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Big Breaks or Not, the Nields Sing on
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on February 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
Go see a show by The Nields, an eclectic fivesome
from Northampton, Massachusetts, and you’ll find a smattering of 30-somethings,
a few over 40s, and more than a few Gen Xers. The Nields’ cross-generational
appeal can best be explained by their Beatle-esque harmonies, guitar
playing, and chord progressions, as well as by lyrics that are reminiscent
of folk singers like Ani DiFranco and the Counting Crows.
In the course of a three-and-a-half-minute pop song, they strike a
chord with many different age groups. Perhaps that’s why the band’s
itineraries are filled with as many folk festivals as rock ‘n’ roll
clubs. The older folk fans latch on to their harmonies, while the
younger fans like the band’s sometimes grungy sound, with power chords
and lots of driving drums and bass. Guitarist and songwriter Nerissa
Nields says that’s why teenagers show up at a Nields concert with
The Nields return to play the Outta Sights and Sounds series at Grace
Norton Rogers School in Hightstown, Saturday, February 7, at 8 p.m.
Nields, 32, and her husband David, 37, a guitarist who took her last
name, write songs with her younger sister, Katrina Nields, the group’s
30-year-old lead vocalist, in mind. The other Nields are bassist Dave
Chalfant, 29, and drummer Dave Hower, 31. This is how the five-member
group can boast three Nields and three Daves.
"My goal is to write songs that will stand with and without a
band, with and without us," says Nerissa. "Songs that can
be sung by kids on the back of a school bus or sung by a bunch of
people sitting around a camp fire with a bunch of guitars. That’s
a folk song to me — a song you can pick up with your guitar and
just play." Not surprisingly, Nerissa has a broad definition of
folk music. "I don’t know a single person who loves folk music
who doesn’t like some other genre, too," she says.
Currently they’re recording lots of new songs, Nerissa reports, during
an interview sandwiched between demo sessions at a recording studio
Despite what some of the stodgy folk types may say about
the Nields, the band has made inroads in recent years on the folk
festival circuit. The Nields blend the sing-along elements of traditional
folk music with fuzzy guitars, an exciting beat, and carefully arranged
harmonies to create their own folk-rock.
After becoming a five-piece group in 1994, they played Newport Folk
Festival that summer. Since then, they’ve performed at the Philadelphia
Folk Festival, the prestigious Edmonton Folk Festival in Canada, and
dozens of other outdoor gatherings. Nerissa’s songwriting influences
include Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Both Nerissa and
Katrina were raised in the Nields’ musical household in New York City
and Washington, D.C. Their father is a lawyer, their mother a high
school teacher. Nerissa says she knew she wanted to be a singer and
songwriter from the time she was 7.
"Our dad and mom would sing folk songs together for us as kids,
and we’d join in. Singing together was very much a part of our upbringing,"
she says. Their parents also took the girls to concerts, including
Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie every summer at Wolftrap in suburban
Washington, D.C. Both girls were encouraged in their musical studies
and were involved in theater as kids. From a young age, the sisters
enjoyed being on the stage.
"I remember my mom playing lots of records for us on the turntable.
She was a very hands-on mom. As a teacher, she used her expertise
on us as much as possible, and picked all the records carefully."
The first record Nerissa and Katrina purchased with their own savings,
when she was 9 and Katrina was 7, was the Beatles blue album of "Greatest
"We got it home and listened to it and couldn’t believe the sonic
riches contained on it. One of my speakers was dead and my stereo
was in mono but I didn’t realize it. The Beatles always mixed in stereo
and some things would only pan to one side of the stereo. So for the
first two years, I was only hearing half the aural picture," she
adds, laughing. "When I finally heard the whole thing, I was doubly
Nerissa met her husband when both were studying with the same music
teacher. She was 19 and teaching in a day camp at the time. "He
came by my music room and played me a song on the guitar and I played
him one back," she recalls, "and actually, we never really
stopped after that. We were always together from that point on."
When they married, David took the unusual step of taking his wife’s
The Nields formed originally as a trio — Katrina and Nerissa and
David — in 1991. Bassist Chalfant joined the group in 1993, and
they added drummer Hower in 1994.
Not surprisingly for a band where harmonies are a big part of the
sound, the Nields’ musical working methods are strictly democratic.
While David and Nerissa share songwriting responsibilities, everyone
has lots of input. There’s "an almost sacred" arrangement
process that goes on in working out new songs, Nerissa explains.
"We bring the lyrics to the whole band and talk about them for
a while. We’ll sit in a circle and try out everyone’s ideas. It’s
very much a group process to work up a new song."
In her lyric writing and in co-writing with her husband, Nerissa says
she strives to "get at some universal truth that all of us can
share." While she freely admits many Nields songs are autobiographical,
there are plenty of other songs that use fictional characters. Writing
songs, she says, "is a lot like writing a play. Though I write
with Katrina in mind, Katrina knows that she’s not always Katrina
when she’s singing these songs."
It was not until their third self-released recording,
"Bob On The Ceiling," of June, 1994, that the Nields began
to attract national attention. That summer they played Newport Folk
Festival, leading to more festival shows. Some executives from the
New York-based Razor & Tie Music heard the band perform at Manhattan’s
Bottom Line nightclub, and that led to a contract with Razor & Tie,
an independent label.
After recording the album "Gotta Get Over Greta" for Razor
& Tie, the band was picked up by a major label, Guardian/EMI Records.
Lots of struggling music groups would consider this a big break. But
for the Nields, this big break proved not all it was cracked up to
Guardian/EMI Records re-released "Gotta Get Over Greta," with
three additional tracks and a marketing plan behind it, in May, 1997.
Yet an industry-wide slowing in album sales has brought lots of consolidation
at major record companies. And by the end of 1997, Guardian’s staff
were all let go. In December, the Nields asked to be released from
The band has always supported its recordings with a hard touring ethic.
Their van, purchased in 1995, has over 180,000 miles on it. "That
circumnavigates the globe two-and-a-half times," Nerissa says,
While it’s true the Nields have experienced good breaks and bad, frankly,
Nerissa feels they’ve earned their success. The group has compiled
a mailing list in excess of 20,000 names. The Nields newsletter, which
reads like a family brag sheet, with lots of fuzzy news about band
members and their work, went out to fans last year at Guardian/EMI
expense. Now, without the resources to keep up the popular newsletter,
the Nields ask fans to check their website at http://pobox.com/Nields~.
So the band members find themselves back at square one, doing what
they’ve always done, encouraging people to sign their mailing list,
and doing radio interviews at small colleges and public radio stations.
Yet one gets the sense that the possibility of releasing their next
album independently — again — doesn’t frighten this band one
"Everything has happened in baby steps. That’s not to say we haven’t
been lucky. I can see small breaks now that I look back at things,"
Nerissa says. And what about that proverbial big break?
"Maybe it’s a myth," she suggests. "What looks like a
break from the outside doesn’t feel like one from the inside. But
we do feel we’ve been blessed with incredibly enthusiastic and loyal
fans. They keep wanting to hear more and see more of us, and they
keep coming to our shows and buying the discs."
With that, Nerissa heads back to the recording studio.
— Richard J. Skelly
Rogers School Theater, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. $12. Saturday,
February 7, 8 p.m.
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