Interview with Nerissa Nields by Robyn Day from WBUR

posted November 23, 2013

Below is a Q &A with Robyn Day from WBUR’s The Artery. Her piece is here. But we thought you’d like to see Nerissa’s answers to her questions.

Robyn: You mention the double shift in your writing, and the delicate balance that women must maintain between their professional and home lives– I wonder how feminism has influenced you or how it informs your music?

Nerissa: Katryna and I were raised by a woman who just missed coming of age during the heyday of feminism, but she is a very strong women who raised us to believe we could do anything we wanted. AND there was never any doubt with either Katryna or me that we wanted to be mothers. I was very conscious in my teens and college years that I would have a career that had flexibility to include kids. We both hoped we’d make it big enough to continue tour full time touring and somehow have nannies and fancy music tutors and a tour bus equipped with a small trampoline, and side trips to the great wonders of the world, all with our kids and husbands in tow, but it didn’t work out like that. And now, of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Both of us consider ourselves feminists. We’re a little too old to be “third wave,” but we’re both in that camp. And we are fortunate to be married to fantastic men who are equal partners in child-rearing and (more or less) housework.

Robyn: You write about the difficulty of making time to work on your music (especially with this new album that took years to complete), and yet you embrace all of your commitments fully–family, home, art, work–and your life is richer for doing so. Much of your new CD is about these commitments. Would it be fair to say that they provide your inspiration and much of the fodder for your music?

Nerissa: Yes, absolutely! I think that’s evident from all the songs. There are a couple of great websites by artist/moms who have made their children their subjects.
Lenka Clayton, conceptual artist and full-time mother created Artist Residency in Motherhood as both a personal and political statement. Artist residencies are not usually intended for artists who have families. Mostly, they are designed as a way to let artists escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday life. Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticisation of the unattached (often male) artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labor, for exploration and artistic production.”
And this incredible Creative Mom.

Robyn: Would it be more difficult, in a way, to write music without your other commitments (despite having more time to work without other obligations)?

Nerissa: I don’t know. I honestly don’t think so. My writing needs time and space, and the more I work and give my time to my family, the less time I have for writing. My output did diminished recently. But it’s picking up since my youngest has gone to Kindergarten! I plan on doing February Album Writing Month in 2014. I did it every year from 2009-2011. Knew I would never be able to handle it in 2012. Tried in 2013 and could only write about 5 songs (you’re supposed to write 14…) That being said, my other obligations certainly inspire me! But there is that law of physics thing. My fantasy, certainly, is to have way more time to write.

Robyn: Who and what has influenced your music? Which other artists, genres, traditions, or unexpected sources of inspiration? Have you had mentors along the way? What inspires you these days?

Nerissa: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell are my Top Three, and always will be from a seminal sense. Pete Seeger in terms of vision and career arc. Dan Zanes for the Family Music model. Anne Lamott for her courage and honesty. What inspires me these days are the writers who come to my weekly writing groups and seasonal retreats. I am constantly blown away by what they come up with, and how important it is to be dedicated to the craft. You do that by showing up. I guess I am most inspired and impressed with longevity; the daily showing up. That’s what’s needed above all.

Robyn: How was the process of making this CD different from your previous work? Did slowing down the process of creating new music change that music in some (expected or unexpected) way? Did it feel like a struggle to make time to write music, or were there unexpected benefits?

Nerissa: It didn’t feel like a struggle to write the music. I wrote most of the songs in 2009, during a period of time where I had just had my second child (born in Aug. 2008). After foolishly believing I didn’t need much of a maternity leave, I got wise and took most of that year to blog about the intersection of motherhood and being an artist (you can see these posts on and look at the 2009 posts –this one is about making the CD). I gave myself a lot of time for writing, and also for listening to new (to me) bands, like the Decemberists and Neutral Milk Hotel. We started recording in December 2009, with the idea we’d work every Friday. But it didn’t go nearly as quickly as we’d expected! I wrote a piece about the process for my book How to Be an Adult and that excerpt is here.

Robyn: How has your sound developed? After twenty years writing music and performing, are you still learning new things and developing as artists? What are you excited about doing now or next?

Nerissa: This is such a great question! And would take another book to answer! I guess we started out as a folk trio, not even knowing what a “sound” was. On our third album, Bob on the Ceiling, we began to claim an identity, though it’s hard to use words to describe what we were going for. I think the journey has been from an overly cerebral wordy, busy sound to a more spacious one, but maybe that’s only my hope! I tend to write really wordy songs, but Katryna’s beautiful voice does best with fewer words, more opportunity for her to hold notes. Our producer, Dave Chalfant, is scrupulous about sound, and his mixes always blow me away. We are so lucky to work with him!

When we did our 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse in Northampton in 2011, so many people said to us, “You’ve all grown as musicians! You’re even better than you used to be!” The best thing about being a musician is that as long as you keep playing, you ARE going to get better, no matter how old you get. Even singers, whose voices can show the wear and tear of years, if they take care of those voices, they will get better and better. I feel very confident that this is the case with Katryna and me, and it’s certainly the case with Dave Chalfant, our guitarist, and Dave Hower our drummer.

Robyn: What do you hope those who hear The Full Catastrophe will take from it? What motivates you to keep making music and performing?

Nerissa: I hope they will hear self-forgiveness! That was my main purpose in writing all the songs. We’re all doing the best we can. Life is HARD. So we don’t need to pile on and be hard on ourselves, especially in the realm of parenthood. Paying attention–that’s the holy grail. But we can’t always be present, especially in this internet-focused, iphone-obsessed culture. So we do the best we can, pick ourselves up when we fall, recommit ourselves to love and attention, love and attention.

Robyn: Do you believe it is more challenging or difficult for women to maintain their artistic lives when more is demanded of them at home? How do you work this out for yourself?

Nerissa: Yes! It’s a painful struggle. Mostly I accept that my house is messier than I’d like it to be, and that I live in a state of disorganization. I work at organization, because it does make everything easier and go faster, so I am not giving up on filing and housecleaning entirely. But I do get help. I have babysitters at times so I can get work done. This makes me sad, too, because I’d love to be there all the time for my kids. But we do have to make choices. I am an artist AND a mother. I try to honor both roles every day. And accept that I am always doing B minus work (based on my own standards of grading). And I’ve learned that that’s good enough. At least for now.

Robyn: How long have you been playing at Club Passim? How have they supported you and your music? How would you describe your relationship with them?

Nerissa: I think we first played Passim in 1995, but I am not totally sure about that. I know it was when we were a 5-piece band with a huge drum kit, so fitting on the stage was hilarious! And I think our guitarist electricuted himself on the mic because of some non-rock-friendly wiring. But once we became a duo in 2001, the room was perfect for us. We’ve been playing there at least yearly since. Passim shows are among our favorites. And our last record The Full Catastrophe won an Iguana grant, so Passim has very directly supported us! It feels like home. We love that room.

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