of David Letterman and Conan O’Brian and we naturally tried to infuse our shows with comedy. Basically, we’re giving back what we like to see.
OT In addition to your music, you’ve written several books, most recently All Together Singing in the Kitchen. How is writing a book different than crafting a song?
NN I’m a person with a short attention span and I love the song for that reason. You can write a song in an afternoon. I also love the challenge of writing a book, but it’s a much bigger deal than writing a song. We wrote All Together in two years and that was from start to finish. It was a lot of rewriting and thinking and discussing. I feel really lucky I get to both write songs and books.
OT Back to songwriting, you write traditional folk story songs but some of your music has an autobiographical bent. Is one type easier to write?
NN It depends where I’m at in my life. When I’m struggling with something emotionally I want to write about that. When I’m in a really happy place, I’m more interested in writing story songs, being a little bit more theoretical. In 2000, 2001 when my marriage began to break up I wrote "Love and China," which songwriting-wise, was a huge departure. Almost every song on that record is very personal. "Sister Holler" I wrote when I was incredibly happy, again more theoretical songs. The record we’re not quite finished making, I wrote most of when I was a new mother of two. Having one child was pretty easy for me emotionally; having two really threw me. It was a much more complete sacrifice of my life. So, the songs on the new record are very personal. They’re really about the confusion that is modern-day parenthood. A lot of them were Katryna’s inspiration. She would call me and say, “Hey, write about this.” I feel like I was writing for both of us.
OT Do you feel vulnerable performing more confessional songs?
NN I’m very comfortable singing my songs. I guess I never think the audience assumes they’re autobiographical. Especially in the 90’s, I was writing songs I wasn’t necessarily singing, so there was always a question in my mind, is this really about me? And I assumed the audiences would have the same question. Is this Katryna or Nerissa or someone who isn’t either of them? I’ve always felt cloaked by that. For example, Gotta Get Over Gretta-
OT That’s so funny, that’s the next question on my list. I wanted to ask about its origins.
NN Well, that’s the perfect example. We were playing at the Wetlands in New York and Katryna came out of the bathroom and said, “Oh my god, I know the title of our new record. It’s 'Gotta Get Over Gretta.'” She’d seen it graffitied on the wall. She said, “you need to write a song based on that Margaret Atwood book, Cat’s Eye." It’s about this very intense friendship between these two teens as they grow into women. So, that’s part of [GGOG]. Also, in grammar school, I had a best friend for a year who told me she wanted to be best friends with someone else. The whole [next] year my heart was broken. There wasn’t anything sexual about it; I just loved her. And yet it was also my first experience of heartbreak. So I knew it was possible to have a platonic relationship that was just as heartbreaking as a romantic one. Even so, I deliberately planted some innuendos in GGOG that made it seem sexual. I kind of wanted that intrigue. I was sort of writing about myself and I was sort of writing about a character and I sort of was a character.
OT You have a good size body of work at this point. Were any songs particularly important in teaching yourself how to write?
NN I wouldn’t have been able to answer last year, but because we spent so much time this spring planning our 20th anniversary concert weekend, I really listened to my body of work and did a lot of thinking about that. I feel like I made a huge leap with "Love and China." Until then, I’d thought ‘I am not a confessional singer songwriter and I don’t want to be,’ but that record made me able and open to do that. A lot of the songs on "Sister Holler" were so easy to write, and it was a revelation that I was allowed to write songs that were easy for me. Recently, I was asked to write a song for a local organization called MotherWoman, a love song to mothers. It took me six weeks to write which is a long time for me, but I pushed myself really hard, wanted to get every note right. It’s a tearjerker; like, people hear it and they cry. I never knew I was capable of that. I think it’s really important for songwriters to outdo themselves, keep pushing to write better and better songs. You know, I’m forty-four, and I don’t feel like, oh, those great songs I wrote way back when, I’ll never be able to reproduce that. I still believe I have a hit inside of me.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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