Talking with Nerissa Nields

A luminary from the world of folk music shares why — and how — she writes.

We’re in the living room of a small apartment in New Haven, CT. CDs and DVDs line the shelves on the walls. There’s a television in one corner and a small Christmas tree in the other. Plastic figures of Sigmund Freud and Jesus stare down at the assembling guests. Two couches and a few rows of folding chairs take up most of the floor space, providing seats for about 25. It’s not the sort of space in which you expect to hear a concert by a band that has toured the country playing to sold-out crowds, not the atmosphere in which you’d expect to encounter a band famous enough to have albums at the local Best Buy. Nevertheless, on this December night, it’s exactly where Nerissa and Katryna Nields will perform.

Few artists are more famous or well-respected within the folk music subculture than the Nields. They’ve played everywhere from the Newport Folk Festival to Lilith Fair, going through several evolutions in sound along the way. At one point they were part of a full-blooded rock band that included electric guitars, drums, and bass. Today the sisters usually play by themselves, harmonizing their hauntingly beautiful voices over the strumming of Nerissa’s acoustic guitar.

Katryna, left, and Nerissa NieldsThis evening the sisters apologize for having to sit through the performance. Normally they prefer to stand, but Nerissa is a few months pregnant. No one in the audience seems to mind. Even in the world of folk music it’s not often that performers of this magnitude do such a small and intimate show. But the Nields seem right at home here, playing through a selection of new songs mixed together with crowd-pleasing favorites.

Nerissa writes the songs that bring the duo its loyal following. She has also recently become a novelist, writing a young adult book called Plastic Angel that was published last year. Another novel is set for publication this year. In addition, she has begun to lead writing workshops in her home in Massachusetts.

I caught up with Nerissa by phone a few weeks before the New Haven show. We talked about writing and performing, her family, and the incredible narrative draw of adolescence.

J-Tron: Where did you grow up?

Nerissa Nields: Born in New York City. My family moved when I was seven to a suburb outside of Washington, DC. So I pretty much grew up in a town called McLean, VA.

J: When did you first start writing songs?

NN: Well, I always wanted to write songs. My father always sang to us, and I just thought songs were magical. I started really writing when I was 13.

J: What motivated that?

NN: It was sort of like I always, always, always wanted to write songs. When I was 13, John Lennon died. I had already been a completely obsessed Beatles fan but I became more so a completely obsessed Beatles fan. I just thought about music all the time. I don’t even remember the exact details now around writing my first song. It was just sort of like a big push of inspiration and energy and out came a song. And once I wrote that song, I found I could write lots of songs. And I just began writing all the time.

J: Do you still remember the first one?

NN: Oh, yes! It was called “Don’t Say Goodbye.”

J: What was it about?

NN: Love, of course. (laughter) I don’t know who it was to. I mean it wasn’t to anybody real, I don’t think. It was sort of, you know, like, my idea.

J: How do you, today, go about writing songs? What is your process like?

NN: Well, today I lead writing groups on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I give the whole group a prompt — and it can be anything, it can be a stuffed toy lion or a crazy hat or a couple of lines of poetry — and that sort of bumps around in our subconsciouses. I go upstairs and go into a private office. Most of the people I write with are prose writers. So they stay downstairs and write at the dining room table or in the living room. Sometimes I have another songwriter and then they get my meditation room. Actually, I usually go into my bedroom. That’s where I tend to write. I just take out a little tape recorder and a notebook that I write songs in, and I just write for 45 minutes. And I usually come up with a song.

J: Is that very different from how you’ve done it through the years?

NN: Yes. I used to believe that you had to be on fire with an idea in order to write a song, and that you needed peace and quiet and nobody around. It was this excruciating, giving-birth kind of situation.

I think it’s partly that I’ve done it so much that I don’t just pile on the mysteries anymore and just sort of let the song come. I trust that the song will come. That’s not to say that I never have writer’s block. Sometimes the song doesn’t come. But generally when I want to write a song, it’s right there for me.

J: How does your songwriting process differ from fiction writing?

NN: I find songwriting easier, mostly just because it’s much shorter. And sometimes that makes it harder because the idea needs to be really distilled. I don’t have as much real estate to work with so every word counts in a way that it doesn’t quite with fiction. When I write fiction I’m usually much looser and know that whatever I write is going to be edited at some point, that I’m going to edit it down, that I’m not going to use every single thing I write. And because I’ve been writing songs for so much longer then I’ve been writing fiction, I’m a lot more efficient with songwriting. I pick the right words at the right time more quickly. There’s less of a lag time.

J: Do you prefer one to the other?

NN: I think ultimately I’m a songwriter. I like listening to songs more than I like reading books. So in that sense, I think I prefer the song as an art form to the novel. But I also love writing novels. I love watching characters develop, the twists in the plot, the way a reader gets to inhabit a world, and getting to create that world. I like them both. I really love them both. I’m glad I get to do both.

J: In terms of your songwriting and your music, you’ve certainly been adopted by folk music fans. Do you consider what you do folk music?

A few albums and other Nields goodiesNN: Yes, I do. I think folk music is a very broad term. It’s kind of like pornography: We can’t define what it is exactly but we know what it is when we hear it. In that sense, you hear two voices that sound the way my voice and my sister’s voice sound together, playing with an acoustic guitar, and I’m using certain kinds of melodies that share a vocabulary with something that we all know is folk music. I think I’ve gotten more true to folk music as my career has evolved then it was in the beginning. But I think it was always folk. And nobody was ever fooled when we played with electric guitars and drums. (laughter) They all knew it was folk music. And it’s even more that way now.

The newest record that we’re working on, the songs that I’m writing right now, are songs where I take a line or an idea from a previously existing folk song and write a whole new song around that idea — which to me is the folk tradition in action. Folk music by definition is handed down from generation to generation, and songs evolve with their interpreters.

J: So these are songs you know from other people, or these are previous songs that you’ve written?

NN: Well, for example, I wrote a song called “Abington Sea Fair” which is based on the concept of Scarborough Fair, which is an ancient song from the 15th or 16th century that Bob Dylan reworked in 1962 for his “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album (and he called it “Girl from the North Country”) and then Paul Simon reworked it, calling it “Scarborough Fair” again in the mid-sixties. My “Abington Sea Fair” has nothing in common with either of those melodies. But it’s that whole idea of a narrator telling a friend “When you go to this fair, you’re going to see my old love. Tell him this from me.” Or “See about this from me.” That kind of a format. So that’s one example.

Another song I wrote on this record is called “Moonlighter.” I took the idea from an old folk song called “Moonshiner” which is about an alcoholic. In the old song “Moonshiner,” the line is “I’ve been a moonshiner for seventeen long years / I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer.” My version is about moonlighting. It says “I’ve been a moonlighter without switching gears / I’ve been waiting for Albany for seventeen long years.” It’s about this woman who is still in love with this man. It completely parts company with the other song at that point, but I used it as a jumping off point. Does that make sense?

J: Yes, yes. When will the new record be out?

NN: Well, we’re hoping by this summer or fall.

J: It seems to me that adolescence is a recurring theme in your songs, and it certainly plays a part in your first novel. What makes that period of development interesting to you? Why do you come back to that so often?

NN: I think any kind of cusp time is fascinating. I was talking with my brother-in-law and guitar player Dave Chalfant about this the other day. He likes summer and winter because they’re seasons where things stay stable. I like autumn and spring because I like when things change. Adolescence is the ultimate changing. I’m just fascinated by that time in a person’s life because everything turns upside down. They still are functioning with a big part of their child brain and child way of seeing the world – which is wonderful and refreshing and somewhat authentic, I think. Or at least adults think that often.

And yet they’re gaining knowledge and they’re learning the ways of the world. They’re opening their eyes for the first time into adult ways. For an adult to read from a teenager’s point of view causes the adult to slow down a little bit and really reflect on where he or she is right now. How did I stray from my dreams and goals when I was 15 years old? How am I different? To be reminded of that mindset is powerful, I think.

J: Is there any of your own adolescent experience that comes into that?

NN: Sure. Probably not directly and autobiographically, but definitely the milieu. How could I see it any other way? I’ve only lived one life.

J: You are certainly and famously a sister. You are also an aunt and a wife. You are also now an expectant mother. How do your relationships affect your writing? And, conversely, how does your performing and publishing and so forth affect your relationships?

NN: I’m a person who puts family above career. It’s kind of that simple in a way. I just do. So I try to keep any kind of difficulty that might be associated with publishing and performing out of my relationships as much as I can. And of course saying that, you know that I work with my sister. We cherish our relationship and we cherish the career that we have together. We work very very hard to keep it in balance and to not do things that are going to step on each other’s toes or hurt each other’s feelings.

I write a blog on our Web page, and if I’m going to write about my husband I always show it to him first. And we discuss it, and I make sure he’s cool with it.

I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m going to be very careful about writing about my child. I think it’s sort of a disrespectful thing to do at times, for writers to write about their children. And it’s irresistible. And I’m not going to be quiet about it. I’m not going to pretend it’s not happening. But I definitely want my child to have privacy. So that’s going to be a challenge.

I try not to write directly about my relationships in my songs or novels. I use characters. And I don’t just, you know, put on a character and write about my relationships either. (laughs) I try to inhabit a character and imagine what those character’s relationships would be like. I’m sure it all sort of oozes around in there, but I really do try to protect the anonymity of the people I love and kind of keep them out of it.

I’m a life coach. I don’t know if that’s something you know. I have access to lots and lots and lots of people’s stories. There are ways in which I think little bits of all sorts of people’s stories get filtered in. But again I’m very careful with anonymity. It’s a principle that I respect a lot. People’s lives should not be cannibalized by other artists. I think that’s what an imagination is for. I’m blessed with a very fertile imagination. And I use it.

J: But you’re clearly interested in how people interact with each other even if they’re fictional people.

NN: Right, and I think that there are patterns that are true for humans, period. You can write about the archetypes and the patterns with impunity.

Article © 2006 by J-Tron