Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Nina Cristante is heckling a heckler. Some guy’s booming voice has just commanded Bar Italia to “play my little tony, please”, a recent single and the opener from the band’s new album The Twits. It just so happens that the song is up next. “Now it sounds like we’re playing it for you,” deadpans Nina as the track’s roaring guitars kick in.
The band are playing a sold-out show in East London’s 700-capacity Village Underground to a mix of 6 Music dads and head-nodding twentysomethings wearing muted colours. The heckler, who’s standing at the bar, is one of the former. “Come on guys,” he shouts, “I don’t have to do all of your in-between song banter as well, do I?”
Nina – elegantly dressed in a black, low-cut, double-breasted blazer, black mini skirt and striped monochrome tights, with her hair slicked into a low bun – doesn’t dignify that one with a response. In fact, the singer’s earlier reply is the first and last time anyone from Bar Italia speaks on stage tonight, as has become typical of their live performances. The heckler obviously hasn’t done his research.
This is all part of Bar Italia’s alluring mystique. Comprising Nina and singer/guitarists Sam Fenton and Jezmi Tarik Fehmi, up until October, the London-based band had only done one interview in their four active years, a bashful appearance on a slapstick call-in show hosted by US comedian Tim Heidecker. And even then it was barely an interview.
When I meet Nina in Brixton three weeks before the Village Underground show on an unseasonably warm October evening, she already has an explanation ready.
“We didn’t want to do interviews because it just didn’t make sense,” she says. “At the time, we didn’t have much music under our belt, and the fact that we didn’t have a story became a story in itself, with this ‘mysterious’ word haunting every headline. I find it annoying when someone has to brand themselves before they’ve even done something, or while they’re doing it. It’s way more interesting to talk when you’ve got something to say.”
But she isn’t here just to talk about Bar Italia. In fact, over the hour and a half we spend together, the Rome-born artist, nutritionist and musician is most animated when talking about her work as a personal trainer and the art that collides with it.
Even when we do chat about her “day job”, she’s reluctant to share too much without her bandmates, anxious about speaking on their behalf. She does, however, confirm that their name is an homage to the storied café in Soho, which, she says, doesn’t do particularly good Italian food (the panini is an exception). That’s what makes it a funny band name, “because I’m Italian, but it’s the least Italian spot”. She will also expand, a bit, on their basic origin story: that they met “in a house”.
To be fair, they did meet in a house. In Peckham. Sam and Jezmi, who also play as the duo Double Virgo, lived in a flat below Nina and, in late 2019, they started making music together.
“There was an immediate commitment to it that was very natural,” she says, her hands cradling an oat milk hot chocolate. “Then lockdown happened and it was very easy to spend [all our time doing it]. There was no question about the fact that we were meeting three times a week, making music, staying up late, playing football, watching videos and then making music again.”
The culmination of this very vibey regimen was the trio’s charmingly unpolished sound: a fusion of greyscale indie rock and jagged post-punk, led by boy-girl vocals and lyrics which ruminate on infatuation, failed relationships and existential angst.
From 2020 to 2022, nearly all of Bar Italia’s material was released via Dean Blunt’s World Music label (Dean and Nina were in a long-term relationship). The artists on the World Music roster – including neo-soul band Blue Iverson and Blunt’s rap group Babyfather – often follow his lead in being mischievously enigmatic. Identities are obscured. Music appears, then quickly disappears. Performers play in darkness. Social media posts are cryptic and album artworks are hilariously irreverent. This tends to earn them intrigue and a cult following, as it did for Bar Italia.
After a couple of years of generating excitement among music industry types, in March 2023, Bar Italia signed with Matador, the legendary indie label that’s home to bands such as Gang of Four and Interpol.
Since then, they’ve been on a relentless grind and are ending the year with an intense, 10-week tour of Britain, Europe, the US and Canada, with another month-long North American run booked for spring 2024. It’s been particularly hectic for Nina, an avowed multi-tasker. Because even though she’s found herself in London’s most inscrutable band, she never really intended to be a full-time musician.
Her first ever work as a singer was 2018’s solo release Romance. A jaunty ditty with a dark theme (“You hit me twice across the face /I was eight”), it started life as a spur-of-the-moment improv over a country loop that Blunt, who produced the track, sent her. She’s been prolific ever since. In 2020, Nina released the experimental LP Twins, following it up with 2021’s Classics. She’s also dropped a smattering of hazy pop singles, many of which have Italian titles (Miserere, Demento, Fallo), the latest being 2022’s melancholic Slur and this year’s dream scenario, a collaboration with the Barcelona-based producer and artist Eterna.
For Nina, who speaks very seriously indeed about her work, it’s the videos that bring these tracks to life. In the lo-fi clip for 2020 track Dead Horse, filmed with shaky, amateur camerawork, she’s dressed like a chic burglar and gives us a tour of the art in a Victorian mansion. Think: 1974 French film Celine and Julie Go Boating crossed with ’90s classic Thelma and Louise. “I have a secret I need to tell you /Have imposter syndrome /And it’s not a joke,” Nina sings, a pretender in this ostentatious gaff.
But while being a singer has come as an unexpected occupation, Nina has known that she wanted to make art since she was child.
Her mum, a costume designer for the opera, often took Nina on tour with her, meaning her childhood was spent “in workshops full of the most incredible silks and dusty backstages in theatres”. Watching opera, she admits with a laugh, “when you’re, like, five years old, is fucking tedious”. She credits her musical education to her uncle, who used to burn her CDs, compiling classics by The Velvet Underground, Blondie, Nico, the Ramones and The Strokes with handwritten and photocopied covers. “I still have them,” she says. “They’re kind of like my Bible.”
From around the age of 12, though, Nina found herself itching to leave Rome. So, in 2007, when she was “very young” (she, like her bandmates, won’t tell anyone her age), this unlikely frontwoman moved alone to London.
“There are a few roads that have defined my life and one of those was coming to London,” she says. “I was really interested in art, fashion and music, and everything I was consuming was from here or America. There wasn’t a master plan. I just wanted to be in the midst of it.”
After touching down in London, she studied fashion and art history, and interned at galleries. Soon, however, Nina’s fascination with workouts, rituals and nutrition led her into what have since, for her, become two inseparable worlds: art and health.
She is the creator of the Zao Dha Diet (ZDD), which promotes intuitive eating. “It’s not just, like, ‘I want this, I’ll have this,’” she says, pre-empting both my next question and any scepticism. “It’s a mixture of learning about what food does, and how it makes you feel, and attuning [yourself] to that.” She’s also developed an accompanying project called Fitness Povero (FP), a series of spartan workout videos filmed in her bedroom. These are gentler, no-equipment workouts designed to be accessible to everyone during times of austerity (“povero” is Italian for “poor”).
You might find it hard to connect the dots between this obsession with health and a career as the singer of a much-hyped indie band, with all the late nights, long drives and service station meals that define life on the road. Nina felt that contradiction, too. That is, until she started doing it.
“It’s a form of athleticism, being on tour, because it’s very consuming on the body and the mind,” she says. “Without this knowledge, I’d really be struggling right now.”
It was a Fitness Povero series, 2015’s Homeworks, that inspired Nina to compose her first ever piece of music, a calming piano soundtrack, the CD of which she later sold on eBay. The following year, she contributed films, sculptures, photography and music, all on the topic of health, to exhibitions in London, Berlin, San Francisco and Copenhagen.
As in her music, there’s a tongue-in-cheek undertone to much of her art. Her Dean Blunt collaboration hot16 involved the pair painting seemingly random objects – fruit, a Troll toy, a MacBook, a decorative frog – bright orange. One of her exhibitions, about the body as a site of reconstruction, features Teletubbies doing yoga poses.
When she finally returns from the Bar Italia tour the week before Christmas, Nina will get stuck back into her other artistic pursuits. She’s determined to finish writing the script for The Richest Man in Babylon, a medical-mystery drama she’s been working on for the last three years.
Inspired by her fascination with how the body stores and heals from trauma, the 20-minute film is about city dwellers under pressure, the privatisation of the NHS and a new, undiagnosable disease. She will also be creating a guitar-based score, which she hopes to release as a soundtrack album. The film, by the way, is a comedy.
For now, though, that’s as far as she’s got.
“This is what’s happening now,” concludes Nina Cristante, brushing off any further lines of questioning about her future, or about what, even, is next for Britain’s best new band. “We’ll see what happens later.”
HAIR Ryo Narushima at Saint Luke using TIGI PROFESSIONAL MAKE-UP Joshua Bart PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTNAT Lilah Culliford STYLIST’S ASSISTANT Scarlett Richards