Alabaster Queen: An Interview with Marissa Nadler

Marissa Nadler
The Sister
Box of Cedar

When you first listen to Marissa Nadler, the first thing you notice is that voice. There’s no escaping it, how it possesses a wispy clarity unlike any other musician working today. Nadler’s primary instrument is the guitar, and, perhaps because she is self-taught, also has a somewhat unorthodox, dusky sound to her guitar playing. But even when she’s demonstrating those guitar chops, it’s still her voice, wrapping around the stories she tells in her songs, that stands out.

Nadler is very much a storyteller, often creating allusions and characters that span different albums. Rich with metaphor, even the songs from her first record, 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying, have aged well. This is likely at least in part because of the stark, minimalist nature of her songs, many of which are simply comprised of guitar and vocals. Those simple arrangements were de rigeur early on, though Nadler has experimented more since. On 2009’s Little Hells, the song “Mary, Come Alive” featured a programmed drumbeat that terrified many fans in a Dylan-goes-electric kind of shock. Fortunately, Nadler hasn’t strayed far from her folk roots.

Meeting Marissa Nadler shows you more dimensions to her personality. Despite her shyness and small, pale frame, she speaks her mind freely and articulately. And she’s more than earned the right to. In 2011, she self-released a self-titled album on her own label, which posed a whole new set of things for her to handle aside from playing and performing. Add to that the trials of being on the road constantly, especially compounded by the hassles women musicians face. Nadler tells the story of a man approaching her after a show, looking disappointed, and saying, “I thought you’d be more ethereal.”

As ethereal as her music may be (she’s most often classed as “dream folk”), Nadler is refreshingly human. A consummate creator, she is currently taking some time off from nonstop touring to teach art to special needs children and teens in the Boston area, her hometown. We talked about her new ventures, her breathtaking new video (for an older song, at that!), and that eternal debate of Joni Mitchell vs. Riot Grrrl …

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How did you get started teaching art?

It’s been ten years since I taught art, first when I was right out of grad school. I’ve been touring and touring a long time, and I felt like I was going a little crazy with these long stretches of time between tours. I wanted to be really busy because when I have a lot of time on my hands, I tend to ruminate about things. I don’t want to rush my albums because that’s not good; I want to wait and have the next one be really strong. So I wanted a part-time thing to keep me busy and help people with my time.

Besides the obvious nature of the job, [which] is great, when I go on tour now, it’s the most fun thing in the world by contrast. I’m, like, “This is amazing! I can’t believe I get to go to Istanbul for a concert and get paid for it.” I’m really grateful.

We’ve never really covered you for PopMatters before, so I want to delve into your backstory for our readers. Can you talk a little bit about how you became a musician and songwriter?

Well, I’m self-taught. I did not take music lessons. I just grew up in an artistic family. My older brother was my first exposure to the guitar. He played guitar really well. I was younger than him, so he inspired me. The rest is a natural progression. I got really into it and practiced a lot. I was also painting a lot at the time and I ended up going to art school, not music school. Music was kind of a hobby.

I started writing songs so long ago that I don’t really remember. I was about 15.

Do you remember any of your first songs?

They were bad. They were embarrassing. I would record them on cassette tapes. I recorded a record when I was 16, but it was more [that] my parents, as a gift, bought me a couple hours in a recording studio in New Hampshire. I was really amateur. I was not a trained singer, and I was very shy also. I don’t even know where that [record] is now! They were supportive but they never thought I’d grow up and want to be a singer for a living. When I was in art school, I’d hang out at bars and do open mics and play a little around the city of Providence and recorded a record in college that ended up being my first proper album, The Ballads of Living and Dying. I had a boyfriend at the time named Miles and he recorded that record for me over the course of many months and we fell in love during the recording, and he ended up being the subject matter for several albums after!

By the time you recorded Ballads, did you know that music was what you wanted to do?

By the time I recorded Ballads of Living and Dying, I was definitely more interested in music than anything else. That being said, because I wasn’t a trained musician, I really didn’t have much confidence in what I was doing. I had no idea if anyone was going to like what I was doing. I also was dreadfully shy. So, the cards were slightly stacked against me in terms of the wallflower status. But, I had an inner strength and a belief that the songs were true and honest and a hope that they would speak to people. 

You recorded Mayflower May pretty quickly after Ballads. Were a lot of the songs ones you had written a while ago, or did the album just come together quickly?

That record came very quickly. I had my first real love and heartbreak. I was a late bloomer so I didn’t date much before that first significant relationship. That heartbreak was like water to a plant for my songwriting. I hate to say it was one of the times where I was feeling the most manic and the most inspired. 

What was the recording experience like for The Saga of Mayflower May, having had the one for Ballads under your belt?

I was still only underground. This was the time where a lot of people still had dial up. I think I had a MySpace profile but definitely not a Facebook or Twitter. It was harder to get the word out then. So, I still felt like I was playing to nobody but a few dedicated listeners. In some ways, I was able to mature and ripen in a little vault. 

The genre I see you classified as most is “dream-folk.” How do you feel about that category, and with what genre, if any, do you identify?

Well, I like it fine. My music really is very dreamy and atmospheric, but also pretty rooted in the folk tradition. Whatever works, right? I’ve heard Narco-folk a lot. I’m still trying to decide if that’s narcotic or narcoleptic.

Do you feel that your visual art and your music come from the same place in you, or are they different things entirely?

I think that they are different. I get really obsessed about something, and I make it my life. The music really took center stage, meaning that I left my visual art for a really long time. Only recently did I start to paint again. I really haven’t practiced as a fine artist. I’ve done things here and there, like design album art and posters and little things, but I haven’t really been a real painter like I used to be. I’m kind of hoping to strike that balance, but it’s difficult.

Do you find that it drains your creativity to do both, or do they feed each other?

Well, we’ll have to wait and see! A lot of it has to do with the past year, year and a half. I spent so much energy self-releasing those records on my own label, and it took a lot of time and energy and didn’t leave much left. There’s going to be some changes in that area.

So you’re not going to be self-releasing anymore?

I don’t think so. I never thought that I would go back to labels because I love the idea of the freedom I’ve had, but doing an album, you really need the time and energy to do it right. And I feel like I did the self-titled record a lot. It was a physical item. There was PR for it. Essentially, it was like a record label released it, except I did it. But the problem was the whole process was so draining for me. I got a little jaded on the indie music scene. I’ve been jaded on the indie music scene for a long time! I just don’t really want to know how the wheels work. I don’t want to taint something secure like my songwriting because I’m seeing how things work. The self-titled release and then the EP that came after did well so I still luckily have record labels that will work with me.

Nothing has been signed yet but I have a really good European label that I’ve been a huge fan of for years that is most likely going to put it out, and then I need to do US too so I can get back to putting all that energy where I’m supposed to be putting it. I don’t consider the self-releases a failure at all. I did it right. As you get older, you only have energy for so much. I compare myself to my peers, female musicians that are not self-releasing, and I get a little envious, like, they don’t have to spend their afternoon today dealing with distributors and figuring out who’s going to do radio. I miss having a team to do that for me.

I’ll never sign my masters away again like I did when I was younger; I’m probably just going to license the album.

Moving to the subject of your songs, on The Sister, you introduced some new characters, and I was wondering what this means for the older characters that have appeared in your songs.

I feel like calling them “characters” is misleading because the people in my songs are real people with the exception of one or two. There was a long time where there would be people I would write about, and I made up fake names for them just so I could write about them in the gory detail they deserved. If you’re going to write a song about someone, you shouldn’t leave details out just because you’re afraid of embarrassing them or exposing some ugly truth, which is the reason why I gravitated towards monikers. On the self-titled record, the same thing. The only characters on that whole record that I didn’t know are Daisy and Violet on the last song. On the new one, [The Sister] Christine is suffering from her life is disintegrating and falling apart. She’s a friend of mine, and that’s not her real name. Basically, it’s just glorified nicknames. On the next album, sure there will be new arcs. A lot changes in the course of a decade.

Your video for “Wedding” is so gorgeous, and it was a complete surprise when that debuted recently. What is the concept behind the video, and how do you see the video relating to the song?

First of all, it’s a song from the self-titled album, which is a while ago. It’s a 2011 release. A lot of people were wondering why I did a music video for a song I released a while ago. To me, a music video is not a promotional tool. It shouldn’t be. It should be a way to extend the life and continuity of your art. I could easily make a video for a song from my first record and not think that was weird. Just because a song came out a couple years ago, if anything, people will go back and listen to it because they might have missed it the first time.

I was talking to Derrick [Belcham, the video’s director], he wanted to do a music video or a film for this thing called A Story Told Well in it. The girl in it, [dancer Emily Terndrup]. he knew from Sleep No More. Sleep No More is hard to explain; it’s this avant-garde production thing that’s really popular in New York. Anyway, I told him that my inspiration would be that I wanted it to be blurry and not close-up. I told him I wanted it to look like Francesca Woodman, a photographer I’ve been obsessed with for many years. We just talked reference points, how I didn’t want a lot of color.

It happened organically. He sent me the video, and I didn’t have anything I wanted to change in it at all. Usually, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I say ‘can you fix this? Can you fix that?’ But I really like the whole thing.

The video is especially interesting because you’re not the central focus.

I hate it when music videos are just lip-synching. I’ve been pressured into doing a couple of those in my life, and never again. I like staying on the sidelines because that’s how I am. That’s realistic. I would never want to be in front of the camera acting. I’m a very shy person when it comes to that.

One thing that I wanted to touch on was something you and I had briefly discussed over email a while back. I was talking about Riot Grrrl and feminism and Joni Mitchell, and you said that Joni Mitchell had done more for feminism than Riot Grrrl ever had.

I’ve gotten into so many fights with men I know about Joni Mitchell! I don’t know why. A lot of guys I know do not like her, which I think is interesting. She demanded to be more than a face and a pretty voice, and that was over 40 years ago! I thought she was a very revolutionary guitar player.

You don’t have to like a lot of outward-looking feminist music to be a feminist. A lot of people would look at me and say, “Well, she really plays up her femininity. Her voice is delicate. She’s backwards.” And I would say that’s total bullshit. You can be extremely feminine and be a feminist. It’s very feminist to put out your own album, to travel the world by yourself for ten years. You don’t have to dress like a tomboy. I won’t because I’m not one.

I think a lot of people forget to put Joni Mitchell back in the historical context from which she came.

That’s true. She was one of the first confessional singer-songwriters, and she changed the pop idiom, not just for women but for men as well. I was just thinking of her the other day. I have my iPod that I put on for the kids when we’re doing art therapy. The school I teach at is not a regular school; it’s more art therapy than art. Anyway, I have my iPod there, and Mark Kozelek popped up. In this room full of 16 and 17 year-olds. I love Mark Kozelek and Sun Kil Moon and he’s a friend of mine. This one girl said, “What are you listening to? I really like it.” I wrote down his name and all the bands he’s been in. So far nobody has liked any of the Joni Mitchell I’ve played.

Was Joni Mitchell one of your biggest role models in figuring out that you could curate your own career in music? What other musicians helped give you that confidence?

She was definitely a big one. Also, Nina Simone, Patti Smith, Billie Holiday — these ladies were big idols to me. 

Switching subjects, I know you’ve been doing some collaborative work recently, and I wanted to hear more about that.

When Angel Olsen came out with her new album this year, i wrote her and said congratulations. I had met her many years ago. She’s a bit younger. She was 20 years old at the time. She had opened for me. I wrote her to congratulate her; I hadn’t really talked to her for the past five or six years. She asked if I wanted to work on a song together. She lives in Chicago and I live in Boston and we have different touring schedules. We did one cover song, “My Dreams Have Withered and Died“.

It’s just kind of a fun thing. I did a song with Jesse Sykes for this project in Hong Kong. James Blackshaw and I have talked about doing something together, but nothing concrete. One of the weirdest ones is Balam Acab; he’s witch-house. He’s young, like 21 years old. The Internet makes the world so much smaller. I wish it had existed in this way when I was coming up.

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