The 22nd of July 2022 marked the arrival of Riderless Horse, Nina Nastasia’s seventh studio album. It had been twelve long years since the release of its predecessor, Outlaster. The reasons for this creative absence are painful and harrowing. But perhaps to place this performance – of which, the songs from Riderless Horse provide the most powerful of foundations – in its full and proper context, the stark details must first be recounted.
For a quarter of a century, Nina Nastasia’s partner and musical collaborator was Kennan Gudjonsson. In a statement accompanying the release of Riderless Horse, Nastasia said that she had “decided to stop pursuing music… because of unhappiness, overwhelming chaos, mental illness, and my tragically dysfunctional relationship with Kennan”, the latter characterised by his increasingly controlling and psychologically abusive behaviour. On the 26th of January 2020, she left him, determined to lead a better, more emotionally healthy life. Gudjonsson was to kill himself the very next day. These are the brutal, inescapable facts.
Running parallel to Nina Nastasia’s lack of recorded output for the dozen years prior to the release of Riderless Horse was a relative dearth of live performances. This is the third date of her current UK tour, signalling the Los Angeles-born singer-songwriter’s first appearances on these shores in a decade. And tonight’s show is a welcome return to the Brudenell, nearly 15 years since she last played here.
“I’ve missed this place”, Nina Nastasia tells us, as she reminisces fondly about those delicious Brudenell pies she had here last time around. She is even beguiled by the gentle hum of the venue’s refrigerator which she feels could easily be the perfect panacea for her insomnia. Despite the narratives of domestic abuse, death, and despondency that lie at the heart of many of Nastasia’s songs it is clear that there are shafts of light and gentle humour to be found within.
Nina Nastasia is equally not afraid to be laughed at when she “really fucking screwed up the (first) encore” by completely forgetting the words to the song. But it is the raw subject matter that percolates right throughout her performance. With a startling, painful honesty she sings of the toxicity in her personal relationship, the devastation it caused, and the sorrow that was to follow. Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Nastasia clearly enunciates every single word she sings, magnifying the feelings that they express. It becomes almost unbearable on occasion, no more so than on the startling a capella delivery of ‘A Blazing Fire’ where you feel as if you are somehow intruding upon a person’s private grief.
But ultimately this towering performance is one that reflects the capacity of the human spirit, the depths of individual resilience, and the sheer will to survive. At one point Nina Nastasia says “I cannot tell you how happy I am to be here” and we share with her that huge sense of relief at just being, of moving beyond fear and the absence of any unwelcome control in your life. She underlines this feeling of liberation and improved emotional well-being on ‘Lazy Road’ (from Riderless Horse) when she affirms “And I feel like I’m happy for the first time.”
Speaking to The Guardian newspaper last May, Nina Nastasia had said “I’d rather go just above mediocre.” This concert was a profoundly moving experience that took us way beyond the ordinary.
Photos: Simon Godley
More photos from Nina Nastasia at the Brudenell Social Club