an interview with Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler has been dealing with a lot of firsts lately. The singer-songwriter recently picked up the electric guitar after building a career on her dexterous acoustic playing, and has even started playing her first guitar solos live. Nadler’s current tour in support of her new record, Strangers, is her first with a full backing band after a decade of solo touring. When I caught Nadler and her band at Chicago’s Empty Bottle it was clear that everyone involved was still getting the hang of this new arrangement. This was more of a feature than a bug however. Watching Nadler’s backing band, which included Kira Clark and Keith McGraw of Muscle & Marrow—who also opened the show—react to Nadler’s songs in real time gave the performance a spontaneous energy.
Nadler joked with the audience about her gloomy subject matter and often broke the fourth wall to encourage her band to drone or to darken the stage lights (“I want to feel uninhibited”). Unlike her recordings, which often feature a host of vocal harmonies, Nadler’s live performances move freely from melody to harmony and back again. At every turn Nadler found the right notes to send goosebumps through the crowd in waves.
Prior to the show, I spoke with Marissa Nadler over the phone about her creative process, her desire to support other artists, and how much fun it is to play electric guitar.
You just dropped a new music video for "Janie in Love." All of your last few music videos have a very consistent tone. What's the process for deciding what kind of images you want to go with your music?
Well, I have a background in the fine arts so I've always drawn and painted a lot, but in terms of filmmaking this is a relatively new pursuit for me. I started teaching myself stop-motion animation a few years ago because I was teaching it to some students of mine and I really enjoy the process. I was inspired by a lot of different animators and to me this is much better than having other people make videos for me. It's kind of a way to show a part of myself that people don't really know about. I went to RISD and have an art background but I'm getting to use those skills in an exciting way, that's new.
Because you have a background in the visual arts, do you conceive of the visual side while you're writing the music?
It's different for each song, like with "Janie in Love" I definitely wasn't thinking about those images when I wrote the song, but that video is pretty weird even for me. Every time it's just felt like a very organic process. Other songs have an innately visual world like "Divers of the Dust," which is the first song on the new record, I was very much thinking about what the scene looked like. So when I make the music video it's going to be really easy because it's just this scene about an ocean pouring a city into the water the world disintegrating.
That's kind of a theme on the whole record. Like in "Janie in Love" you use natural disasters and similar apocalyptic imagery to describe a person. What about that kind of imagery appeals to you?
There's obviously a lot of turmoil in the world and so it's stuff that I think about the time when I'm a little bit more fatalistic. Yes, it's a prevalent theme in this on the record but I don't want to go so far as to say it's a concept album about the end of the world. I think when I first started writing the record that was in my head but then I decided I wanted all the songs to have their own identities and stand on their own so, it's peppered with some happy themes.
Do you find that writing about external subjects is a different challenge than writing about the internal stuff that you did on the last record?
I think that even though I'm writing about other people, it's very much an internal thing. To give you an example, "Katie I Know" is very much about my feelings about a friendship kind of dissolving. So it's very much a personal thing. I think the differentiation is good. Some songs are very personal but they are different themes.
This is the second album in a row that you've made with Randall Dunn, when you went in were there any steps that you took to make sure that it sounded different than July?
You know it was hard because July was in a way the first album that people had heard from me in awhile because I had been self-releasing albums for a while. So the record was really well received and that puts a lot of pressure on someone going on to make their seventh or eighth record or whatever. So I was definitely trying to make new things. I think if I was just trying to make July but with new songs it would not have been good. So I also wrote a lot of the songs with the production in mind, all the harmonies, the instrumentation, the melody lines you hear were mostly on my demos in the form of voice or synthesizer and then later played by somebody. But I think if you're not trying to evolve constantly you're doing something wrong. I'm sure some people want you to stay the same but most people lose interest after awhile if you're not challenging yourself, and I will.
July seemed like more of a guitar record, lots of fingerpicking and strumming and stuff like that, the focus was very tight on the guitar and the voice, and Strangers is definitely a lot more expansively arranged. Why did you decide to go in that direction in particular with this record?
A lot of the production techniques were made for the needs of the song. I didn't go in thinking, 'Alright, I've got too much finger picking on the album so I'm gonna cut it out,' I don't really think like that. For me, it's a more organic process. I wrote "Janie in Love" and "Nothing Felt The Same" for a band and honestly the demo sounded different. They were more for the typical four piece arrangement I was thinking. But I like working with Randall because it's not just a cerebral process it's more of an organic process where we just have a good rapport. I'm willing to try fun new things and so is he. When it gets there it gets there and when it doesn't I just cut the sound from the record.
Do you have a lot of songs that ended up in the vaults from these records?
Only one from each session. It just happens when you try to make a ballsy execution of a song--when you take risks--it can really backfire. The good thing is that I'm willing to admit it when it does. I was really sad because my favorite song that was supposed to be on July didn't make it on the record. Similarly, my favorites on Strangers didn't make it. Maybe it's because the more attached you get to the demo the harder it is to make a studio version.
Was there anything you learned from the failures of those songs that helped make the other tracks on the record better?
No, just because I didn't really know they had failed until I was home listening to the mixes like, 'You know, this really doesn't work.' And with July, Randall and I had both agreed at the same time to cut the song off the record and same thing with Strangers. I think that's a good thing, I think if there's no taking risks, why bother? So I'll try to record that song with him again next time I go in a studio with different ideas.
I really like that review of the new White Lung album that you wrote for for Talkhouse. Do you think it's important to step out and support work from your contemporaries?
Yeah, I really do. It's not all that common but it's interesting being a female musician in a climate where there's so many awesome women doing great things right now. My personal belief is that there's power in numbers. Maybe because I've been doing this for so long I think it's better to support the things you like and be public and vocal about it rather than be competitive. I really enjoy writing about and supporting other women. Other musicians in general. I think it's something that should be done more by female musicians. It's such a cutthroat environment.
Because you've been through kind of a lot of ups and downs in your career and made it out the other side, do you think it's important to help younger artists to guide them through some of the same problems you had?
I mean, with White Lung I'm only a few years older than her so I don't really consider her a younger artist if that makes sense. But in terms of much younger artists I get a lot of emails from people. The only advice I have for somebody in the arts is to work hard. I'm just a real firm believer in work ethic. The word "talent" is often thrown around in reviews, with lots of stuff I think it's like a combination of work ethic and effort plus natural ability. So the only real advice I have for anyone doing anything is to put your head down and put the time in. Maybe that's 15 years playing dive bars in my case but it does pay off. I think the problem with the younger generation is they're looking for an easier path... maybe there is one I just didn't get to take it.
Another thing I liked about that review is that you took a lot of music writing cliches to task. Like you attack analog fetishism and the sensitive genius recluse myth.
Like writing your record in a fucking log cabin? Yeah.
Exactly. Are there any cliches about your own writing you'd like to dispel?
Yeah there's a zillion. I've had to stop reading my reviews finally. I've just hit a wall with this release. The internet has changed a lot and people aren't getting paid for writing so I understand why it's gotten worse but people are writing for clicks. So like the kind of headlines that would show up when people were writing about my music, I just stopped paying attention to it. I'm happy that people are listening and I do have faith that most people will make their mind up for themselves: what genre they think something is or whether it even matters. I guess I've finally reached a point where I don't really give a shit what people think and that’s a really good thing because it took a long time to get there. What people write and what listeners hear are different things.
I think a lot of people figure out how they want to write about a record before they even hear it; They sort of get an idea of what the artist is and then write around their idea of it and not around the music itself.
I agree. I think the biggest problem is that in reviews, especially with female musicians, is the constant comparison with other female musicians that maybe have nothing to do with each other. But yeah most of the time, with all that being said I'm very grateful, even just taking the time to write something at all, not everyone says the things you want them to say all the time and if you could control your own press there would be no point in having other people writing it.
One interesting thing about your career is that you've done a lot of collaborations. I think you're the only person to show up on a Lush Life record and a Wrekmeister Harmonies album. How do you choose who you collaborate with?
That's a good question. Sometimes it's just because I've been asked to do something. I'm definitely not saying yes to as many things anymore. I’ve worked hard to make a name for myself and so I don't want to be used for that. People just want your voice on it just so they can put it on a press release. But I'm also just starting to get a little less excited about doing them because they'll mix it in a way that I don't like. I think when Xasthur asked me to sing I was just so excited because he's like a true, true recluse weirdo and I just loved every minute of that collaboration because it was just so much fun and he was like, 'Yeah I love this!' Usually I won't do it unless I'm a big fan.
You've done all these fantastic covers, like the cover of "Solitude" by Black Sabbath on the new record is just out of this world good. You also did this amazing cover of "The River" by Bruce Springsteen. Those are two very different artists but when you covered them you made them sound very natural to your identity and your song writing. How long did it take you to figure out that identity for yourself?
I think it just happens naturally. I think my voice now is better than it was when I was 18 and writing my first stuff. The Black Sabbath song is one of my favorite things that I've done actually, I'm glad that you mentioned it. I recorded it myself, I played every instrument except for a little percussion and it's a different type of guitar playing for me, it's more lead playing. So I was really excited when it got the response that it did because I think that my next record is going to have that kind of guitar playing in it.
That makes me very excited.
I really wanted to cover that song and then I was thinking to myself, 'Oh I don't know if I can do it,' but then I learned the riff and it just happened organically. I recorded it in Logic and it really inspired me to do my next stuff. I just started playing electric guitar last year. I was always playing my Martin acoustics and it's really much different, it's a different instrument. I just started laying my first lead guitar lines live and it's just so much fun. It's the most fun I've ever had playing a live show. So, the people were really shocked to see me do that too, it was really funny. I think people think the electric guitar is harder to play than the acoustic guitar. I don't know why people think that. It's like the acoustic guitar seems like a pussy thing to play for some people but it's so much harder. So it's really fun to switch to electric because my hands are strong from 25 years of playing acoustic.
Why do you think your work lends itself so well to the metal aesthetic or the metal crowd?
I think because of the dark subject matter that is prevalent throughout my entire body of work for starters and the ambience that is on every record. Because you know a lot of metal is very ambient, especially black metal, and I think black metal and my music overlap more than thrash metal or whatever.
Photo by Ebru Yildiz. Strangers is out now on Sacred Bones.