Interview: Marissa Nadler

Paula Mejia

By Paula Mejia

on 01.31.14 in Interviews

Marissa Nadler has been quietly carving out a niche at the curious intersection of folk, black metal and Americana for the past decade. While her vocals are celestial, her doomy songs typically focus on earthier truths, concentrating on humanity’s impulses, desires and nightmares. They exist at the place where fiction and reality merge. Her richly toned albums unfold the same way memorable books do: the more you revisit these songs, the more complexities emerge.

After self-releasing her last record and providing backing vocals to black metal recluse Xasthur on his final release Port of Sorrow, Nadler is now releasing her seventh studio record July through Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones label — a fitting home for a songwriter frequently fascinated by the darkness. But despite its sparse arrangements and frosty winter release date, July is Nadler’s most jubilant record yet, clear and realized, promising further enlightenment wherever her path may lead her next.

Paula Mejia spoke with Nadler about the intersection of black metal and folk, finding truth in songwriting and how Hole’s Eric Erlanderson became a Marissa Nadler fan.

You’re a self-taught guitarist. What did you grow up listening to?

I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music. My parents were definitely hippies, so we had their classic rock collection, my brother and I. So from a very early age, my mom was really into Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. I got into Stevie Nicks because of her. But when I was a teenager, I got really into grunge. It was the ’90s, so Nirvana, stuff like that. I started out playing electric guitar and played with a bunch of girls I went to high school with, and was into the riot grrrl stuff. I actually got into Leonard Cohen by listening to Nirvana. In “Pennyroyal Tea,” there’s a lyric about Leonard Cohen, and I devoured those lyrics, so and ended up stumbling upon someone who became one of my biggest influences.

That’s amazing how those things happen, discovery through artists referencing others in song.

Yeah, totally. It’s funny — I think maybe because of the generation I grew up in and the fact that music wasn’t digitized yet, I would listen to a record all the way through, so many times. For the $12 that you earned at the coffee shop, a CD or a cassette tape meant something — a lot more than now. I listened a lot more carefully. I may not have noticed that lyric if I had heard it today.

Yeah, the way music is shared today definitely allows people to have short attention spans. Careful listening might be a thing of the past, at least for a mass public.

I hope not [laughs], especially because I make such delicate music. It doesn’t hit you over the head. But I know there’s an audience for it.

The Sister and its accompanying album, the self-titled one, demonstrate two very different approaches to songwriting. What did you want to accomplish, musically and otherwise, with July?

Well, I feel like The Sister is an EP in my mind. So the self-titled record is the one I consider to be my last record. I think if anything, my songwriting has become more and more confessional, more intimate and honest over the years. It’s been a progression since the very first record I put out 10 years ago, which was very literary, more about stories than first-person accounts. So each record has been a journey toward maybe greater truth. As I get older, I realize what I like more and more about others’ songs. I really want to make songs that people from all genres can relate to. I don’t want to get pigeonholed.

Your songs are often elaborate stories. Who are some of your favorite storytellers?

I think in terms of writers, I have always been a fan of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. He tells stories in these very surreal, emotional ways that capture entire palettes. I like the poetry of Anne Sexton a lot, Tennessee Williams’s short stories. I could go on, but in terms of songwriting tales, I really love the songwriting of Elliott Smith.

What roles do fiction and reality play in your creative process?

I think for a lot of these songs, I’ve taken real events and the way I write about them can seem…I shuck out all the really important details and make an extraction, with the potent words at the forefront. I approach songwriting like I’m making sort of short poems, instead of paragraphs. Most of these songs — all of them on this record — are based on real events that happened, and how they hold together.

Marissa Nadler sounded gloomy, very sparse. By contrast July resounds as wistful but with a glimmer of hope. What was your headspace when you were writing this record?

It was a reflective headspace, for sure. I was also really focused and clear when writing these songs. The record was kind of day-to-day, so it’s hard to think of headspaces. I wrote some on good days and some on really bad days. With any of my records, I can look back and say, “I like this song” or “I don’t like this song.” I have a very strong work ethic, so when I wrote this record I pushed myself, sat down and really wrote. I must have written three times as many songs on this record, which I scrapped, kept re-writing lyrics. So I’d say this crop of songs is some of my better songwriting. I’m proud of the songs on the record — the focus paid off.

Is there any song in particular that sticks out to you that you might have wrangled with?

It’s funny. A couple of the songs that I really struggled with didn’t even end up making the record. It’s strange. You often think the more time you spend with something, the better it comes out. But with songwriting, and sometimes drawing and painting, sometimes it’s just that magical moment of inspiration. Some of my favorites on the record were ones I wrote really quickly, whereas ones I maybe struggled with and rewrote and rewrote were the ones I ended up cutting at the end, for some reason, because it was missing something.

My brother is a writer. He writes novels, and he kind of chips away at a new chapter every day. And so writing is a strange thing — a song can be three chords, one phrase repeated over and over and over again. It’s a strange, mysterious beast to conquer. There are so many possibilities there.

Your music is often quite cathartic for the listener. Do you ever struggle listening to some of the music once it’s recorded? Do you not listen to it at all?

There are entire records of mine I can’t listen to any more [laughs]. At this point of my career — this is my seventh record — whether it was because I was singing in a way I don’t sing like anymore…I had to listen to this record a bunch when I went home from the studio because I had to make decisions about mixing. Then it had to be mastered, I had to listen to the test pressing.

But now that it’s done, I don’t intend to listen to it for a long time. It’s the last thing I want to do. It’s very weird when an artist listens to themselves and only hears the bad things. I’m insanely self-critical, so I’d be hearing little things no one else would hear. There was a certain point where, I have to say, when you put art out into the world, you have to deal with the fact that you can’t take it back — even if it’s imperfect. Perfectionism can be a huge curse, because it can debilitate you. Some of my favorite music is when someone’s voice cracks or sounds weird. Those are the moments I love most in song.

You’ve been writing and recording for about 10 years. How do you feel that you’ve evolved as a musician since you first started to record and write music?

I think my guitar playing has gotten a lot stronger. It’s a journey, so I’m still — in my mind — still beginning, but I think the path as an artist as a lifelong one, no matter what the medium is. I’ve gotten better at performing live, too. I used to have really bad stage fright. I’m more comfortable in my own skin, and that shows in the lyrics also.

This is your first release on Sacred Bones. What drew you to the label, and how did that come about?

Well, I’ve had a couple of labels throughout the years. For the self-titled record, I put it out myself, did a Kickstarter campaign. I was with a label before and it didn’t work out, and that’s why I wanted to do it myself. The self-titled record was a really successful release for me and I ended up spending so much time in front of my computer, reading reviews, going to the post office. Nothing that had to do with actually making music, and I was starting to drive myself crazy. I never thought I’d go back to another label, but I ended up changing my mind. Caleb [Brataan, Sacred Bones' founder] had written me a couple of years ago, and I also signed to Bella Union in Europe. So two really good labels — I feel like I’m in very good hands, for the first time in a long time.

I read that Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Earth) produced July, and I recall that you were part of the vocal choir on Xasthur’s final album Port of Sorrow. How was that experience? Would you ever consider doing something like that again?

Oh yeah. That was fun! And I do think I’m going to do stuff like that again. I’ve been working with [Chicago drone metal band] Locrian on some side project stuff of theirs. It seems like my music has a big crossover with the black metal community, the goth community — which is nice, because I never considered myself a folk singer. I just happen to play acoustic guitar because I like the resonance of the strings. So it’s nice to be kind of embraced by the communities, and it’s fun to collaborate and use my voice in a way that doesn’t involve as many words, more as an instrument.

That being said, your songs have a very cerebral, cinematic quality. Would you ever consider scoring films? If so, what kind of films?

I would love to. That’s something I would really like to do. A big reason I signed to Sacred Bones is because they work with a bunch of filmmakers, and put out a lot of their music. Like David Lynch’s record, and Jim Jarmusch. Those are the kinds of movies I’d want to make scores for.

That would be amazing if you collaborated with David Lynch. You’re label-mates now!

That would be a dream come true. I don’t know what the future brings. All these years I’ve spent as a touring musician, the world has definitely gotten smaller. The people I used to idolize, sometimes I find myself in the same room with. I played a show with Jim Jarmusch’s duo, with [Dutch minimalist composer] Jozef van Wissem, and that was just crazy to share a stage with him and have him complement my guitar playing. I was trying really hard to play it cool.

It’s interesting. I really liked Hole back in the day. I was obsessed with Courtney Love. I got a Twitter follow from Eric Erlanderson and freaked out. I wrote him back and said “What’s up?” I was thinking it was a random follow, and he wrote me back saying he loved my voice. And I lost it.

That’s awesome. I’m a huge Hole fan.

Pretty on the Inside is such an underrated album! I love that record. “When I was a teenage whore…” So many good songs. Even the cover of that Joni Mitchell song is so good. I have that in my car, I’ve been listening to it a lot lately.

What’s the story behind “Dead City Emily?”

That song…the way that I write songs is pretty stream of consciousness. I don’t write the lyrics first, the melody first. I never really know what a song is about until the end. But that song, it was about a conversation between a friend and me. It’s not a friend named Emily; it’s a fictional conversation that never happened about the relationship I was in, and the man that I was involved with. It’s a pretty positive song, about having gone through these horrible times. So it was past tense, talking about this relationship. It’s a love song, in a way, and also for me to get my shit together [laughs].