With an artist as wide-ranging and prolific as Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, it can be hard to put
into words what, exactly, his music sounds like. But when it comes to Stewart’s forthcoming
NINA, he certainly doesn’t sound like himself.
NINA is a thank-you note, a love letter and a kind of musical fan-fic for the late icon Nina
Simone. This being Xiu Xiu, of course, Stewart’s tribute album is far from a collection of
straight covers. Rather, he and long-time collaborator Ches Smith — “the only person I know who
could understand this in his heart and also handle the technical side of fearlessly reorienting
such wonderful music” — bring Simone into focus through their own avant-dark lens.
Stewart pushes his tenor into Tom Waits territory on tracks like “Wild Is the Wind” while
maintaining femininity by adopting a trembling and breathy singing style. Smith’s arrangements,
replete with languid, discordant jazz saxophone; sedate accordion; and brisk, minimalist
drums, are disquieting, sometimes downright spooky. The collection is both haunting
and haunted and, like the best tributes, provides a new perspective on Simone, showcasing
both her versatility as a songwriter and Stewart’s vigorous creativity.
“The idea came being back stage in Austin TX, opening for Swans and feeling like I did not
play well,” Stewart explains. The night before, he and Swans’ Michael Gira had discussed
Simone, their love both for her talent as a musician and her fearlessness as a civil rights
activist, and how Simone inspired them to make better work. Feeling down on himself, yet
inspired both by the memory of Simone and the “epic and beautiful persistence” of Gira and
Swans, Stewart decided to honor Simone and challenge himself in making NINA.
To that end, NINA was recorded in just one day, all in first or second takes. In doing so,
Stewart captured the immediacy of the feelings that inspired the record, but it was also a
practical decision. Stewart is a busy man. In the next year alone he has a new full-length
Xiu Xiu record coming out, along with other planned releases, and an event with conceptual
artist Danh Vo at Milwaukee’s Walker Arts Center in October. Last month, he wrapped up another
performance, “Dark Materials,” with visual artist Monika Grzymala and choreographer
Jeremy Wade at Hamburg’s Internationales Sommerfestival and he’s also been busy touring
with Swans and working with Eugene Robinson from Oxbow on their side project, Sal Mineo.