Marissa Nadler on Wordless Singing, Her Mysterious Persona, and Crowdsourcing As Therapy

Rachael Maddux

By Rachael Maddux

on 06.27.11 in Interviews

Marissa Nadler often seems like a woman out of time. She’s barely 30 years old and has only been releasing records since 2004, but between the shadowy themes of her lyrics, her darkly-syncopated acoustic guitar and her curling mezzo-soprano, it can be tough to suss out whether she’s haunted by the specters of a long-passed world or if she’s doing the haunting herself.

Except that ghosts, of course, can’t be dropped from their record labels. Nor do they turn to the Internet to help fund their next album. In 2010, Nadler was, and she did. The result is her self-titled fifth LP, 11 tracks of quietly-assured gothic folk built around her plaintive picking, blanketed in shimmering percussion and eerie strings and pedal steel — and, for the first time, occasionally devoid of Nadler’s much-favored vocal reverb.

eMusic’s Rachael Maddux talked with Nadler about the strange realities of her lyrics, her forays into black metal and how Kickstarter helped her shore up more than just cash for the her record.

People have self-released albums for years and years, but Kickstarter is so new. I was wondering what made the difference between maybe just trying to scrounge up money some other way, and going the crowd-funded route.

The amount of money that I really needed to record in a good studio was more than I could scrounge up. I knew that I had a decent fan base that would be able to help out, but [the results] actually really exceeded my expectations. I was in a really low place when I launched the Kickstarter campaign. I was pretty down about my… just finding myself without a label and really, you know, “What do I do now?” I knew that to record a full-length in a good studio would cost more than I had, and I’d been hearing about the Kickstarter thing and it seemed like it was public enough that they had a lot of support behind them, in terms of people really starting to know about Kickstarter and fan-funding. Even people like Kristin Hersh have been doing things like that. It just seemed like an OK thing to do.

I donated to the Kickstarter project and I felt weird when I was thinking about doing this interview; like, “Do I need to disclose that I donated to her?” But then if I just bought concert tickets or a T-shirt — somehow Kickstarter is more direct. It seems almost more like a political contribution.

That’s nice of you, thank you. When I got around to this, there was part of me that was embarrassed by myself in that situation, because I…to be honest, I got dropped from my record label, which you probably know was named after my own song, which was just the worst insult, you know? I was able to pay for some of the [album's] manufacturing cost, but not all of it. I think if I hadn’t made that much I would have shopped the record around after recording it, but instead I decided to release it myself. I was just gonna maybe record the record and then find a label with a finished record. Then the Kickstarter thing kind of got my confidence back in terms of people actually wanting to hear my music. Because when you get dropped from a label you kind of take it personally, like, “Oh, I suck.”

I was going to ask about your songwriting process and how you craft the lyrics. But I also kind of want to contrast that with the project with Xasthur you did. It was kind of wordless, and I understand that you wrote your own parts, but I was wondering what it’s like to write a song with lyrics versus writing something like for that project.

They were totally, totally different. Scott is the main guy in Xasthur, but he prefers to be called “Malefic,” I think. He had heard my name, heard my singing — I used to have a bass player who played in this drone metal band, Earth. I used to tour with a bunch of metal bands, strangely enough; not heavy metal but more ambient/drone. And so he said, “Oh, I want Marissa to sing on this,” because he actually liked my singing a lot. And I had moved to L.A. very briefly and went over to his house and he basically had the record done and I just kind of sang improvisational parts over it. So I didn’t really write things as much as I improv’ed over the music. I didn’t have to start from scratch at all, I was adding textures and colors. But with writing a song, it’s more of an investment when you write your own materials.

I think it’s interesting when it’s not clear whether songwriters are writing autobiographically or if they’re writing fiction, and I was wondering how much of your songs are drawn from your own life and how much are inventions. And I know sometimes it can be a blurred distinction.

All of the songs except the Daisy and Violet song on the new record ["Daisy, Where Did You Go?"] are pretty much all from real — well, mostly real — life. It’s not things that have happened to me. A lot of the songs on this new record are songs are about things that I’ve written about before &#8212 they actually revisit these characters. Like Mr. John Lee [from "Mr. John Lee Revisited"], for instance, is somebody that I know and I just made up a fake name for him. A lot of the songs are about real things that happened, but I make them happen in a different time and place and different setting. My songs would be really boring if I just wrote about everybody that I knew, in terms of living in Boston and using their real names. They’re realistic portrayals, though, except for the Siamese twin thing.

I was wondering about this kind of mysterious persona of yours — it seems to be something that happened outside of you. It’s not like you came out and had some great mythology about yourself and how you grew up an orphan on the plains of Minnesota and were raised by wolves or something. But I’m wondering how you think you got pegged with this “being from another time and place” thing?

[Laughing] I think I had something to do with it. I actually have the complete opposite of a romantic existence. I came out of this suburban, middle-of-the-road kind of upbringing and I was very bored and I developed this huge imagination. When I was a freshman in college and writing my first record, I definitely was, like, consciously writing fantasy and as I became a more serious songwriter, I decided to stop. When I first started, I would put Edgar Allan Poe to music, and Pablo Neruda, and it’s kinda hard when you do that on the first record to ever lose that literary connotation, even if that’s not what I do anymore. But I think I definitely have never tried to deny that — I used to make up stories in interviews, about being an opera singer and crazy things, just because I thought it was funny.

I think it’s kind of interesting that you’ve got this persona as this kind of magical, mysterious person, but you’ve pretty fully embraced these very modern, Internet-y things. I know you’re on Twitter, and you’ve done Kickstarter and Etsy. You’re pretty cutting edge for someone who started out writing about Edgar Allan Poe.

I started out as a Luddite — I think I wrote an essay once about how computers were going to ruin the world. Then I realized that the Internet is a great, great tool for artists, especially shy ones like myself. It’s a great way to connect with people and get your music and art out there. I never thought it would become such a part of my life, because I come from a generation that — we had half of our lives without the Internet. I didn’t have an email address until I was 18 at least, so it’s different. I never thought it was going to rule my world.