You might call the new album from The Nields, November, a collection of songs for our times. Kicking off with a reworked version of “America the Beautiful,” sisters Nerissa and Katryna reflect both a resistance against troubling political trends and a hope for a better future. The two have been making music professionally since 1991 and have been lauded for their sibling harmonies, folk/pop songs, hilarious stage banter, and their generosity and warmth in performance and engagement with their fans.
DittyTV Senior Editor Tim W. Jackson was eager to know more about this new album, its themes, and the context in which the songs were written, so we are happy to present The Nields in this 5 Questions segment.
1) First, The Nields have evolved over time in terms of membership. For those who may not have checked in with The Nields for a while and still remember you as a 5-piece group, can you give us an update on the current status?
Nerissa: Primarily, Katryna and I perform as a duo, playing between 25-50 shows a year. We put out two CDs as a trio in the early ’90s, seven albums plus an EP as a five-piece band, and nine albums plus an EP and a greatest hits compilation as a duo. After we had our children (Katryna is the mother of Amelia and William; Nerissa is the mother of Lila and Johnny), we started writing family music, making a CD and a DVD and creating a series of music classes. We record a new album roughly each year and a half (20 albums; 30 years!). That said, we still perform at least twice a year with our five-piece band. After 2001 when David Nields, who was our lead guitarist and contributing songwriter left the band, our bassist Dave Chalfant took over guitar duties, and we have had several different bass players over the years (including Dave and Katryna’s daughter Amelia). Our drummer, Dave Hower, has been with us since 1994.
2) You’ve just released your new album, November, which is wonderful. It’s great to hear so many songs with real messages and that are thought-provoking. What can you tell us about the themes of the album, and what has the reception been for the album in its first few weeks out?
Nerissa: I think we really started to write this album on the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, when we saw what was happening in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In the days between the election and the inauguration, there was a feeling in our community that someone had died. I knew right away that we’d be writing, talking, singing, joining the resistance. I wrote “Tyrants Always Fall” the week before the inauguration, and Katryna and Dave Chalfant wrote “Gonna Build a Boat” a week after MLK Day 2017. We didn’t set out to write a political album, but honestly, the issues of these times demand to be written about. Joan Didion says that all her writing is motivated by the act of “drumming up her deepest fears to see if she can survive them.” For me, I write about what’s troubling me, what’s knocking at my inner door, demanding to be wrestled with. Through the writing, I often get clear about a situation or experience.
As we recorded the album, we kept joking that we hoped this work would have the shortest shelf life of any of our 20 records—that it would become obsolete by November 2020. We designed the cover like a newspaper because we felt these songs would be transitory, like the day’s news. But, you know, Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” written in the 1950s is still relevant today, unfortunately, as is “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” “Joe Hill,” “Masters of War,” “Give Peace a Chance,” and countless other so-called protest songs.
In any case, we were gratified with the reaction of our fans to this album. Many wrote us to say it’s their favorite Nields record. We have even been approached by several community choral groups wanting permission to perform “Tyrants Always Fall.”
3) The album leads with your version of “America the Beautiful,” written a few years ago and then recorded last year with plenty of special guests involved. What can you tell us about that song specifically and its place as the lead song on the album?
Nerissa: I started writing the alternate lyrics during a church service the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2016. Our minister, Steve Philbrick, was preaching on the great harm colonists (invaders) have perpetrated on the indigenous people of North America, and how over and over again white people made promises via treaties, and constantly reneged. “From Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock, nothing has changed. Our forefathers swindled indigenous people out of their land, broke treaties, perpetrated an unconfessed ethnic cleansing. And here we are now, lifting no arms against the Standing Rock Sioux, but how about lifting a hand to help them?”
And so I wrote a verse about that, and also about my hope (dashed now) that the other branches of government would protect us—that’s the verse that Chris Smither and Dar Williams sing. Sadly, the Republican “President” has stacked the courts, including the Supreme Court, and the Republican-led Senate has taken extraordinary measures to allow this “President” to behave like an autocrat. I kept adding verses, including one about unlimited wealth and greed, and one about the tragedies at our southern border.
It was Katryna’s brilliant idea to ask our friends to sing the verses. We were so lucky to have so many beautiful singers––Chris and Dar, Peter Mulvey, Vance Gilbert, Kalliope Jones, and Ben Demerath––donate their time and talent, and we were so moved by the way the track came out that we wanted to begin our record with it. Also, it was the first song written after the election; it’s a song everyone knows. It felt like the perfect beginning. And ultimately, I’d say we are hopeful that the promise of America, the idea of America as a land of fairness and beauty, and “neighborly-ness” will pull us through these dreadfully polarizing times.
4) With the new album out and some live dates on the books, what’s next for The Nields? Where do you see yourselves going through the rest of 2020 and beyond?
Nerissa: We plan to do as many shows to support not so much this album as the sentiment it contains. We hope to do fundraisers for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket. We pledge to support democracy no matter who the Democratic nominee is. We’re also doing some shows with legendary Latin roots band Sol y Canto, called “Esperanza and Resistance.”
5) And now that we’ve looked ahead, let’s end by looking back: You’ve had nearly a 30-year career. What live performance stands out over that time as an “I can’t believe that happened” moment in your lives?
Katryna: As musicians, we are artists, of course. We work hard to write meaningful, well-crafted songs and create interesting, original harmonies and arrangements. But being folk musicians, our mission is to create a community through our music, and to provide art for whatever community in which we find ourselves.
As far as typical career highlights, we can celebrate playing huge festivals like Newport Folk, Telluride Bluegrass, SXSW, and Lilith Fair. We could celebrate playing on the stages of our childhood dreams like the Filene Center at Wolf Trap, South Street Seaport in NYC, or The Kennedy Center. We can celebrate that we got to share stages with artists whom we respect and adore: Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, James Taylor, The Indigo Girls, The Band. But thinking back on the last 30 years, the shows right here in our hometown of Northampton, Mass., at our beloved local club The Iron Horse, feel the most meaningful. For our 25th Anniversary in 2016, we did one night of songs from the ’90s and one night of songs from the 21st century. We played 25 years worth of our music, accompanied by our children occasionally, and gazed out on the community we have helped to create. People in the audience told us they met at a Nields concert and were now married. Grown-ups told us how our music helped them through their college years. Parents told us that their kids carried around our CDs for security instead of a stuffed animal.
Each year we play shows with the chorus Nerissa created for local kids. Together with these young people, we sing of the world we hope we are creating. So when really thinking about highlights of our career, it comes down to the most directly local influence we get to have: singing “Tyrants Always Fall” at the Northampton Women’s March, teaching “We Shall Overcome” to our kids’ classmates every January, holding an impromptu concert the Saturday after the Nov. 2016 election. We get to use music to do its highest purpose, which in our minds is to bring people together and enable them to feel less alone.
Watch “Tyrants Always Fall” from The Nields here!