an interview w/ Marissa Nadler on collaboration, her paintings, and more
Marissa Nadler is an American singer-songwriter and fine artist based in Boston, Massachusetts. For My Crimes, out today, is the eighth studio album from a prolific career; Nadler has also self-released a number of demos, EPs and covers albums. Loathe to restrict or label her work, the album is a continuation of what Nadler simply describes as her approach to ‘slow music.’ While it has much in common with her earlier work, founded in Nadler’s ethereal lead and harmony vocals floating over fingerpicked guitars and strings, this For My Crimes is also some of her most instrumentally experimental to date. “Blue Vapor” features a full band, and Nadler’s long-time friends Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten lend backing vocals to other tracks.
Nadler’s work has tended to show a commitment to the novelization of life experience and an exploration of the darker sides of life. She weaves stories that are deep, touching and often tragic. While abstract, her latest works of fine art are in a similar vein; the cover art is composed of dark and sombre hues illustrate landscapes that resemble, in Nadler’s words, a ‘fiery, exploded city.’ In this sense, her art reflects the narrative that For My Crimes sustains, where Nadler, as its narrator, watches from afar as the relationships and consistency in her life are strained and pushed to their limits.
For My Crimes is out now on Sacred Bones Records.
What have you been up to recently, in the last couple weeks? Are you just getting ready for the tour?
Yeah, exactly, I just got back to Boston from Los Angeles, working on some video projects and things like that for -- [thunder rumbles] -- oh, there’s a thunderstorm going on here right now… yeah, I was just kind of working out there, getting ready to go to London, to sing with Simon Raymonde’s [of the Cocteau Twins] band, Lost Horizons, going away next week for that.
Okay, and then you’re coming back in October for your European tour?
Yeah exactly, I have some US tour dates and some European ones, and I hope to add Australia to the mix.
Oh, cool -- have you just been once, in 2006 or something?
Exactly, a long time ago, so it’s definitely time to come back.
Is touring something that you enjoy? I think you’ve had some issues touring in the past. And are you touring with a full band this time?
I do enjoy touring now, and I’ve kind of gotten my head around it and it’s really pretty fun to be able to travel for a living, and I’m going to probably be stripped down or, at most, a duo for this presentation. So, no drums or anything.
So would it probably just be yourself and a guitarist or bassist?
Something like that, or strings… kind of still working it out right now… that’s kind of the thing about being a solo artist, kind of figuring out which presentation makes the most sense for touring.
Well, when you play shows, say with just one other person, compared to a full band, how do you feel the audience compares in those different contexts?
I think it depends on if it’s my crowd or not, like if there’s people that have come specifically to see me, I don’t think they’re going to be upset to see a stripped-down thing, if I were playing in front of a new audience, I might want to have a little more instrumentation… because sometimes slow music can require extra attention.
You opened for Ghost recently, what was that like?
It was hard at first, then it got easier once I just got my tour legs on -- there were much bigger crowds than I’m used to playing, but the fan-base was super nice, actually -- I think it kind of got me over all my stage fright, once and for all.
So they were receptive to what you were doing? Because I can imagine some metal would have quite a lot in common with your music, but Ghost is probably not a band I would think is that similar.
I agree [laughs] but they’re super cool, and it was an honor to be asked – their fans are pretty nice.
So you met them unmasked, I imagine?
Oh yeah, I did…
Alright, well I know you’ve worked with Xasthur in, what was it, 2010? I don’t want to ask too much about that, I know you’ve spoken about it quite a bit, but what do you think about the sort of crossover appeal that you seem to have with some metal fans? Do you think it’s due to the subject matter of your music? Or the atmospheric nature of it?
I think both reasons are right. I think it’s the kind of sad, somber mood and the subject matter itself, and the darker things, so it makes sense to me, that there is this crossover, and I feel good about it, because I like all different types of music and I’m glad that my music isn’t confined to a specific genre.
Do you listen to a lot of metal yourself at the moment?
Yeah! Let’s see… Some of my favorite metal bands are some people that I’m kind of friendly with or played with. I really like Wolves in the Throne Room, Mutoid Man, which is kind of funny… Steve from Mutoid Man and I [have worked together]… I like Bell Witch, Locrian, King Woman, Chelsea Wolfe.
So pretty, atmospheric stuff?
Exactly, I guess I like the dreamier, dark kind of stuff, more than rhythmic metal.
I guess that’s always come across in your music, the dreamier, more atmospheric elements, but I think your most recent work has become… I don’t want to say ‘dark’ because it’s a bit of a cop-out, pretty vague, but it’s become a bit heavier in a sense, maybe thematically and also musically, especially “Blue Vapor.” I was wondering if these developments are deliberate? If it’s something that happens prior to writing the songs, or if it’s something that happens organically as you’re writing them?
I think that, usually, when I write a song, I have an idea of what type of song it is, like “Blue Vapor” definitely felt electric from the beginning, it had a sort of grungy feel to it, so if there was any of the demos that were going to have drums on it, that was the one, but I do think I kind of serve the songs on a song-by-song basis, and some of them work really well without any instrumentation, some you want sound effects and crazy things happening, or beautiful counter-melodies.
So how was it working with some of the collaborators you had on this album, like Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten?
It was really amazing to finally get to sing with both of them, I’ve been friends with both of them for a long time and Lawrence [Rothman] and Justin [Raisen] both made Angel’s last record, so they had the idea and I just asked her. I think all of the collaborators, Mary Lattimore, Janel Leppin, Kristin Kontrol, Patty [Schemel, of Hole], they all added their own special touches, I didn’t really tell them what to do, it was a lot of organic stuff happening. And I tried to play a lot of the instruments myself on this record, even if – I did a lot of the electric guitar stuff and strings came together really beautifully, that Janel did.
Did you know all of them prior to making this album? Had you met all of them before, worked with them? I know you’d known Angel for a while…
Some of them, I did not know Patty yet, or Eva, or Kristin, so… half and half, and definitely knew Sharon and Angel and Mary, we’d all toured together, played shows together, over the many years that we’ve all been doing this, so yeah. I was super happy about it, I think it turned out beautiful.
Yeah, what I’ve heard so far sounds really, really good. How did the video for “Blue Vapor” come together? Did you have much to do with that?
Yeah, I got a bunch of treatments -- we were looking for a music video director… I have a huge interest in animation and stop-motion animation, and have done a few videos myself, so I didn’t want to just have a boring video, I wanted something cool, something that I would get excited about. And Thomas McMahan, his treatment just got me the most excited, I felt like the feeling expressed in the song is not something that’s very narrative or very linear, so I just wanted things to happen, and I didn’t give him too much guidance, and I really love the way it came out, I think it’s one of my better music videos.
It is quite visually striking, and you saying that it’s not particularly narrative or linear reminds me of the album art, which seems like maybe an abstract landscape; is that an approach that you take to most of your visual art, or does it kind of vary between the mediums that you use?
When I studied painting I was really interested in realism and portraiture, and this most recent set of paintings is definitely more abstract, I just started painting these memory landscapes, and I liked the way that they came out and I wasn’t really fussing about them too much, because… when I paint figure, it drives me crazy sometimes, because you can just tell what’s wrong with it immediately, so landscapes are just kind of relaxing for me to paint and this one on the cover of the record just kind of looked kind of like a fiery, exploded city, it definitely just felt like it matched the mood – yeah, some of the themes are abstract and that’s why they’re so hard to put into words, but a melody or a painting can come closer for me sometimes.
Well, it said in the press release that you don’t teach art anymore, apart from one elderly lady… do you have more time now to work on your own art? Or are you working more on music at the moment?
Yeah, well I’ve been doing a ton of paintings lately, and that’s been really encouraging… it’s not a side-career, but it’s concurrent, obviously when I’m on tour, it’s kind of impossible, so maybe I’ll try drawing, or doing some smaller stuff on paper, but I try to stay busy with different mediums, and – I think of them all as connected.
Would you say that music and visual art are just different kinds of art for you? Or do you see them as different, separate mediums?
I think that I still -- I don’t know how to separate them, but they’re both pretty big in my life… obviously, my music is something I’m not trained in, and maybe it’s more fun for me because of that, it’s like every time I pick up a guitar, I discover something new, and I kind of like the fact
that my approach to music is really organic, it doesn’t come from my brain as much as instinct.
And how did you decide to use this particular painting for the album art?
It was just the only one that matched, really. I had a lot of other ones, but the colors were just too bright, and I guess I kind of gravitate towards greyscale, aesthetically speaking [laughs] which fits well with the interview, I guess.
It’s appropriate, yeah [laughs]. Do you find painting cathartic in the same way that music might be? Do you find music cathartic? Do you enjoy the process of recording and painting?
Yeah! I mean, I love doing both, which is great, I’m lucky that way, they’re the things that I really love to do the most, that’s it. Although there’s a lot of other things that are tied in with a music career that become less fun, like interviews and stuff -- this one’s fine, but it’s tough sometimes to figure out what to say, and what not to say, and I’m very open and trusting [laughs] so, trying to find time in the day to balance everything and still have a life.
Well, how do you feel about doing all this press for your music, when it comes from quite a personal place? Do you need to separate the events that inspired the album and your feelings around it when you do need to do all this press and talk about it? Is it difficult to go through this process of promoting something that came from very personal experiences?
Yes, it is. You know, I just try to steer the conversation back to the songs themselves, because I do believe it’s important to have a kind of separation between the art and the artist, it can become a lot harder these days, with technology breaking the barriers down so much, but I choose to present the songs as what I want to share, and they’re carefully worded – so it can be tough, sometimes I just want the art to speak for itself, but I know that’s not the era that we’re living in.
Do you think social media makes that more challenging? Or is that just kind of part of the game now?
Well, I try… I accept it as part of the job, I guess, so I just to try to make it artful. At least with Instagram -- I’m a very visual person, so I can handle that maybe better than Twitter, because I just overthink words too much. But yeah, social media is a blessing and a curse, I think.
Yeah, particularly your Instagram but also your Twitter do seem quite curated, I suppose… I can imagine it might be hard sometimes to say things and worry about them being misinterpreted to quite a large audience.
[sighs] Yeah, it’s really stressful [laughs] I’m trying to learn my lessons, you know, I mean this is my 8th record, so I feel like – the songs themselves are not that autobiographical, I take liberties in them, very much so, for songwriting purposes, so it would be false to just lead people to believe they’re just diary entries, or something.
Yeah, you haven’t actually been on Death Row?
No, I haven’t [laughs] it’s a lot of time travelling, I like writing exercises, I mean, whatever works for me to get the song out, I know people want to put a story behind something to sell it, obviously it’s hard to put one word or a bunch of songs that… I’m rambling, you can stop me.
That’s alright [laughs] Do you find it easier to write songs now that you’re a lot more
experienced with, I assume, the process, than maybe earlier in your career? Has the process stayed mostly the same, or has it evolved as you’ve become more experienced with writing and recording albums?
I think, as experienced as I get, the best songs that I’ve ever written have come out of a need to write them – the minute that I start to feel that I have to write something, it… I don’t want to say that you have to wait for the muse, because I’m a very big proponent of hard work, but I’d say my process is half-and-half, I put the time in, but it’s easier when I’m feeling inspired, like anything else, on the days when I’m not inspired, I still try to say busy, maybe doing covers or working on video editing, so I’m always being creative. Sometimes there just aren’t any melodies there, sometimes there’s an abundance of them, for me I go through phases with stuff.
And do you write all the material before you record, usually?
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes, there’s harmonies that appear to me in the studio, but usually the songs are written with ideas for harmonies or solo parts, but I guess I have a pretty extensive demo process, it’s part of my workshopping process.
And how long did it take to record this?
The studio dates were, like, two weeks, but then I went home and did some work remotely with Janel the cello player, and the sax player, Dana, from Morphine, there were some things added, so… two weeks, but then there was another month of work on it, kind of little changes.
And you did most of that from home?
Some of it, and then Lawrence Rothman did a wonderful job mixing it, and Lawrence and Justin did a great job with the production, it’s very warm-sounding and natural. We used a binaural microphone, to kind of make the voice sound like it’s right in the room.
I read recently that you did a [New York Times] article with some other musicians talking about Nico, from the Velvet Underground, and you said that ‘when I was starting out, I used to feel pressure to sing “pretty.” But I found my own voice, which is lower and darker than what it used to be.’ Do you think that’s true of all of your music as well? Not just your vocal approach, but the content of the albums, the production and the way they sound, the lyrical content…
Well no, I think I was always… if you go back to my first record, I think I was always pretty dark from the very beginning… more so, even. My first record has the Virginia Woolf song [“Virginia”], I mean it’s called Ballads of Living and Dying, so I was pretty goth from the beginning, but I would say that, maybe the voice is the biggest change, maybe not singing in this falsetto so often. Which just comes with maturity, really.
Why do you think you feel so drawn to this dark subject matter, lyrical content, sound, this kind of melancholy atmosphere that most of your albums convey? I don’t want to say that they’re one-dimensional, there’s obviously more to them than that, but that’s kind of a defining characteristic.
I think I’m just naturally attracted to that emotion in artwork, I don’t know. I like happy songs and heavy songs, too. But… I don’t know, genetic memory, who knows? Some people are just born that way.
Yeah, I read the event page for that show you did in Sydney in 2006, and it described you as a ‘folkie,’ which I thought was kind of funny… do you identify with this ‘folk’ tag maybe as much as you used to?
No, I never liked it, I think of myself as a songwriter, and I like the acoustic guitar, which is immediately going to garner that word… but sure, I mean, there’s a lot of genres that have influenced me, and folk is one of them, but I’m certainly not a ‘folkie’ in the traditional sense of the word. But, whatever, if it gets people who like that sort of music to listen to me, that’s great.
-Emily Mei Marty
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