‘I want people to listen’: songwriter Nina Nastasia on surviving abuse, grief and psychosis

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In early April, Nina Nastasia was preparing for her first live dates in a decade, supporting Mogwai in the US. She felt nervous, having never planned a tour alone, and overwhelmed about playing for people again. A friend reassured her that, as she was the opener, nobody would really be listening. “I was relieved,” says Nastasia. “But then I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute, nobody’s gonna listen? I want people to listen.’”

The audience was “completely silent” for her sets, says Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. Nastasia’s friend underestimated how sorely fans wanted this beloved songwriter back. Between 2000 and 2010, her catalogue struck a hair-raising balance between hope and melancholy, elegance and earthiness – popularised by the fervent support of John Peel. Steve Albini recorded all her albums, and considers them among his proudest work. Laura Marling calls 2007’s You Follow Me “an example of how to do something so straightforward as recording a songwriter differently”, and a mysterious record that “speaks in symbols directly to the soul”.

But, after 2010’s Outlaster, Nastasia disappeared. When I interviewed her then, she seemed so concerned about her memory that I worried she may have fallen ill. In actuality, she quit music as a result of the psychological abuse she endured from Kennan Gudjonsson, her partner of 25 years. On 26 January 2020, she left him, determined to salvage her life. He killed himself the next day. Nastasia’s profound new album, Riderless Horse, was written in the aftermath – part of which, she admits, was characterised by a sudden sense of freedom. Yet, she is also emphatic in her absolute love for a man gripped by mental illness. What is complicated, she says, is how “he gave me so much in the positive, and also as much, if not more, of the very painful stuff”.

Nina Nastasia at St Margaret’s church, Manchester, in 2010
A devoted fanbase and fervent critical acclaim: Nina Nastasia at St Margaret’s church, Manchester, in 2010. Photograph: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns

Nastasia, 55, is at her cousin’s home in Pasadena after the Mogwai tour. She barely needs any prompts to talk. She is kind and composed, if worried about making sense of a story that defies it. She often circles back to why she wants to be heard. Maybe it could help others, she says, as her new support dog, Misha, gnaws noisily at her feet: “And I’m looking for those people, too, because it’s hard to get your head around.” She also wants to talk compassionately about suicide. She isn’t angry at Gudjonsson. “I think he did it for my survival, and for the pain to just stop for him.”

Gudjonsson was instrumental to Nastasia’s career. In the early 1990s, she moved from Hollywood to New York City, where she had a miserable waitressing job. She would come home, cry and write songs. Friends suggested she start performing and recording her material, so she blagged some cheap late-night studio sessions. “We just had to pay the night manager,” she says: Gudjonsson. He was rude to her, “but that was his way of being endearing. He went over to a friend of mine and said, ‘I need her name and her ring size.’” They immediately clicked creatively and romantically. “Then it went whirlwind.”

Gudjonsson, an artist, moved into Nastasia’s minuscule apartment. She was offered a development deal, but Gudjonsson overheard label executives suggesting she alter a song and became adamant they go it alone, inspired by Albini’s famous 1993 essay on major-label corruption. He wanted her to work with Albini too. (Despite his reputation for his work with Nirvana and PJ Harvey, he operates as an engineer-for-hire.) They threw a massive fundraiser to pay for it, and made it to Albini’s Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, to record 2000’s Dogs: an album based on Nastasia’s Hollywood youth, populated by damned figures and the lure of oblivion.

Gudjonsson produced extravagant CD packaging that cost $12 to make and sold for $10. It was typical of his obsessive quest for perfection, says Nastasia. She trusted him when he suggested she quit her job. But he was also detached from reality, always certain money would come if they made something great. “You can’t count on that,” she says, wincing. “We put ourselves in a lot of financially stressful situations finding ways to make the next record.”

She wrote songs in their tiny bathroom and credits Gudjonsson’s edits with honing her lyricism. He never wanted credit for anything – making artwork, producing – and had rabid faith in Nastasia’s potential. But he also had crushing, impossible standards. Songwriting was joyful, she says. “But doing anything else was painful because I was always failing, then getting horrible outbursts and bad scenes after everything. I had this feeling like I was really ruining our lives because I just didn’t have enough ambition or skill, or was lazy.”

But Nastasia found a devoted fanbase and fervent critical acclaim: “For all the raucous, brutal records Albini has recorded, this one, in its own way, is scarier than any of them,” Pitchfork wrote of 2002’s unsettling The Blackened Air. She and Gudjonsson inspired affection, too. “They’re both hugely warm and very funny people,” says Tom Ravenscroft, son of the late John Peel. “I know my dad loved having them around almost as much as he liked her music.” Gudjonsson, says Albini, had a “gigantic capacity for the darkest comedy. I have spent a lot of time around professionally funny people but there was literally nobody on earth funnier in the moment than Kennan.”

But fear came to permeate Nastasia’s life. “Every time I failed, the anger and frustration got bigger and bigger, and it got to daily … bad …” She sighs and averts her gaze. “It’s hard for me to even call it abuse. I feel like it is important to talk about because there were times I just wanted him to hit me because then I could recognise that this is not healthy. But, otherwise, it just felt, like, ‘No, but I am the problem. I am the reason why things are so bad.’” She lost all confidence. “It became, like, ‘I must have brain issues.’”

Nina Nastasia and her dog, Misha, in Los Angeles
Nina Nastasia and her dog, Misha, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Jessica Pons/The Guardian

Around 2007, Nastasia was invited to tour England. There wasn’t enough budget to bring Gudjonsson. She accepted, despite his accusations of betrayal, determined to prove her ambition and capability. One night, he called threatening to kill himself if she didn’t come home. She got friends to intercede, and planned to leave him. He was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and medicated. “And we stayed together,” she says. Nastasia had faith in her capacity to survive, “while I wasn’t quite sure that he could”. It made leaving harder “because I was afraid that what happened” – Gudjonsson’s suicide – “would have happened”.

Belittled, and made to feel completely incapable, Nastasia ultimately “lost control of everything”: her emails, phone calls, finances. They saw a couples therapist, but Gudjonsson limited what they could discuss. His control intensified. Her friends had no idea. She couldn’t see them much. “I was on a shorter and shorter leash,” she says. “It became like the place I was living just got smaller and smaller until it was this box I couldn’t really move in.”

Knowing all this illuminates much of Nastasia’s songwriting: this wasn’t foreboding songcraft but often completely literal. From 2006, On Leaving refers to hiding, refuge and her faith in a fresh start; Outlaster craves having one’s time all over again to do it differently. She often confronts someone’s frustrated ambitions with sympathy and exasperation. Gudjonsson didn’t seem to notice, appraising the songs only on a technical level. “He really must have separated it quite a bit, and I did, too,” says Nastasia. “It was, like, ‘The song works! Let’s do it!’”

As an artist, Gudjonsson made immaculate miniatures and puppets, but was petrified of failure. He sounds like a man trying to create his own impossibly perfect world and prove his worth, I suggest. “I think that’s exactly what it was,” says Nastasia, “because he had a terrible self-esteem issue and he was constantly trying to justify his own existence.”

She recalls the one video they made, for Outlaster’s lovely Cry, Cry Baby. At the last minute, he insisted they needed forget-me-nots. They were out of season. Time was tight. He found similar flowers and painstakingly painted every petal as Nastasia looked on in anguish. Filming was “miserable”, she says. But when she watched it back, “it gets to those damn forget-me-nots and it’s my favourite part, because it looks beautiful”. Gudjonsson would go through hell for the perfect end result. “I want to like the experience,” Nastasia shrugs. “I’d rather go just above mediocre.”

Nina Nastasia in Los Angeles.
‘I have to check myself to not create anxiety that doesn’t need to be there.’ Nina Nastasia in Los Angeles. Photograph: Jessica Pons/The Guardian

After Outlaster, Nastasia wondered if they would have a better chance together if she abandoned music. They did try recording with Albini again in 2017: Nastasia remembers him ceasing proceedings, disturbed by Gudjonsson’s behaviour; Albini says the session “ran out of steam on its own”. Her only new music after that was a Christmas song in 2018, about her “hope for a new year and strength for what it brings” in the face of financial destitution. Getting day jobs helped, says Nastasia, but they still couldn’t support Gudjonsson’s impossible ambitions. “Housing court became a familiar place. We both became completely unable to take care of ourselves. We were lucky to have such good friends and family willing to bail us out time and again.”

A desperate situation worsened again after they tried the psychedelic plant medicine, ayahuasca, as a last-ditch hope to “jolt us out of this stuckness”, Nastasia says. It helped Gudjonsson for a while. But she thinks they were overdosed by a dodgy shaman. “Maybe I wasn’t in a good mental state to be doing something like that, because I ended up getting PTSD,” she says quietly. “Persistent psychosis. Horrible anxiety. I was bedridden for almost a year.” She became dependent on Gudjonsson. “He did a beautiful job taking care of me,” she says. “But then it became like, when I was getting better, that … wasn’t working out so well.”

Nastasia ultimately realised she would die if she stayed in the relationship. “That’s it: this is my life. I couldn’t do it. So I told him,” she says, looking away again, “that we had to try to be whole people apart because we’re not helping each other. He was, like, ‘You’re really doing this?’”

A day later, she found Gudjonsson’s body in his studio. “I felt entirely responsible, emotionally,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t responsible for it, but I felt like I killed him.”

Nastasia immediately cleaned out the apartment and studio and moved their things into storage. Then the pandemic bit. Mercifully, neighbouring friends invited her to stay at their house and she spent 18 happy months there, reconnecting with friends and family.

Leaving the relationship was “one of the hardest things I’ve done”, she says. “Kennan was a beautiful person, an ugly person, one of the smartest people in the room and the least capable. He was all the things and all at once. I don’t regret my experiences with him.”

She’s trying to understand her actions and help others understand why abused partners stay. She thinks back to her childhood: Nastasia’s mother was “constantly on the verge of dying, my entire life”. Her medication sometimes made her psychotic. “It was this concentrated time of not pulling away – just being right in there, to be as close with her as I could in the time that I could have.” Nastasia was 18 when her mother died, and found herself drawn to risky situations, “edge-of-death kind of behaviour”, an inclination she has to monitor now. “Especially now things feel really great, I’m just waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. I have to check myself to not create anxiety that doesn’t need to be there.”

Soon after the tragedy, Nastasia says, with no small amount of astonishment, she became “unafraid of showing people songs” again, whether or not they were perfect or finished. She sent some to Bonnie “Prince” Billy, started a band with friends in Canada, and wrote Riderless Horse, which she took to Albini (and she intends to finish their curtailed 2017 project). “I just wanted to love it again,” she says of music. “Because I do love it. I’ve always loved it.”

Although Nastasia’s records have only ever had her name on the cover, she calls Riderless Horse her first solo album. It is self-evidently brutal: she sings about being wired to expect punishment, the couple being “deep in the shit, trying to crawl out of this dung”. “I was concerned that voicing these songs would prolong rather than release her from her bouts of despair and mourning,” says Albini, who had Nastasia live with him and his wife, Heather Whinna, for a while, “but I also trusted Nina to know what she needed to do, and as one does with family, I was willing to go to the ends of the earth to help her.”

But it is beautiful, too, the unadorned music – just her and an acoustic guitar – luminous and clarion, the lyrics memorialising the couple’s rare moments of peace, and tracing her burgeoning courage. “I might be mean,” she sings on The Two of Us, “but I just got strong.” She didn’t edit herself. “It was basically vomiting out songs,” she says. “Who knows, in five years, I might go, ‘Ugh!’ Whatever – I really don’t care.” Initially, she felt the same about touring: why endure the stress? “But it felt like great proof that, no, I can do this.”

I notice a tattoo on Nastasia’s ring finger, a black, folk art-style design. She got it after the pandemic lightened and she staged a memorial for Gudjonsson, recreating his studio in her storage space for his loved ones. After her tribute to him, she made one to herself. “I thought, ‘After I finish the last placement of the last puppet, I’m gonna get a tattoo of a ring,’” she says. “If I ever did get into some kind of relationship again, I always remember that I’m married to myself first. So I have to know myself. Not lose myself. Not divorce myself.”

Riderless Horse ends with Nastasia singing: “Oh how I want to live / I want to live / I am ready to live.” She has moved to Vermont, with Misha, where she is getting used to space and quiet. She doesn’t believe in an afterlife, so she’s taking her one chance while she can. “I’ve always been the opposite of wanting to leave the Earth,” she says. “It could be hell, but I want to stick around through it so I could get to something enjoyable because I just love it so much. I want to get it right. Be happy.”

Riderless Horse is released on Temporary Residence on 22 July