The Wildest, Windiest Album of the Year

11.26.2013

By Jason Lamphier

Jamie Stewart’s Not-So-Cuddly Tribute to Nina Simone

Photo by Angela Seo

There are moments on Nina, Xiu Xiu’s new Nina Simone covers album (available Dec. 3), when the art-rock band’s front man, Jamie Stewart, sounds as depressed and drunk as he must have been the night he conceived it. His 11-track homage is a twinkling, bellowing, squawking, transfixing mix of piano, drums, sax, synths, accordion, and Stewart pushing himself way beyond his usual range. Sad noise for some; for others, like Stewart, a series of “happy accidents.”

What made you decide to take on Nina Simone?
One night, after a show in Austin, Texas, that I thought I’d played particularly poorly, I was feeling really disappointed and upset and sitting backstage drinking Becherovka, and I put her on. I got drunker and drunker and became more and more enthralled with the music. I figured I could probably never pull off any Nina Simone songs, but I should probably try to do it.

When did you first discover her?
About nine years ago. On one of the first Xiu Xiu tours, I was staying with a friend who gave me Nina Simone’s Finest Hour and I was instantly hooked. She’s somebody I feel simultaneously pummeled by, impressed with, and moved by.

Why do you think queer men have such an affinity for Nina?
She shaped her career and she was who she was, and being queer, by definition — and being alive — is having a certain willingness to not take any shit from people. She had the ability to be incredibly good at what she did and never pandered.

I’ve always found the androgyny of her voice intriguing.
According to her biography, she always wrestled with being recognized in terms of her femininity because of her voice; it could really belong to anybody.

Her music often has an eerie, otherworldly aspect to it, but you’ve deconstructed these songs to make them more spastic.
Well, one of the things I really admire about her is that even though on the surface some of her singing is very stately and formal, there is incredible intensity with everything she’s done, even the run-of-the-mill jazz standards. Because of who she is, she beats a song to death. We wanted to make sure there was a real intensity to the whole record, and going bananas, for us, is a big part of the sound.

Listen to Xiu Xiu's cover of "Don't Smoke In Bed" below:

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