The Nields have been called equal parts The Beatles, The Cranberries and Joni Mitchell but the comparisons hardly end there.
The Cincinnati Enquirer said they’re “The Roches meet The Cranberries but with better songwriting and better harmonies.” The Chicago Tribune said they’re a mix of The Bangles, The Roches and Alanis Morrissette. Sing Out! said they’re like Natalie Merchant if Merchant “had a sister with an equally good voice singing perfect harmony.”
But while almost every profile or review of folk-rock sisters compares them to other acts, perhaps the comment that puts it best came from a concertgoer quoted in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, daily: “If you don’t like the Nields, you need to get your ears checked.”
Western Massachusetts-based sisters Nerissa and Katryna Nields started their singing careers as part of a trio that morphed into a quintet before becoming the duo that they are today.
Nerissa is the tunesmith of the pair, penning meticulously crafted songs with lyrics that are as heartfelt as they are intelligent, the deep sensitivity of some belying the toned, muscular nature of the writing itself. Katryna handles lead vocals, adding both clarity and nuance that provide her sister’s thoughts with an organic magic that at times is positively breathtaking. With Nerissa singing back up, the result is overwhelming proof that there’s no harmony quite like blood harmony.
Known for their oft-hilarious on-stage banter and direct engagement with fans, they’ve opened for artists including James Taylor, The Band, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco and 10,000 Maniacs and have recorded 21 albums over the past 30 years. Their latest is Circle of Days, released in June 2023.
Nerissa (b.1967) and Katryna (b. 1969) were raised in Washington, DC, by folk-music loving parents and they remember singing together as preschoolers in the car during family trips. The elder sister wrote her first songs at age seven and the younger learned to sing from her father, spending innumerable hours practicing in the kitchen of their home. Both strengthened their singing skills by taking a class with John “Jack” Langstaff at The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia. A highly respected vocal trainer, Langstaff was director of The Revels, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group in the ‘70s that performed a wildly eclectic mix of medieval and modern music.
Nerissa and Katryna sang together throughout high school before Nerissa left home for Yale, where she studied English, and Katrina went to Trinity College in Hartford, where she studied religion.
The first incarnation of what became the Nields came together in 1987 when Nerissa met David Jones, a Yale graduate student and accomplished guitarist who started playing gigs with Katryna occasionally as a duo. In 1990, Nerissa and David married and – in an example of a thoroughly modern relationship – he took her surname, becoming David Nields.
In 1991, when Katryna graduated from Trinity, the Nields began performing as a trio in coffeehouses and other small venues in and around DC with Katryna singing lead, Nerissa on back-up vocals and rhythm guitar and David on lead guitar.
MOVE TO CONNECTICUT
In 1992, the three moved to Connecticut, where David had taken a job as an English teacher at the Loomis Chaffe School in Windsor. “What we didn’t realize was it was the absolutely perfect cradle to start a band,” Nerissa told Live Music News & Review in 2016 about Windsor at the time. “We were in this incredibly supportive, intellectually stimulating community, centrally located, and we definitely had a dream to get famous.”
While living in the school’s dorms from 1991 to 1995, they tried out their new songs – a number of which wound up on their future albums – on the students at the school and asked for their honest feedback. “Being around teenagers kept us grounded in that youthful transition period,” Nerissa told Live Music News & Review.
66 HOXSEY STREET, LIVE FROM THE IRON HORSE MUSIC HALL
In 1992, the band recorded its first album, the self-released 66 Hoxsey Street, an 11-track collection of original material named for a house in Williamstown, Virginia, where Nerissa and Katryna had lived as kids. They gigged across New England, eager to build their reputation on the region’s folk scene.
In 1993, they recorded a 15-track live album, Live at the Iron Horse Music Hall, recorded at the popular club in Northampton, Massachusetts. Later that year, Nerissa and Katryna contributed harmonies to Dar Williams’ The Honesty Room, and in 1996 they did the same on her LP Mortal City.
In 1994, the band became a quintet with the additions of bassist Dave Chalfant, whom Katryna had met in college, and his friend, drummer Dave Hower. With a rock-solid rhythm section, David’s Pete Townshend and Adrian Belew-influenced guitar riffs and the sisters’ lilting harmonies, the five-piece was an acoustical force across the board. Spin magazine likened them to Alanis Morisette fronting Indigo Girls.
BOB ON THE CEILING, ABIGAIL, GOTTA GET OVER GRETA
The five-piece band self-released their first album in 1994, Bob on the Ceiling, and to nobody’s surprise it was infinitely more rocked out than anything the trio had ever done. The disc’s critical acclaim in the New England press boosted audience sizes so much that band members were able to quit their day jobs and become full-time musicians.
In 1995, they self-released the EP Abigail (named for Katryna and Nerissa’s sister) and landed a deal with independent label Razor & Tie. They recorded 1996’s Gotta Get Over Greta, produced by Kevin Moloney (U2, Sinéad O’Connor), which one critic described as “acoustic folk music meets pop, punk and country in a strong and daring shoot out.”
In 1997, The Nields signed their first and only major-label contract with Elektra sublabel Guardian (Joan Baez’s label at the time), which reissued Gotta Get Over Greta in 1997 with three bonus tracks. With a global label’s support, the future looked bright for The Nields but their dreams of major national fame were short lived; Elektra liquidated Guardian within six months of signing the band.
‘MOUSSE, “Jam for the Van,” PLAY
To add insult to injury, in 1997 the group’s aging tour van was in bad shape from near-constant use. Without enough cash on hand for repairs or a new ride, they self-released the album ‘Mousse (the nickname of Chalfant’s sister Andromache) and held a fundraising concert entitled “Jam for the Van.” As a result, the Nields were able to purchase brand new wheels.
In early 1998, they signed with Zoë, a division of Rounder Records. Their first release on the label was 1998’s Play, a 14-track collection. “There’s a sense of literary high-mindedness at work throughout this album that lifts the material to another level,” wrote critic Cub Koda. “Despite the sing-songiness of several of the songs…there are some deliciously dark moments in the lyrics that makes this a cut above your usual folkie rant album.”
IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU’D BE HOME NOW, LIVE FROM NORTHAMPTON
In 2000, the group recorded If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now, yet another dense effort with 15 tracks. “This is elegant, appealing music that speaks to the varied concerns of contemporary women,” wrote AllMusic’s William Ruhlmann, noting the exceptional expressiveness of Katryna’s voice.
In early 2001, the band self-released Live From Northampton (recorded at the Iron Horse Music Hall) but by the end of the year they had stopped performing together despite a strong local following. It turned out to be David’s final album with the band; later that year he and Nerissa divorced and he moved to North Carolina.
DUO FORMATION, LOVE AND CHINA, AMELIA, THIS TOWN IS WRONG
In 2002, Nerissa and Katryna started billing themselves by their first names occasionally, not always as The Nields, and recorded 2002’s Love and China (with bassist Chalfant and studio musicians), which Nerissa has called “basically a break-up album.” They followed up with an EP of children’s songs, Songs for Amelia, and the LP This Town is Wrong in 2004.
Between 2006 and 2017, the Neild sisters were extremely busy in the studio, recording 12 self-released albums: All Together Singing In The Kitchen (2006); Sister Holler (2007); Rock All Day/Rock All Night (2008); Organic Farm (2010, live DVD); The Full Catastrophe (2012); XVII (2015) and Joy to the World (2017). In 2016, Mercury House Productions issued Haven’t I Paid My Dues By Now – Greatest Hits 1991-2016.
NOVEMBER, CIRCLE OF DAYS
In 2020, they released their 20th album, November. Topical in nature, songs address subjects including the climate crisis (“Kids Always Get It”), disputes over immigration (“Goodbye, Mexico,” “Jesus Was a Refugee”) and democracy (“Tyrants Always Fall”). It also includes two standards, “America the Beautiful” and Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” on which Dar Williams, Chris Smither and others sing harmony alongside Nerissa and Katryna’s children and members of a local youth chorus.
In June 2023, the Nields released their latest studio effort, Circle of Days. Each of the 11 tracks refers to an annual event such as the winter solstice (“Darkest Day of the Year”), Easter (“Death and Resurrection”) and Thanksgiving (“Comic Books and Movies”).
Nerissa and Katryna live in western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley and still play shows together, mostly as a duo. When they appear with a full band, they’re backed by former bandmates Chalfant on guitar and Hower on drums, with the addition of Paul Kochanski on bass. They also lead a popular singing class for preschoolers called Hootenanny.
Dave Hower plays drums with a variety of bands, including Winterpills, Spanish for Hitchhiking and The Fucking Sparklies. Dave Chalfant owns a recording studio and teaches instrumental music at the Academy of Charlemont in Charlemont, Massachusetts.
David Nields was the theatre director for the Imperial Centre of Arts and Sciences in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and now he teaches theater at the State College of Florida.
COMMENTS ON SONGWRITING
Asked in a 2016 interview with Me & Thee Music if she has any advice for young songwriters, Nerissa said the important thing is to put in the work, even if you write some terrible songs.
“I think it’s great for songwriters to write songs, at least sometimes, just to work those songwriting muscles,” she said. “I have put in my 10,000 hours of practice. I have probably averaged one song a month since about 1988. That’s over 300 songs. And we’ve recorded around half of those. So I know how to write a song. Still, sometimes, when I am sitting with my guitar or at the piano, it’s as if I am a pure beginner again. That first phrase is the hardest.”
“One last thing I’ll say, and this goes for any kind of writing, too,” she added. “It helps to give yourself permission to write a really bad song. I like to do what Phillip Price [of the Winterpills] does: write five versions of one song. That takes the pressure off!”
(by D.S. Monahan)