Band of the Week: Nina Nastasia and Jim White

December 3rd, 2007: As seen on Paste (PDF)

Hometown: Hollywood, Calif. (Nina Nastasia); Melbourne, Australia (Jim White)

Fun Fact: Nastasia doesn’t own a single record. Nor does she consider herself a “music person” or one who “goes to record stores, browses around and collects records.”

Why They’re Worth Watching: The duo hit complexities with just a guitar and drum kit that rival 100-piece orchestras. Paired with the simultaneously tender and treacherous dynamic of Nastasia’s pipes, an especially poignant brand of folk is forged.

For Fans Of: Neko Case, Joni Mitchell, Cat Power

Nina Nastasia didn’t find her way to making music like many of her contemporaries. Growing up in Hollywood, not involved in any particular music scene, she didn’t even play an instrument. Her most vivid memory is an Oingo Boingo show at the Whisky A Go Go.

Even when she moved to New York on a whim, she didn’t pick up a guitar for another four years, and it was only for fun, an escape from the hell of a waitressing gig. To this day, now in her thirties, Nastasia does not buy records.

But as soon as she started recording, she immediately blossomed into a genuine singer-songwriter presence. It was then she began emoting otherwise simple, melancholic folk pluckings about failed dreams and broken relationships, transforming them into wise, old-soul territory, mostly just by virtue of her God-given voice, capable of both swelling and crushing a heart in a single breath.

It’s not technical prowess that makes Nastasia’s music so affecting, even with Steve Albini helming the studio knobs. But Albini, as with most things he touches, accentuates everything; every lingering vibrato slowly smoke-wisps away, every drumbeat punctuates a sentiment. Nastasia’s debut, Dogs (2000), is one of the loudest quiet records of the last 10 years. Albini has said the record is “so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that [he] can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it [and him] sound silly.”

So it was natural that Albini would continue to work with Nina, producing her next three records via his favored label, Chicago’s Touch and Go. It was also through Albini that Nastasia would meet Aussie drummer, Jim White, of Australian instrumental band Dirty Three, of which Albini was a friend. “We needed a drummer, kind of last minute for Run to Ruin (2003),” Nastasia recalls. “Kennan [Nastasia’s boyfriend and musical arranger] and I were fans of Dirty Three. And, of course, Jim’s drumming. Steve connected us. I think we had one rehearsal, and then we all went to this Mexican restaurant and hung out.”

As run-of-the-mill as this story may sound, it led to You Follow Me, a marrying of Nastasia’s trademark coffee-shop guitar with some of the most improvisational drumming White could jazz up. Except, it’s not improvised at all. Rather, it’s extremely calculated, in the same way that Albini accentuates his productions. It’s in this way that the combination blurs the line between who’s leading whom, hence the album title. “Sometimes Jim takes over, sometimes I do,” Nastasia says. “We wanted everything to be very specific.”

At just over a half hour, You Follow Me is the little record that could. It maximizes every playful verse (“I don’t believe in the power of love/ I don’t believe in the wisdom of stone”) with a tom-tom sputter (“Our Discussion”). Every bar chord is punched with a quick bass-cymbal snap (“In The Evening”). And every tortured sentiment (“This is the way/ everything changes”) is supplemented with a flurry of snare brushes. It’s so spacious and so thick with some of the simplest sounds. And yet, so innocent.

“I’m not a person who really knows bands and what’s going on,” Nastasia insists. Even if she is playing the modest card, it’s another example of how greater less is than more.

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