American Gothic: An Interview with Marissa Nadler

The Boston-based visual artist, folk singer and Xasthur collaborator speaks about weaving tales out of the darkness

Courtney Brooke Hall / Wikipedia

“I’m not a born performer. I’m not a born exhibitionist. I just really love to write music,” says Marissa Nadler. Initially coming from a background in teaching fine arts, the Boston-based songstress made the transition into the realities of a touring artist in 2004, the year her full-length debut Ballads of Living and Dying hit the shelves.

Ever since then, Nadler has only slightly altered her sonic formula, which is firmly rooted in the Americana goth and folk tradition, with a strong emphasis on compelling storytelling and her unmistakable, ethereal voice against stripped-down guitar backdrops. Narco-folk and dream-pop are only two of many rather poor attempts to put a name to her hazy atmospheres and eerie lyricism. Besides releasing albums on labels like Eclipse, Kemado, Box Of Cedar, and Sacred Bones, Nadler has put out demos and off-shoots on her own Kickstarter-backed imprint. In this edited and condensed excerpt from her recent interview with RBMA Radio, Nadler talks about stage fright, collaborating with Xasthur, and running her own record label.

You were a visual artist before you started playing guitar. How do you feel about the relation between the two worlds?

I went to art school for six years at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design. Although for the past ten years I’ve been touring as a musician, I have started to make more fine art again and do have hopes to get into a gallery and try to do both.

Visual art is more private for sure, which in some ways goes better with my personality. As a musician, I’m not a born performer. I’m not a born exhibitionist. I just really love to write music. It’s been challenging to overcome that shyness. With visual art, I am very much in my own element because I’m alone.

Where did you find the guts to first play your music out to people?

When I first started performing, I played open mic nights at bars when I was in college. I had a high school band before that, but I was very, very, very shy. For the first five years of my performing career, I was terrified. I still have stage fright and nerves although it’s much better now. I am able to play without drinking anymore, which is great because I used to drink quite a bit just to get the nerves up to play; then I had to stop because it was becoming a problem. Now it’s just a matter of experience and a little bit more confidence and faith in my songwriting.

How did that influence your very first times that you went into a studio, and you have to obviously play to someone who recorded you? Did you have to build up a big confidence to make it your thing, and not let someone else take over?

Recording was always something I really enjoyed because I wasn’t in front of an audience. My first album was recorded by my boyfriend at that time. So, it was somebody I was already really comfortable with. Then, many of the other records were recorded by people I knew and so, in the studio, I feel very at ease because nobody is looking at me.

Marissa Nadler - Fifty Five Falls

Can you tell me a bit about the songwriting on your first record, Ballads of Living and Dying?

In my early years, I wrote a lot of songs that were more abstract and less narrative and didn’t come from first-person experience. My first record is very much indicative of that. “Fifty Five Falls,” off Ballads of Living and Dying, is a very abstract song; in some ways very nostalgic and dreamy. It has a lot of the indicators of what my music would become. It’s very atmospheric, it’s dark, it’s gothic, it undeniably sounds like what I still sound like. I haven’t changed the core of my aesthetics.

What made you start writing about your own personal experiences?

I was very emotional at the time, and so songwriting was definitely an outlet for that. It was a really good way for me to immediately express emotion whereas painting was a very slow process. I had a lot of anger at that time and a lot of regret. When you’re young and your first love ends, I think it can feel like the end of the world, whereas when you’re older it’s not maybe as bad when relationships end. Nothing was like that first heartbreak, so it gave me a lot of fodder for the second album.

I hate to say it, but some of the best music I’ve written has come from a lot of pain. I don’t want to perpetuate that myth that you have to be miserable and unhappy to be an artist because I’d like to not be that cliché. I really think it’s possible to put these emotions into art and then go on to live a happy life.

Marissa Nadler - Mr John Lee Revisited

Is there a particular track off The Saga of Mayflower May that you like?

That album is one I really don’t go back to very much because of the way that I was singing on that record – I really outgrew that vocal style very quickly. It was a time where I was singing kind of operatically and it eventually got much more natural. I have fond memories of “Mr. John Lee” off of The Saga of Mayflower May because it was the first time I ever recorded a vocal harmony in my life.

Tell me a bit about your third record.

Songs III: Bird in the Water was my third album and probably the first record that a lot of people heard of mine; the first two were very underground releases. I recorded that record with Greg Weeks, who is in a band called Espers. I did all originals and one cover song, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which is by Leonard Cohen. As you can hear, there’s a lot of layers vocally and it was where my style kind of expanded. Cohen has been a very influential songwriter to me throughout my career because of his poetic lyricism.

What was your overall life as a musician like at that time?

I got a Master’s Degree in Art Education and had moved to New York City right around the time I recorded my second record. Then I got an invitation to tour Europe based on the reviews of the first two records. I took the invitation and quit my job because I was really unhappy in New York. So I started to tour and never really looked back. I’ve been touring over ten years and I haven’t had very many consistent day jobs during that time.

Do you like touring?

Touring is not something that I could do all year long. When you put a record out, you kind of have to go on tour to promote it or else your career just stays still. I hate to say, but I think of it as a necessary thing to do. If I had my choice and my career was doing really, really well and I was selling lots of records, I would probably stay at home and just be a recluse. I’m not the type of person that thrives on the attention or the spotlight. I really truly am an introverted person. I’ve had a lot of odd jobs over the years to make up for the fact that I didn’t want to tour all year long, teaching or flower shops, things like that.

Nowadays, you self-release your music, which means you have to self-promote. Do you find that hard, considering your personality?

There is definitely a dichotomy in my personality, like an internal war.

I may be shy in public but behind the scenes, I do want my music to be heard. I’m good at the behind-the-scene stuff – probably better than the socializing stuff, sometimes. There is definitely a dichotomy in my personality, like an internal war. I’m pretty self-deprecating. I think I’ve gotten better at not being so shy over the years. It’s not as bad as I think it is.

You were actually selling your stuff online, right?

Yeah, one of the ways I was supporting myself all these years was running an Etsy shop, which was actually really good. I would burn CDRs of my music and make handmade covers and sell them. I was pretty much supporting myself with that and touring because people were buying a lot of them. Then it just got really exhausting. I did a Kickstarter campaign (in the early years of the site) to raise money for the album. It was a successful thing and I started my own little record label and did two releases that way.

What is your favorite song off your self-titled release?

I like “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” because it has a very untraditional song structure. It’s not just verse-chorus-verse-chorus, it goes up and up and up and up. It was a very different song for me so it was challenging to write. I just liked how it kind of had a Pink Floyd vibe to it.

Marissa Nadler - Baby, I Will Leave You In The Morning

There are more beats on your self-titled record and it kind of sounds different than the others. Were people upset about that?

I don’t really care what people think. Obviously, if the last ten years are any indication, I’m not pandering to any radio or industry people with my songwriting, or else I would have made a lot of changes just a lot earlier to be more commercially successful. Now some people are like, “Oh, I like you better just all acoustic,” and other people are really excited about the development. You can’t please everybody, so why try?

The first time I heard about your music was actually through your collaboration with Xasthur.

I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I moved around a lot in those years. I had known all these black metal dudes because I wasn’t ever in the folk scene. My first touring experience was opening up for Earth and I played shows with Boris. I have known the producer Randall Dunn for years and I knew Stephen O’Malley through my old booking agent. That’s kind of how Scott from Xasthur found out about me. He heard my music and really liked my voice, and liked the whole fact that none of my songs were really happy songs – it’s very much like an acoustic black metal band.

He asked me to sing on a record and I thought that would be a really refreshing, cool thing to do to have no words. I was in L.A. and he lives near L.A. We recorded it in his house and I think a lot of people were surprised to see that collaboration.

How did it feel to not write any lyrics?

It was really liberating. I loved it, actually. I have a really big interest in making film scores and soundscape music with only ambient vocal layers. It was so fun for me to just not worry about song structure, to not worry about anything.

Xasthur - Broken Glass Christening

There are a lot more vocal layers on July than on the previous record. What do you attribute that to?

If anything, that’s a result of modern technology. When I wrote my early songs, I had to memorize them and I didn’t have a way to record my demos until I went into the recording studio. With this demo process, I recorded every song on Garage Band and then I would open up a new track and I would write the harmony. I wrote the melodies with the harmonies in mind. When I went into the studio, every single harmony was already written and all the ideas for the vocal parts were written. The instrumentation was what Randall brought to the table in a really great way. I’m going to be recording my next record with him, too. I think it will be a long relationship just because it was a really good fit.

Going back to something you said earlier, do people in your private life confront you about having been written about?

The last record, July, was written about my current boyfriend and some other men, too. Basically, we had broken up and gotten back together and it was just a tumultuous few years before things settled down with my emotional life. He’s actually a songwriter also and an artist. So, for him it’s not weird to be written about. He writes about me. I write about him. I have run into some instances in the past where people were very upset about being written about inaccurately in a song. I make a point to not use real names anymore, to not tell people of the songs about them.

In my last few albums, I’ve gotten a lot better at naturalistic writing, making songs about people that aren’t glamorized or romanticized. They’re a lot more gritty and I think that’s why people have responded to this new record so much more than my previous ones. It’s the songwriting itself, there’s really no frosting on it.

By Hanna Bächer on January 7, 2015

On a different note