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Nina Nastasia 2022 A Color

In conversation with Nina Nastasia

21 July 2022, 08:00

On Riderless Horse, Nina Nastasia grapples with the tragic suicide of the man she both loved and feared. She talks to Alan Pedder about finding her worth in the process.

Nina Nastasia has been trying to tell us something; an awful thing, obscured in the abstractions and half-told conversations of her songs. Something that, for a long time, even she was shut off from.

On Riderless Horse, her first album after a 12-year absence, the veil is gone. What’s left is the unbrokered sound of a woman who has gone through hell and just kept going, and what it has cost her along the way. Written in the wake of her partner Kennan Gudjonsson’s suicide, it’s a record made of necessity, not just hewn from loss but purged from it.

For 25 years, Nastasia was synonymous with Gudjonsson, who was also her manager, producer and art director, among many other things. They had barely known each other a few days when they moved in together, into her one-room apartment in Chelsea, in 1995. Though he was working as a night manager at a studio at the time, Gudjonsson was an artist in his own right; a restless seeker and outsized perfectionist who not only wanted – and worked for – the best for Nastasia, but demanded so much from her, too.

As she tells it, their relationship became dysfunctional quite early on. Gudjonsson “suffered greatly” from a mental health condition that pushed him into controlling and manipulative behaviours, for which Nastasia inevitably blamed herself. From 2002’s The Blackened Air onwards, her crushed self-worth and loss of control began to colour her songs. Later albums had recurring themes of refuge, regret and a longing to start over, but her ability to write elliptically around her subjects meant that she as the abused stayed hidden in plain sight.

I met Nastasia for the first time in 2008, for an interview at The Roundhouse in Camden. She had been sick with nerves before the show so our chat was moved to after. That’s often a risky time to talk, but she was in an unusually gregarious mood that day and backstage had the feeling of a travelling circus. Gudjonsson was there, too, in his customary black suit. A big man with a long beard, shouting something about blowjobs after us as we found a quiet corner to talk.

I saw her only twice after that, most recently at a small show in Shoreditch in 2012. She seemed much smaller then, less sure of herself; new songs had been promised but did not get played. For several years afterwards, Nastasia all but disappeared from music, playing only a couple of festivals curated by close friends. Until the announcement of Riderless Horse in April this year, the only signs that she hadn’t given up completely were two unexpected singles in 2018: a collaboration with Daniel Knox (“The Poisoner”) and a holiday song (“Handmade Card”) that, in hindsight, is quite revealing of the couple’s dire financial situation.

In a note written to explain the new album, Nastasia describes the many stressors and deep unhappiness of those missing years as like a “black mold... growing beneath the surface, undetected, and the two of us were dying and getting too weak to ever leave.” It was her fear of never getting out of their toxic stagnation that ultimately forced her hand. One Sunday in January 2020, she told Gudjonsson she wanted to separate and live apart; the next day, he was dead.

Resolute and stark, Riderless Horse finds Nastasia picking through the wreckage of half a lifetime of living in ever decreasing circles, but also planting seeds. Her sadness and guilt over Gudjonsson’s death is tempered by the happiness and hope she feels in rediscovering her own capabilities. “There’s a freedom I have in music now I don’t have someone trying desperately to steer it in a certain direction,” she tells me over the phone from her new home in Vermont. “It feels very unbridled.”

She and I talk twice, a few days apart, for around two and a half hours in total. Clearly still feeling her way through all the complex emotions of what has happened, she was nonetheless open, honest, and profoundly compassionate. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. It felt wrong to present it in any other way.

BEST FIT: It's so good to have you back, Nina. I know a lot of people have been thinking about you since you went quiet and hoping that you were okay. Obviously, things were not okay and I was really shocked and sad to hear about everything you’ve been through. I know things got very complicated and it’s probably not easy for you to talk about some of this stuff, so we can just see where the conversation goes.

NINA NASTASIA: Thank you, I really appreciate that. It did get very complicated, and I think when people talk about abusive relationships it can be very easy to simplify things. But even I don’t understand what happened at all. I’m just trying to get my head around it and it’s hard. I’m still figuring it out.

Let's start with something easy then. Because we're doing on this on the phone, maybe you could describe where you are right now.

I’m at home and it happens to be a really beautiful day. I’m renting a lovely two-floor wooden house that’s in quite a rural area. There are trees everywhere and it’s just super green right now. Sitting here, I’m watching my dog Misha running through the grass with a bright blue ball against the blue sky. Visually, it’s kind of cool.

I saw a photo of Misha. He looks super cute.

Oh, he's great. He’s a mini Australian Shepherd. After Kennan died, I wanted to get out of New York City and move to the country, but I felt like it might be quite a culture shock to do that, to put myself in an environment that’s a little out of the way and isolated. I wanted to get a companion so I started looking for a rescue animal, but of course it was during Covid so I had a hard time finding one.

I had met a mini Aussie who was a service dog but I don’t know if they are naturally good at it. They just really want to herd, you know? It might not have been the best choice but I'm super in love with him anyway. Having an animal makes all the difference in the world, so I’m thrilled. He definitely does all the things a support dog would do, except act like one.

You recently got back from quite a long North American tour opening for Mogwai, right?

Yes, so it’s a bit strange to be back here because it's so very still. On tour we were playing a different place pretty much every night, which I haven’t done in a while. I kind of got back into the groove of it and then drove back to Vermont, all the way across the country. It’s hard to stay out of the car now. I feel like I have to go somewhere. I'm kind of antsy to try to figure out what the next thing will be.

How did the tour go?

Well, you know that performing is not particularly easy for me. I can get really nervous. But the audiences were fantastic and the guys in Mogwai are all lovely people and incredibly supportive. It was kind of a dream tour. I was a little concerned that maybe I didn’t have it in me to do it, because I had to organise a lot of stuff myself; Kennan used to do so much as my tour manager. But I had Misha with me and some friends who helped with some of the driving. Everything was pretty perfect, I couldn't have had a better experience.

You've mentioned in the past that when you've gotten out the habit of performing, it's been very difficult and kind of terrifying to start back up.

Oh, god. Yeah, it is. To prepare, I did some open mics here in Vermont. Open mics are terrifying. You just have to sit until your name’s called and then you get to play only two or three songs and then you're off. It's awful. You don't get a chance to get comfortable or anything. I thought it would be fantastic as a sort of training before going out, since I hadn't played in with an audience in a while. They were very sweet and it was great for me to do, but the first one was terrifying.

Have you been playing out the songs from Riderless Horse yet?

No, and it’s a weird situation. Usually, I’m pretty good at compartmentalising and just getting something done, even if it's kind of a difficult thing. Sort of taking the emotion out of it, you know? But this new record is a bit of a bitch because it's not particularly fun to perform. I didn’t really think much about how it would feel to play these songs live. My only worry about putting out the record was that people might feel like I was being whiny. Because it was really just a case of going through something horrible, dumping it out on record, and releasing it.

Yeah, you’ve said it was kind of like you were vomiting out songs.

That's exactly what it was like. Vomiting them out and then kind of leaving them alone. It was important to me to do that and to not fuss around with the songs so much. It was what I wanted to say in that moment. It wasn't so much about trying to turn the songs into something bigger or better.

That’s another difference between the writing of your earlier records, where Kennan was on hand to offer his opinions.

Kennan was a great editor. He had a natural ability for it. He was somebody I could bounce ideas off. He knew right away what things worked and why, and what things didn't work and why, and I learnt a lot from that. Sometimes I would come up with something and it might be fully clear what I was thinking. Like, I wanted to express something but was only expressing maybe a quarter of it. And it’s not particularly clear or particularly poetic enough to work. I was doing all my writing in our bathroom because our apartment was so small. And sometimes he would be like, “Yeah, I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Go back in the bathroom.”

He had a natural ability for editing but I think it didn't help him any. He had a lot of artistic ability but he was constantly trying to make things better and better and better and better.

I can see how that could be a real problem. From what I understand, it seems like Kennan was sort of fighting himself constantly.

Oh my god. Absolutely. I mean, that's a perfect way of saying it. He had an extraordinary brain that was so capable of so many different things, and it was the thing that destroyed him. He was constantly fighting himself. That's a perfect way to say it. The stress of it was intense and it just became an impossible environment to survive in.

I mean, we were friggin’ lucky, lucky people because other people might not have the resources or the friends to live on the edge for so long like we did. Just trying to keep going financially. I feel incredibly privileged and kind of ashamed. There's a feeling of shame for having put myself in that situation when other people have very little choice in the matter. You know, it almost felt like a choice. But weirdly, I felt out of control of making any choices. I do still feel ashamed of the whole thing, which is not a useful way to think about it. But the feeling is certainly still there.

A lot of the songs on the record kind of speak for themselves, in that you’re often very direct in what you are communicating.

Yeah, they're pretty direct.

But I was wondering, are you always the ‘I’ in these songs? Or do you switch perspective and sing from Kennan’s point of view, for example?

This whole record is from my perspective. But I have written from other people’s point of view in the past, and I kind of like doing that. On other records, maybe I would start with writing about stuff that was really personal and then try to branch out from that a bit. Because even if you’re writing from someone else’s perspective, it’s all coming from something personal. Usually there’s something you have in common with that someone that lets you be able to step into their shoes.

When you talk about starting from personal experience and branching out from that, I immediately think of “This Is Love”. That’s a song where you sing about drawing blood and throwing punches, but, as I understand it, things were never physically violent between you and Kennan.

No, they weren't. That song comes from the feeling I had of almost wanting to feel the physical pain of the abuse. I just remember always feeling physically awful. There was a kind of fight or flight situation going on all the time in my body. My idea was that if he were to hit me, it would be so clear what was happening between us. That there would be some kind of release, some kind of clarity.

I constantly felt like I was creating a situation that was causing his behaviour. Like, if I hadn’t messed up in this way then I wouldn’t have pushed him into behaving that way. I’m sure people feel that way when they are getting hit, too. It’s hard to know. But I do think it’s harder to identify psychological abuse as something hurtful and painful, because you can’t see it.

I don't want to speak for what it feels like to be hit by a violent partner, because it’s never happened to me. But who knows? I might not have stayed in the relationship for such a long time if he had ever done that.

It’s tricky to say the least. I have spoken to so many women who have experienced similar psychological abuse from their partners, and I have seen it in my own family too. It’s honestly crushing.

It’s weird, every time I say the word ‘abuse’ I feel a bit conflicted. When I came up to Vermont, I felt like I needed to really tell the story to someone. I needed to say, well, this happened, and this happened, and this happened. I didn’t want to call it abuse. I honestly needed a professional to sit me down and tell me, “Yes, that was abuse, and it can have a very similar effect to being punched.”

It’s confusing for me and I still feel strange talking about it. I feel guilty, like I’m betraying him, you know? Because some of the things that Kennan was responsible for were just the most remarkable times that I would not have had without him. He had a cool vision for how to do certain things like touring and all that stuff. He really had a kind of ambition to have great experiences. Our relationship was like hell but there was also some real beauty in it, too.

For me, it’s important to look at all the angles and see that Kennan was not a “bad guy”. He did behave in ways that often would end up being very hurtful and damaging, but he suffered greatly. I think he really understood himself, which was odd and made it all very strange. I think he knew he didn’t want to be the way he was. It was like he would just have a total loss of control. It’s important to acknowledge the abuse but it’s also important to ask questions about why it happened, why it went on for so long, and how it might have been possible for him to get the help he needed.

As far as I understand it, he did get a particular diagnosis at one stage.

It’s interesting because I didn’t really intend to have that diagnosis be on the record. You know, I tend not to be very guarded with what I’m saying. But I’ve thought a lot about how much I want to talk about this, and sort of created rules for myself, because it’s easy for things to be taken out of context. You know, all of a sudden you’re not just having a conversation with someone, you’re saying something that’s out there forever, and it can come across very differently. Also, I am pretty sure that the diagnosis was corrected, so I don’t want to repeat that.

I don’t want to say or reveal anything unnecessary that could be harmful to Kennan’s memory. My goal is not to blacken his name or to make him look bad. My goal is to talk about mental illness and suicide because it's really serious. We all have ways in which we’ve learned to survive in the world, growing up, and we all have certain patterns of how we deal with conflict. You know, everybody comes to the table with something. And the kind of suffering that someone has to go through to then die by suicide… I think that’s important to talk about.

The problem is, it’s not like I have some great wisdom. I don’t. I’m just trying to figure out what the hell went on. But I do know that it’s not black and white. People can be incredibly loving, but also be doing things that go completely against everything that means.

In the year before Kennan died, you were quite sick for a long time with some kind of post-traumatic stress from a bad ayahuasca trip.

Yes, it seriously knocked me flat. Maybe someone else would have been able to handle it better, but I’m pretty sure I was given way too much. We did it two nights in a row. The first time I thought, wow, this is an incredibly interesting drug because it’s quite psychological. You don’t just see things. But the second time I definitely went into some kind of psychotic break and it was incredibly scary.

It’s kind of a shame because I do see the value in it if it's done correctly. I don't really know what it means to be done correctly, I guess it's an individual thing, but I know that I did not do it correctly and I hope to god that I would never be in a situation where I would make the choice to do it again. Have you done it?

No, and honestly I think I will skip it. Actually I wanted to talk about it because it’s quite interesting that when you were ill, you’ve said that things in your relationship with Kennan improved. He was really there for you, being very attentive and caring. Do you think there was an element of control to that?

First of all, I do think that, for Kennan, the experience with ayahuasca did actually help him, temporarily, and possibly made his brain function a little better. Also, he was very kind, he was very capable. And, you know, when somebody gets sick, it’s easier to let other frustrations fall away. It kind of gives you a purpose.

But yes, I do think there were a lot of control aspects to it. When I was sick, he had a real reason to spend his time being focused on what was going on with me. It was easy to know where I was all the time and what was going on. When I started feeling better, it became a little harder. But he went on to take care of a dear friend of ours who was very sick, and he became an advocate for that person. Honestly, he was remarkable. But once our friend got better as well, I think he felt pretty lost.

At that time, things were getting so, so bad between us. And I think he felt like he was losing control, which made it all worse. Ultimately, I realised that if we were to continue we were just going to make each other sicker and sicker, and less and less functional.

Was there a particular thing that was a final straw, or was it just like a process of the pieces falling into place?

It was a lot of pieces falling into place. It was just building up and up. I did have a moment of thinking, “If I don’t end this now, I will never be able to do it.” I’ve always had a strong will to survive and so I knew I could find a way to create a life for myself outside of our relationship, but I knew that would get harder as I got older. It would get harder and harder to find the strength to end it.

Kennan was struggling, but us being together was not helping his situation either. Did I see his suicide coming? No. I mean, it was always a fear in our relationship. But to me it seemed there was no way it could actually happen.

Have you had people close to you die by suicide before?

No, never. I've lost people who were close to me a handful of times, but Kennan’s suicide feels very different. There’s a lot of feeling guilty even though, intellectually, I know that I’m not guilty and that I didn’t make it happen. But there are definitely these feelings of wondering if I had done things a bit differently then maybe it wouldn’t have happened this way. It's a really strange feeling to have made an action and that the reaction to it was so… final. It's a complicated loss, that's for sure.

I can't imagine how it must have been to find him like that.

I have a friend who really saved me from seeing Kennan’s body, and that was huge. We had gone to his studio to find him. I was just about to look through the window to see if he was there, but my friend had an idea that something terrible had happened and he moved me aside and said, “No, I’ll look.” That was an incredible thing for him to do for me.

When somebody dies like that, it’s really hard to believe and you feel like you need to see for yourself. When they broke into his studio, I immediately asked for details that I now wish I didn’t know. Why do I need those images in my head? It’s just… it’s just all so sad.

Truly. I have had people close to me attempt suicide but they survived, and I honestly can’t imagine how the course of my life would have changed if they hadn’t.

There’s just so much attached to someone leaving like that.

Listening to the song “Afterwards”, I wondered if you had felt Kennan’s presence in a physical way since he passed?

For sure. After he died, I felt like I was being watched all the time. Kennan was extremely strong willed and if he wanted to hang around as a ghost, I’m sure he’d find a way to do it. No matter how many candles I blow out, or whatever well-meaning advice people give as to what to do to move a spirit forward.

When my mother died, I wanted so desperately to find some kind of proof that she was still there and that I would see her again or, you know, have some kind of communication. You can look for that stuff and find it all the time, and it’s kind of beautiful. But when you’ve been in a situation where you were so controlled, the idea is scary. It was a frightening thought that his spirit might still be around.

I felt under a microscope for so long in our relationship, and as much as I cared deeply about him and I know he cared deeply about me, it was just unhealthy. So I don’t think it would be good if his spirit was still hanging out, you know? Like, I don’t know that he would be thrilled with this conversation. But, yes, I definitely felt that he was still around at first, and I’m sure that has to do with feeling somewhat responsible for his death.

I remember from the “Cry, Cry Baby” video that the apartment in Chelsea that you shared with Kennan was full of all kinds of interesting objects. Are you still surrounded by all that stuff?

You know, things happened really fast after he died. I had to remove everything from the apartment and clear out his art studio right away. Then Covid hit, so I couldn’t really do anything with all the stuff. I ended up renting some storage in Manhattan and spent several weeks, eight hours a day, curating a sort of installation in that space. I wanted to sort of re-create how his studio had looked, and I put that together with some of the stuff from our apartment. The idea was that Kennan’s family and friends could come in and look around and take what they wanted to remember him by. I knew I couldn’t have a sort of shrine to him at home but I did keep a few things. We would make each other ornaments every year for Christmas, so I have those.

It sounds like you did something really meaningful. And I guess it was a probably an important step in your grieving process, too.

I think so. There's something about the busy work that you have to do when somebody dies that, for me, was actually really helpful. It felt like a good way to honour what he did.

I wanted to do some kind of service, and certainly a lot of his friends would have wanted that, but because Covid happened almost right away it was hard. Nobody was doing anything, nobody was getting together. In New York there were ice trucks full of bodies in the streets and everyone was really spooked.

Really strange and scary times. I’m wondering, when you reconnected with your family and friends after Kennan’s death, were they shocked by the extent of what had been going on? Or did they kind of know about it?

I do feel kind of weird talking about what happened in a public way, because the only people I wanted to tell at first were people who just absolutely loved Kennan and knew that he had issues. He was not a villain; he was just insanely troubled and getting in his way was really unhealthy. But, yes, a lot of them were quite shocked. I do think some people had a feeling that things were not right between us, while others thought that we were kind of a perfect couple.

If anybody had any inkling that something was not quite right with us, I would convince them that things were fine. I did a lot of work to make sure nobody knew what was happening, and it was very isolating and exhausting. As a result, I would have very limited access to people. It was very controlled, how long I would be able to see someone if Kennan wasn’t there. My relationships with people were very one-sided and compromised. I couldn’t really say anything about myself and I had to make sure that people never really thought to ask about anything.

That sounds so incredibly lonely. It's really unbelievable how we can learn to hide things from even the people who are closest to us.

It has been so amazing to be able to tell people I genuinely love, “I can be your friend now.” Because there were so many rules in the way before. When the controlling got to a certain level, I wasn’t able to be completely honest with people. So it feels pretty crazy to have real relationships now that I haven’t been able to have for 25 years.

It's a really strange feeling and just so, so sad. And the complicated thing is, Kennan would have hated the truth of the way that things were. I think he had a real ability to trick himself, to make himself believe that there was a different truth to what was actually happening. It’s just so complicated. And there are no simple answers.

I know I can’t be the first person to say this, but it has been quite a strange experience to listen back to your old records and sort of make connections between the songs you wrote then and what was really going on.

People have talked about it, that they can hear stuff now in songs that they weren’t able to recognise before. It’s weird to me that when I was writing those songs I was somehow able to kind of see the music as separate from my life, even though some of them were based on very real things from it.

To me, Riderless Horse feels like a direct response to something, whereas the albums before feel more like I was taking those thoughts of feeling trapped, feeling beaten down, and making them part of the stories of the songs. I didn’t think much about the fact that I was actually talking about myself.

It’s interesting because I’ve always felt with a lot of your older songs that you were only revealing small parts of the story. That you were able to convey how something felt without having to necessarily name it. You weren’t giving much away.

Yeah, and for this record I feel like I was giving everything away. And that’s fine. I’m happy with the songs because I didn’t feel like I had to hold back anything from anyone. I just had to say what’s been going on, and that’s all.

Riderless Horse is released on 22 July via Temporary Residence
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