Music : Nina Violet : Finding the right words
Music is one of Nina Violet's earliest memories. From playing with the pianos her parents were rebuilding, to learning viola at the public school string lessons, Ms. Violet has always surrounded herself with music. But when she took up the guitar in seventh grade, music moved beyond a pastime and became a salvation from the difficult years of middle school.
"In grade school I wore the most bizarre clothes, and did well in school. It was really horrible," the 26-year-old remembers. "All the kids singled me out. It was either I dress like them and act like them - which I can't do - or be a really awesome freak. Being weird was like a protection thing because I didn't have any confidence in myself."
When she was 11, her older brother took her to a Second Power band practice. Seeing musicians who were having fun playing together gave Ms. Violet new inspiration. She soon took up guitar and started a band of her own. The fierce, hard-edged sounds of rock and roll resonated with her.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"When you have no friends, you've got to have something to do, so I sat in my room playing guitar and writing songs all the time. Being good in school was not going to give you confidence at that age. Being good at guitar does give you confidence. It's something you can do with other people."
Ms. Violet's efforts on guitar resulted in a standing ovation at the Tisbury School's talent show in eighth grade - a huge confidence boost.
By the time she was in high school she was taking music lessons off-Island, and touring with Kahoots. "Hanging out with the Kahoots guys was great," she says. "I saw that grown-ups who were being themselves were all the better for it. In grade school they might be considered freaks, but now they were really cool. Knowing a lot of older people gave me the idea that it was awesome to be yourself and if others didn't accept that, to not let it bother you. Everyone else will catch up sooner or later."
Ms. Violet put off college indefinitely to pursue music, and without any major financial obligations she set out to pursue a career as a performer.
She first headed for cities, busking (playing music on public streets) in Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. She earned rent money by playing viola in the T stations.
But after growing up on Martha's Vineyard, cities seemed too crowed and dirty, and Ms. Violet decided that the toll city life was having on her, compared to the opportunities it created, just didn't balance out. She came back to Martha's Vineyard in her early 20s, and started playing with Willy Mason, doing a weekly gig at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs.
"Playing my own gigs was such a source of anxiety," she says. "You're playing guitar and your fingers turn to gook. As far as calming my nerves, playing with Willy was huge. We would do a ton of shows and get really used to playing for a crowd that was there for you. Now I really do enjoy performing."
Fingers ruffling through her hair as she talks, Ms. Violet reflects on her choices. "Musically, I have no idea what I'm trying to do, I just do it," she says. "If I thought about it, I'd probably screw it up. I started with the electric guitar. When I stopped playing with the band and started playing alone, I picked up the acoustic guitar. That's when everyone started accusing me of playing folk music. At first I thought it was a dirty word, but after a while I got comfortable with it."
Although she listened to music that was, "good and loud," she always focused on the lyrics, and that brought her towards folk music.
"Think back to what Woody Guthrie did in the Depression," she says. "He alleviated the suffering of people by singing their suffering aloud. When everybody was thinking these down thoughts and then a charismatic man showed up and sung the thoughts back to them, it made their suffering real and it made it okay. Music has always been an expression from people to God, or to each other or to themselves about the things that they suffer and the joys that they feel."
Ms. Violet will sit with her guitar for hours. When writing songs, the lyrics and music come simultaneously. If she doesn't like something, she doesn't edit it, she simply stops, and starts a new song.
"It's good to find things that are both musically and lyrically poignant," says Ms. Violet. "The writing part of the song has always been really important to me. Lyrics are not about showing how well you can sing or giving your mouth a vehicle or giving a reason to play your guitar riffs... it's really about the lyrics for me."
Ms. Violet is clear about her willingness and determination to let things unfold for her in their own way. "I get psyched when I sell lots of records and it would be nice to make a living doing it, but I'm not going to compromise my art or my lifestyle," she says.
She adds, "If you're true to yourself, whatever follows is what was meant to follow. If you're showing something that is human, then hopefully some people will be into it. If everybody thinks your music is great, then it has to be something like white bread, and that's not something that is any fun to be. I'd much rather be something weird like marmite. Some people love it, some people hate it, but at least they have an opinion on it."
Ben Williams is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.
Nina Violet can be seen at local venues such as Che's Lounge and the Chilmark Community Center Jams.