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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

their parents.

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

in Northampton.

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

Hits."

"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

amazed!"

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

last name.

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

be.

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

their contract.

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,

chuckling.

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

iota.

"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

The Nields, Outta Sights & Sounds, Grace Norton

Rogers School Theater, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. $12. Saturday,

February 7, 8 p.m.


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