This week in our Artist Interview Series, we are talking to Nina Hellman. Nina is an actor who was an original cast member and a series regular in the Netflix hit, Wet Hot American Summer. She has also appeared in many off-broadway productions, even earning an Obie Award for her performance in Trouble in Paradise. Also of interest is that before her career as an actress, Nina was a guitarist and vocalist in the all-female indie rock band, Cake Like, who were signed to Neil Young’s Vapor Records and John Zorn’s Avant Label. We were really excited to hear her insights on music as an actor, singer, guitarist and mother.
What is your earliest memory playing an instrument?
In sixth grade we could choose to play an instrument in the school band. I chose clarinet. I played for one year and I was terrible. I could barely keep up and felt completely lost. I didn’t continue with clarinet. I always wanted to learn to play piano.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was a city kid and I loved animals, so I wanted to be a veterinarian and live on a farm.
When did you fall in love with music?
I always loved listening to music. I got lost in music. I was an avid record collector as a teenager, and then went to many, many, concerts and shows in college and after. One night some friends who had decided to start a band invited me to their rehearsal space. We thought we’d just mess around, they’d play and I would sing. Eventually I picked up someone’s electric guitar and started making sounds. They all went nuts and said I HAD to play guitar and start a band. So a few days later I asked my friend if she wanted to start a band with me and she said YES. I was 24 years old. That’s a pretty late start.
Did you have important teachers along the way that helped shape your musical exploration, if so how did they help you?
Yes. I don’t think I would have had the courage to just start a band from scratch in my mid 20’s without a whole lot of encouragement! I was really close friends with a few of the guys in the band, Shudder To Think. They were an amazing band. Craig, the lead singer, was my boyfriend at the time. When I was doubting myself, he assured me that, “Nobody who starts a rock band knows how to play.” Nathan who was the guitarist, gave me his old Gibson SG, and I was off. Craig and Nathan were huge supporters in those early days and beyond. Craig produced two of my band’s, Cake Like, records. Also, my friend Steven Bernstein was a huge mentor for me. He’s in the jazz world but he loved what my band was doing so much, he sent John Zorn to come see our 3rd live show. John Zorn came to our show with the guitarist, Marc Ribot, I could barely speak I was so star struck. I had been going to see these guys play for years! John asked us if we had enough songs for an album, I said, I think so? And Marc Ribot asked me, “How did you make those guitar sounds?” I nearly died. Without the encouragement of those mentors I don’t know if I would have given myself the permission to pick up the guitar and play in a band without any formal training.
How has learning an instrument helped you in your life, besides obviously giving you a hugely successful career? In other words, what are some of the positive “side-effects” you see in your life because of music?
Playing music has thankfully been a consistent creative outlet for me. As an actor, one is so dependent on outside forces, writers, directors, casting directors etc. But playing music and creating music is something that I can do on my own. It has helped me immensely during those dry periods in between jobs, especially, after having children, where my acting career was put on hold to care for my young children. I even started taking piano lessons every week, fulfilling my lifelong goal of learning to play piano after my second child was born! In plays I’ve done I’ve been asked to play guitar, on occasion, and that has been enormously gratifying. I never would have been asked to play guitar in the play if I hadn’t played in a band.
How has playing music influenced you as a parent?
The piano in our home is a place where we each can take a time out. If we are getting on each other’s nerves or someone is having a hard day, including me, I remind myself and my children to go play piano. Everyone always comes out better.
Did you ever want to give up playing? How did you overcome that?
When my band broke up I think I needed a break. I needed a break from the pressure of songwriting on a deadline, touring, inter band dynamics, all of it. A little while after, I played music with a different friend but found I wasn’t enjoying it that much. It didn’t feel like my music, it didn’t motivate me.
Starting piano lessons after my second child was born really got me past my malaise. I was and am so excited to learn to play piano. There’s no pressure to do it for anything other than my own pleasure and edification. It’s really fun! And satisfying. Playing a song on piano that I never thought I’d be able to play is a great feeling.
What would your advice be to parents and/or students who are thinking about learning to play an instrument? And any advice on how to bring more singing and music into their lives at home?
Just do it. You are never too old or too young to play music, or to learn.
And for all of our 3yr old readers, if you could turn yourself into an instrument, what would you be and why?
I think I would be a Tuba. Tubas are so big and shiny and make really nice deep sounds, that support the whole orchestra.