Catching Up With… Nina Barnes, Of Montreal’s creative partner

Music Features of Montreal

Of Montreal frontman (andPaste‘s November 2008 cover subject) Kevin Barnes and his wife Nina have been through a lot together since they met at a music festival in Oslo, Norway in 2001: A few amazing nights in Europe, months of long-distance email correspondence, flights across the Atlantic, a tour, plenty of musical and artistic collaboration, a wedding, a child, struggling to pay the bills, a painful breakup and a joyful reunion. In this exclusive Paste interview, Nina Barnes sheds some light on her husband and his work, and tells her side of the Of Montreal story.

Paste: Tell me about your creative role in Of Montreal.
Nina: Oh, dear. (Laughs) Back in Norway I used to play music and I played in the band. I played bass with Kevin for one tour, and it was so much fun. But then I found out while we were on tour that I was pregnant, so that kind of ended my musical career in Of Montreal, ’cause having a kid, and tour buses and that sort of thing, it’s not very simple, it’s not very ideal for anyone. So, I had always been drawing and got suddenly a lot of time on my hands just walking around being pregnant and finding an outlet for my very scattered brain. (Laughs) So I started making posters, doing T-shirt designs and all kinds of stuff like that [for the band]. [Kevin’s brother] David always did all the album art and everything, and his role in the band was very strong. I think a lot of the early fans saw [David] as the heart of Of Montreal—you know, the aesthetic of Of Montreal. So I never wanted to—what do you say?—like, take his role. We are such good friends and we have this like—when we get together, we just overflow of ideas…

Paste: You and David?
Nina: Yeah, me, David and Kevin. Like, if we sit down, things are bound to happen. And we just started collaborating on small things and one thing led to the other and, suddenly, you know, we came up with this idea for Skeletal Lamping. We wanted to do something totally different, and we decided we wanted to do it together. So it’s just one big collaboration. You know, like Kevin, of course, making the music and then me and David listening to the music and having ideas.

Paste: So all these great new ideas for packaging the new album, was that something that you and David came up with?
Nina: Initially, David had the idea that we should make a lantern. And we were all like, “Yeah!” And then we started talking about packaging, we started talking about—for me, I’m so old, you know, when I started buying music it was all vinyl. And I just remember the feeling of, you know, buying Clash, for example, like Sandinista! And the vinyl with this pamphlet inside, like comic books and all this crazy madness, and that sort of excitement of having art with the music. We just realized we should actually make people excited about that part of an album or a record—[to remind them] that it doesn’t have to be that boring, mundane little square. That doesn’t really matter anymore because everyone is downloading things. So we were like, “Can we give them something else? Something they can actually appreciate and have in their homes and be a part of their life?” And then one thing took the other and we started out with the lantern, but it became hard for the CD to be the lantern for the packaging. And from then on, we knew we had to be very inventive in how we did things. But the construction, the sculpture that me and David made for the CD —you fold it up and you put it together. It’s very easy and becomes this pretty big sculpture. Just trying to find that shape, and making it work with the packaging, was such a huge challenge and I think David did an amazing job. He was so amazing. From the engineering of it, he stared filling it up with art, and he made something and sent it over to me, and I would make something and I would send it over to him, and then we had one of those huge disagreements about something, but it turned out to be a good thing and we all agreed upon, you know, changes and everything. So we really have a very good flow between us when it comes to the working process.

Paste: Kevin also told me that when he’s making an album or writing songs, he’ll frequently bounce ideas off of you and David. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Nina: Yeah. Kevin will be very open—I think he trusts David and me and our opinions, and he takes them into regards. In our old house, he had a studio in the attic and he would make music like for 12, 14 hours and then he would some down time and he’s like, “Listen to this,” and I’ll listen to it and then comment on it and say, “What if I did this for the bass, adding something here, [or] what if you layered there.” And he doesn’t necessarily agree with me, [but sometimes] he’ll say, “OK, no, that’s a great idea.” He has a lot of respect for both David’s and my opinion, and I think it’s because we’re so close, and I think both me and David are kind of connected to [Kevin], so we understand immediately what he’s trying to do, and it’s just an amazing thing—to encourage each other and be a part of each other’s creative outlets.

Paste: How and when did you and Kevin meet?
Nina: Oh, a long time ago. We met in Oslo [in 2001]. He was on tour in Europe with Great Lakes, and he was playing one show at a Swedish festival with Of Montreal. They played two shows in Oslo, and they stayed at my best friend’s house ’cause the whole show was arranged by the record label my band [The Ethnobabes] was on, and the whole crew, there were like eight or nine people, they stayed at my friend’s house, and that’s how I met them. Actually, I knew of Of Montreal, I had the old vinyl and everything, and really loved it and was excited to see them. And after one of the shows we talked for a couple of hours and hit it off. There was a connection there— just telling stories and talking about music and art and life and my crazy family. If I get started, I can talk and talk and talk. So it was really pleasant, and then we just had some email correspondence for like six months. And then I decided to come over here to visit. That was my first trip to the U.S. That was in 2002. And then I came back like 3 or 4 times, and we were a little bit back and forth about the whole deal, but the last time I came over it was like, “How the hell are we going to be able to stay together?” We were like, “Well, it’s the only thing, we have to get married”—so that I could have a green card, you know? So, I flew back home to my Norway, and I arranged everything in like one month, and Kevin and his parents and David came over, and we got married in Oslo. And I moved to the U.S. after that. And I love it here!

Paste: When I met with Kevin last time, we talked a lot about the difficult time the two of you had between Sunlandic Twins and Hissing Fauna. Kevin was going through a depression, you guys split up and he left you to take care of [your daughter] Alabee on your own. I’ve heard his side of the story, but I was wondering what this time in your life was like? Because he said he got to tell his side in some of his songs, like “Past is a Grotesque Animal,” but that you’ve never been able to tell your side of the story.
Nina: It’s true, yeah, it’s true. But I have a double view of Hissing Fauna. I see the artistic statement. And even though listening to it can hurt, I totally respect it, and I’m totally like, “This is his artistic freedom, his freedom to take something very hard and difficult and make it into a personal statement, an artistic statement.” And I think it’s beautiful and moving. I really, really love that record. But it’s not something I’m going to hang out and listen to and rock out. I couldn’t really do that. But it’s true. When the record was released, it was interview upon interview about our breakup, and it was a story about me and my child, and I had no say in it. I became this sort of object. And at first, I was really like, “ But no one really knows me.” I became like a character in a book. On a totally personal level, of course, it was rough for both of us, but it’s one of those things—I roll with the punches in life. When you have a kid you just have no choice other than to shape up, take control of your life and make the best of it. And also, it’s a source of humongous inspiration for both of us, you know, artistically.

Paste: Having a child?
Nina: No, well, having a child and having the big break up, you know? Like, being a single mom. I have to say for every single mom or single dad out there, it’s a hell of a job. I have so much respect for all those people who are alone in the world and bringing up a child. It’s not easy. But you become aware of those aspects of life, and then you really appreciate the little time you have. For me it’s like—Kevin is very much like me: When he is in the process of making things—he does it all the time and he doesn’t really stop—but he will work for like 14 hours. So, basically, I’m taking on the majority of the childcare.

Paste: Is it difficult to find time for your own art?
Nina: Well, since I’m from Norway and Kevin’s touring so much, we travel so much, so it hasn’t been possible to have Alabee in any kind of daycare. But she just started school now, so that frees up the day for me, so I can do my stuff to a much greater extent. I have more time on my hands, which is an amazing feeling. But I think, actually having to work under pressure, it makes you extremely focused. Anyone who’s had a kid knows you just have to organize your time well to do everything. It actually has been a really positive force in my life because my mind wanders off, and there’s so many distractions in life. So it made me actually focus so much more. I love [Alabee] more than anything, but being a stay-at-home Mom, I don’t think it really applies to my personality. So I had to have my own thing, I had to have my outlet. I think that also became a very strong force. When Kevin was on tour, and I was home with Alabee, when she went to bed I would just start making stuff. I lost an enormous amount of sleep. It’s probably going to shorten my life a little bit, but I’m having fun, so it’s a good thing. Now, I have Gemini Tactics—it’s my company name, or at least some sort of name for what I’m doing. I make T-shirts and underwear and bags and prints and all sorts of things that I sell online. And I do illustration and designs for other people, so I can earn some money for what I do, which is a great feeling.

Paste: With all that going on for you, creatively, and with Of Montreal finally starting to have success, how do you feel these days?
Nina: It feels great. We were able to actually buy a house. That may seem like a small thing for some people, but for us, it was like, “HOLY SHIT!” And we can actually afford to pay our bills! When Kevin started in 1997, the success didn’t come until Sunlandic Twins, a little bit, and then with Hissing Fauna. Living, it was hard, and having a kid, and the expenses of that. Now, being able to—it’s not a luxurious life, but it’s comfortable. Ant that’s a good thing, even though we were terrified buying a house, just getting a taste of, “We’re settling down.” I think it’s probably a little bit of the Peter Pan syndrome; we don’t really want to be adults, but our life situation—having a kid—has forced us to be that, at least for parts of the day. But hopefully we won’t get mundane and boring. We’re always out there looking for some sort of enlightenment, through reading and philosophy and art and books and film or whatever. It’s all about creating a lot of friction, and keeping yourself mentally stimulated.

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