It’s hard to believe that The Nields have been making music and recording their special brand of music for over 20 years. What was once a five-piece rock band has been streamlined into a duo comprising Nerissa and Katryna. Sister harmonies are something special but when it comes to those of Nerissa and Katryna---we’re talking a sound that is organic, crystal clear and possesses a magic like no other. The Full Catastrophe is their sixteenth album. As you’ll read below, this album may have taken a bit longer than previous ones to produce and release, but it’s been well worth the wait. These two sisters are in it for the long haul---their obvious love for one another and for what they do is unmistakable and while they admit that their current world is difficult to navigate at times, it’s clear that the folk world continues to clamor for more of their music.
I was just thinking about how long you two sisters have been singing together and, of course, how long you've been a part of each other’s lives. What's the longest period of time you've ever spent apart?
Nerissa: I think the longest we ever spent apart was when Katryna went to Nepal for 3.5 months, and I was just out of college and living in Virginia. Not only were we halfway around the world from each other—and this was years before the internet, so we communicated by airmail which took three weeks!—but we were also in completely different worlds. She was in a learning environment, and I was in my first (and only) job out of college. But it was during this amazing period that Katryna decided she wanted to be a singer, and that she wanted to sing with me. She was having a conversation with a Nepalese teacher who asked her, in Nepali, what she was going to be when she grew up. She said, “How do you say ‘lawyer in Nepali?” He looked at her, confused. “But aren’t you going to be a musician?” She realized, “Oh, yes. I am.”
Tell us about FAWM (February Album Writing Month). You've been dedicated to this practice for a while now---how do you get yourself psyched up to write so many songs in one month's time? How did it go this year?
Nerissa: I first did FAWM in 2009, I believe. I hadn’t heard of it until a HooteNanny mom posted on Facebook that she and her family were doing it. I thought, “If they can do it, surely I can!” I set the bar very low for myself. I don’t do it officially (there is a website: FAWM.org). I just try to write 14 songs in 28 days. Some of the songs that first year were extremely simple and short. To wit:
I want you to appreciate the boo
I want you to appreciate the boo
I want you to appreciate the boo
And while you’re at it, appreciate the view.
(My then 2 year old Lila would shout “Boo!” after each “boo.”)
But this silly song turned into a much better song, “Between Friends,” which we put on our CD The Full Catastrophe. That idea of appreciating the view turned into the second verse of that song:
I have a friend who has
A view of the Hudson River
He works all week just to enjoy his little sliver of view
Sometimes he forgets to look
I wrote several songs that ended up on The Full Catastrophe, both that year and the next (2009-2010) including “Good Times are Here,” “I Am Half my Mother’s Age,” “The Full Catastrophe,” and “Ten Year Tin.” In 2011 I wrote a bunch of very silly songs. I think I didn’t even try in 2012. Last year (2013) I did try, and it was a disaster. I’d been working hard on a novel I’m writing called The Big Idea, and it was as if I’d forgotten how to write songs. This really scared me. I realized I needed an overhaul in my musical life, and I began listening again. I instituted a “music zone” into my daily life. Sometimes this would entail just playing a song someone else wrote, or figuring something out on my guitar. Sometimes just listening. Sometimes trying to write. Eventually this morphed into my taking piano lessons, which I am loving. So when this year’s FAWM rolled around, I was ready. I was poised! And it’s been the most productive and most fun FAWM ever. I have my 14 songs, and it’s not even March 1! Some are silly, but they are all substantial and useful.
I think it’s great for songwriters to write songs, at least sometimes, just to work those songwriting muscles. I have put in my 10,000 hours of practice. I have probably averaged one song a month since about 1988. That’s over 300 songs. And of those, we’ve recorded around half of those (16 CDs, at least 10 originals per disk…) So I know how to write a song. Still, sometimes, when I am sitting with my guitar or at the piano, it’s as if I am a pure beginner again. That first phrase is the hardest.
One last thing I’ll say, and this goes for any kind of writing, too: it helps to give yourself permission to write a really bad song. Or to say to myself, “I’m going to do what Phillip Price (from the Winterpills) does, which is to write 5 versions of this song.” That takes the pressure off!
You’re not just a songwriter but you've also written a young adult novel, Plastic Angel, and a how-to book, How to Be an Adult. How would you compare the writing process for books vis a vis songwriting?
Nerissa: It’s not that different, insofar as in both cases, you just have to sit down and do the work. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable with doing nothing. You have to be willing to write badly, or write what you don’t love. To sit with the yuck factor and have faith in yourself that it’s not really as bad as you think, that there is such a thing as a second draft, that you’ve done this before and you can do it again.
That being said, I vastly prefer songwriting! Mostly because once the song is done, you can sing it and get immediate feedback. With a book (fiction, anyway) you have to wait a very, very long time for a response from the world. That’s why I run writing groups. I love to get feedback, and when one writes with a group (the kind of group I run, anyway), you get that immediate feedback on your work. I also like writing blog posts for the same reason I like writing songs. You work, you polish, and then it’s out there.
You're also a trained life coach. Do you find this kind of work rewarding? Does it teach you as many things about yourself as you teach your clients?
Nerissa: Yes, I love working as a life coach. I am from the school of thought that we don’t get to keep any of our hard won wisdom unless we give it away. It’s in the sharing of the stories and struggles, the willingness to be vulnerable, that we ourselves learn. We see things so much more clearly in another person. And of course I learn from my clients. Coaching is a reciprocal process.
Katryna's daughter, Amelia, is now making music as part of a group called Belle Amie. Do any of the other Nields children have musical aspirations?
Nerissa: My kids, Lila and Johnny, are both Suzuki violinists. They also play the piano whenever they can, and they both want to play guitar. Of course they both sing and compose. William is extremely musical too. I won’t be at all surprised if they form a band one day. It’s an absolute joy to play with Amelia. She astounds me. I wish I could play bass the way she can.
Katryna: When we started recording, it was a huge revelation to even hear ourselves on tape. Before we set foot in a studio, the closest we had ever come to recording was on a dictaphone tape recorder in our basement. Nowadays, we can make pretty good quality videos or even audio recordings right in our living room on our computers. So the mystery of the recording process has really changed during our lifetimes.
We have gone through many different recording styles. There were times when we were paying by the hour at fancy expensive, well equipped recording studios. Then we built our own studio and had a producer- bandmate and husband of Katryna, Dave Chalfant- whom we trusted completely. The last studio CD we recorded as a 5 piece band was If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Now. We made the conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to the making of the CD for as long as it took to finish. We had no limits, timing or financial. We decided to let each song speak for itself. There was not an overarching idea of how the whole CD had to sound. We just addressed each song individually and trusted that the whole recording would work together in the end. It was a great way to make a CD and it set the tone for how we would record for years. The difference between that CD and The Full Catastrophe was, well, the full catastrophe that our lives had become! When we recorded in the 90s, our only other obligation was to play shows together. By the time we were recording The Full Catastrophe, we had children, husbands, music classes we were teaching, writing groups we were leading, volunteering in our communities, gardens, laundry, dishes, carpooling, etc... It took months to record If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Now. It took years to record The Full Catastrophe. What was the same with both projects was that we continued to let each song speak for itself and that we gave ourselves the time and space to create, make mistakes and fix the mistakes. Dave Chalfant gave us the same environment he always has. One that was supportive and challenging without being pressured or stressful.
It's safe to say that the theme of this particular record is as you you refer to it---the Great Juggling Act. You're both musicians, mothers, wives, active community members and creative spirits. How do you manage to juggle all those parts of your lives?
Katryna: Well, mostly we accept that we will not really manage it all. We drop balls a lot. And we try hard to take joy in the things we do well in any given moment. We have messy houses, excellent supportive spouses and amazing communities. We definitely tour less than we used to. We have lots of ideas that we just have to write down and hope that we get time in the future to act on them. We consider ourselves very lucky. Life is wide and rich and busy and exasperating sometimes, but we really would not want it any other way. It feels like some kind of a miracle that we have been able to find work that dovetails so beautifully with our lives as touring musicians. We created a host of classes we call HooteNanny. We teach classes for kids age 0-5 with their grown ups, classes for kids ages 4-9, guitar to parents who want a little more music in their family life, and run monthly whole family sing-alongs. Nerissa leads writing groups and retreats. We have both written books. I run a chorus and a cappella group at a local school and we both volunteer in our own children's schools to bring a little more music to their elementary schools. We drive and walk our children to their various activities. For us, it feels like a full and complete life. We asked for all this craziness. We really wanted the full catastrophe. We wanted to get to keep playing music for people. So we had to create lives that would allow for that. So far, so good.
This video for "Ten Year Tin" celebrates Nerissa and Katryna Nields' time together as a duo:
Photo by Kris McCue
To learn more about The Nields, check out their website.