Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Yesterday's girls?
Not by a long shot

Katryna and Nerissa Nields
Katryna and Nerissa Nields

Who knew? Often folk musicians are invited to sing the national anthem at local sporting events, just like opera stars and singing policemen. Nerissa and Katryna Nields — d.b.a The Nields — sometimes open for the Boston Red Sox.

"The person in charge there is a fan," Nerissa told me when I asked her how that happens. "There's no pay, but they give us a number of free tickets. It's such a thrill to sing in front of all those people. And I love Fenway, and the whole experience of going out there. We don't seem to be there when the Red Sox win — we've sung four times and they've lost four times. But we do seem to get good weather."

I was thinking about national anthems because they were the surprise theme of a workshop at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y., this past July. Nerissa and Katryna sang "The Star Spangled Banner," Eddie From Ohio sang "Oh Canada," and another group sang "La Marseilles."

Then Katryna introduced what she called "The Falcon Ridge national anthem." It was Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and when she started, everyone — musicians and audience alike — stood and joined her.

We all know that the song is not the American national anthem, but we also know that in a perfect world, it would be.

It seemed like a typical Nields moment. Where Guthrie had "This guitar kills fascists" written on his guitar, Nerissa has "Hate-free zone" written on hers, and the singing sisters have always had a great sensitivity to the emotions of the moment.

Songwriter, guitarist, alto and older sister Nerissa, and lead singer and soprano Katryna, are now settling into folk, but they used to part of The Nields, a five-piece, kick-ass alternative folk-rock band, one of those almost-famous, best-band-you-never-heard-of bands, the kind that have a passionate following and get virtually no radio play.

Then, a few years ago, things began to get weird. In the end, the band broke up, Nerissa's marriage to ace electric guitarist David Nields broke up (yes, he took her name when they got married), her dog died, and Katryna and bassist/producer Dave Chalfant married and produced a baby girl named Amelia.

What the hell happened?

"We made a decision in 1998 that it was too hard and too much for us to be on the road constantly," Nerissa told me. "Basically, all of us came to the decision for our own reasons at the same time. We were just barely scraping by financially, and that is, unfortunately, the reality for touring bands. In order to pay everyone's salary, you have to play constantly. And in order to play constantly, you have to play gigs that are not ideal. Dave Nields wanted to go back to teaching. Dave Chalfant wanted to be producing more. And Katryna and I wanted to play more in folk clubs. So we made a plan in 1998 that we would evolve into a duo slowly over time, and play fewer and fewer shows as The Nields."

Everyone was down with the plan, so that's what they did over the course of the next three years.

"And then, in the last year, my marriage fell apart, and that sort of put an end to playing as a full band," Nerissa said. "David Nields decided in March 2001 that he wouldn't play with us anymore. After the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in 2001, and a show the following week in New Haven, we knew that would be the last shows. We didn't tell anybody, though."

David Nields is now teaching, and no, he hasn't changed his name back.

"He's still David Nields," Nerissa said.

The sisters' famously ethereal yet sharp and emotional harmonies are perfectly compatible with the world of folk. After all, harmonizing sisters are an acoustic music tradition dating from the Carter Family through the McGarrigles and the Roches.

Katryna is a compelling lead singer — her voice warbles, soars, sobs, almost breaks, and then soars, sobs and warbles some more. While she's on stage, you can hardly take your eyes off her slender frame with its storkly movements.

Nerissa's story-telling songs have always been well-observed and slightly quirky. Where the electric band once filled the spaces around the lyrics, the music now depends on her acoustic guitar.

"It's like a sculpture," Nerissa said. "You cut away everything that isn't the song."

If you're a songwriter, and everything in your life sort of goes to hell, then it's only natural to write a bunch of new songs about it. That's why we're talking today about The Nields' new CD (Zoe/Rounder), "Love and China."

The title song makes it clear that Nerissa is talking more about broken crockery thrown in rage than a large country in Asia. For example, she sums up one relationship with this cutting line:

I was young but I looked twenty-seven
You were old but you acted like eleven

It's a clever rhyme, but ouch!

Nerissa is proud of the new album.

"It was a record written in grief and in struggling, and I feel like it did what art can do," she said. "The thing I find most gratifying is that people come to me and say, 'Your record helped me through a breakup.' When art can be useful, that's a marriage of a higher order. I was really glad I was able to share some of my life with people and have that be helpful to them."

In the haunting "Love Me One More Time Before You Go," which sounds like a demo record directed straight at the heart of Nashville (no takers yet), a woman begs her lover, whose bags are packed and ready to go, for one more night of passion.

Why the country tinge, and on the song "Tailspin," too?

"Country was the music that my dad loved in the '70s, and we listened to it a lot on the radio," Nerissa said. "It was definitely the soundtrack for our upbringing. So I made an effort to use that vein from my childhood, and it seemed to work with what I was going through emotionally."

In her hummable anthem to picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and starting all over again, "Yesterday's Girl," Nerissa ends it with:

But I have a garden of my own now
I'm tending it better alone now...
Yesterday's girl is doing fine.

At Falcon Ridge, it was revealed that motherhood has turned Katryna into a songwriter, too. She writes to entertain her daughter, mostly wry and witty songs about toys. This line about a squeaky caterpillar stood out:

I'm a caterpillar with a yellow head
Soon I'll be a butterfly
and then I'll be dead.

The wicked smile on Nerissa's face as she sang those lines made my day. In fact, it was a relief to see some humor in the set, since the new songs are sad to the point of depression.

Halfway through, however, the sisters were joined by a pick-up band of musical friends, including Chalfant on bass and electric guitar. Suddenly everything — the sisters, the set, the music and the audience — came alive.

"It's glorious to have a band," Nerissa said. "It makes everything spring into Technicolor. But it's like yin and yang. I'm glad we get to do both. I love our intimate shows, and the lifestyle Katryna and I have built, and our show. But it's wonderful to balance everything out."

With a new career and a new CD, Nerissa is writing up a storm. She also has a contract to write a young people's book based on one of her songs, "This Town is Wrong," which is "about two girls who are 15, growing up in northern Virginia, and they are dealing with the things teenage girls deal with — parents, peers, pressures to be a certain way, and freedom."

She is also writing a second book called "The Big Idea," about a band that "almost got famous." In fact, the song "Love and China" was written for the book, and in the liner notes she credits her fictional character, Peter Beckett, with "surrendering" it to the CD.

They might be missing the band, but it sounds like yesterday's girls are doing fine today.

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