27 May 2011
Interview | Marissa Nadler
Since releasing her debut album, Ballads of Living and Dying in 2004, Massachusetts-native Marissa Nadler has produced an imposing body of work, comprising five critically lauded albums, and garnering some lofty praise in the process. Likened to a siren luring men to their watery deaths, and a temptress beckoning woozy disciples to follow her into Hades, Nadler’s distinctive vocal delivery and inherent mysticism have established her as an enigmatic, almost untouchable artist. In reality, Nadler is personable, arrestingly honest, and as utterly captivating as her illusive, yet highly personal music suggests.
After years of burgeoning creativity and critical success, 2010 saw Nadler being unexpectedly dropped by her then record label Mexican Summer – whose name is taken from one of Nadler’s songs of the same title – signalling an abrupt change of direction for the musician. We caught up with her to discuss fan involvement, pornographic pillows, the joys of setting up your own label, and what to do when the chips are down…
For those unfamiliar with your career, give us the story so far.
I have been making records for a long time now. I started really releasing records (I had three before my official first record) after I finished my studies in fine art and education. I started playing songs seriously when I was 14 and have been working hard on ever since. I have also been touring for the better part of my life since 2004. I have also contributed vocals to a lot of side projects and made a lot of side records as well. I stay busy and prolific.
You studied fine art before embracing music as a full-time artistic endeavour – would you say this has influenced your songwriting?
MN: I began painting and drawing when I began living, I suppose. My lovely mother is an abstract expressionist painter and I grew up in a very artistic household. I truly thought I would always be a painter, and was surprised that my life took a different turn in terms of careers. I think that my many years spent as a portrait painter helped me to really look at people and situations in a painterly manner. My lyrics are very visual and I tend to describe scenes that way I would make a drawing. I took a long break from painting but have really gotten into it again. I work on making a lot of limited edition cdrs for ETSY and love the combining of my two loves. I also like to embroider pornographic pillows when I feel I need to busy my hands.
Cripes. There’s a sentence you don’t hear too often. Speaking of keeping busy, your new album is being released through your own label, Box of Cedar Records – the decision to set up your own label seems to be something more and more artists are taking. Do you feel this move has lent you more freedom as an artist? Do you think there is any danger in this creative autonomy?
This move has definitely been good for me. I am pretty sure of the kind of art I want to make and I hate people telling me how to change my style. I encountered this when I was playing open mics at age 17- people telling me, “you use too much reverb on your voice,” “you should fingerpick with all your fingers” etc. I prefer not having anyone telling me what kind of art to make. I don’t think there is a problem with complete creative autonomy. I think the danger is not having it. The worst thing that can happen to a songwriter is a big label coming on board. They change your look and your sound. I don’t want to be the next adult contemporary singer-songwriter of the moment. I am content to live in a world where I never achieve major success if that means I have control over my own work. I am content to live forever in anonymity if it means freedom.
Your own label came about when, last year, your then record label Mexican Summer decided they were no longer interested in releasing your music. How does something like that affect your creative trajectory? Had the relationship previously become fractured or was it a complete surprise?
I have nothing personally against the bands on the label. I don’t think I’ll be having dinner with the label anytime soon, however. When this happened, it was a surprise. It still hurts. Nevertheless, I am now very happy it worked out like it did. Freedom is way better. I ended up making a record I really love and I did it on my own terms.
This kind of thing can definitely throw off your creative trajectory. I made the mistake of thinking that I had a true support system and that these people were my friends. It all came down to money, of course. Record labels are just businesses like everything else. I just made the mistake of forgetting that. It’s not really their fault, as they are running a money operation after all. The hardest thing about the situation is that I have to see the name of a song I wrote about true love as a logo on tote bags and rocker t-shirts. You live and learn. I am learning to say NO.
It is hard to separate the business side from the artistic side. I never pandered too much as to what was cool or not which could explain why I wasn’t as marketable as they wanted me to be. Listening to my music, anyone can tell I am extremely sensitive, so, I didn’t take the news too well. If my song weren’t linked with the label, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me too much. Thankfully, I made my favourite record yet and that is the best way to move on.
Your Kickstarter campaign for the new record was a massive success – does this kind of fan involvement appeal to you as an independent artist?
I had some great help (and that person knows who he is). Yes, fan involvement really appeals to me now. At first, I felt almost ashamed to have to ask for money like that. I though, “wow, I have been at this for how many years and what do I have to show for it?” But then, my listeners really rallied and it was such a good thing emotionally to have after such a tremendous blow. I really felt like I was screwed for a while. I worked tons of horrible odd jobs this year. I got fired from a flower shop for sounding “dead” on the phone. My boss said, “I thought you were a musician. You just did a horrible job – horrible – horrible.” I walked out crying.
Back to Kickstarter – I really recommend it. My backers came through and I raised way more than I asked for – enough to record in a pro studio. It is definitely a lot of work to fulfil all of the pledges, but it is work I look forward to because I know that everyone that pledged really appreciates the time and effort that went into every step of this record.
So, tell us about the new record: your trademark reverb is notably absent on a couple of the tracks – is this indicative of a new clarity and strength in yourself as an artist?
Yes, I think so. I love reverb and I love the way it makes my voice sound. Still, five records in, I wanted to try some bone dry vocals. I still make really spacey, atmospheric music but I wanted to see how it would sound to have a dry voice against lush production, or no production at all. It was my other influences coming into play, as well as a new found confidence to make myself a little vulnerable and naked on record. There is also a lot less reverb on the rest of the tracks as well. I think I am finally a little less shy about hearing my own voice, and I wanted to make the most emotionally bare record I could.
You’ve previously spoken about being drawn to antiquity in response to globalisation and commercialisation – how do you negotiate the volatile territory between politics and creativity?
Well, I kind of steer clear of addressing politics directly in my songs. I have to admit I get too depressed when I really tune into what is happening. I try to do my part by releasing art into the world. I think a world without art wouldn’t be the same beautiful place. I do think that my escapism and love of antiquated things started from a general boredom from I grew up. I created my own worlds to live in when I wasn’t particularly happy with my own world. I really am a person that believes love conquers all adversity. So, my art tends to focus on what I am drawn to aesthetically. I am a romantic at heart. I think Romanticism is a great world to live in.
Who would you say were your main influences?
I was very lucky to have parents with good taste in music. They had a great record collection and were and still are avid music fans. They were really into classic 60s and 70s rock and psychedelia and prog-rock. My first concert was Jethro Tull and Procol Harum. I also saw the Rolling Stones and the Dead as a kid. But in terms of influences, my first loves were jazz singers like Nina Simone, Ella, Billie Holiday, and even Eartha Kitt. I was very into grunge rock in high school which was just everywhere during my coming of age years. My mother got sick of hearing me listening to Hole Pretty on the Inside so she bought me Carol King Tapestry and Joni Mitchell Blue on cassette tape. I think her little trip to the music store really changed my life. Also, my brother, who is a novelist now, is a musician. He influenced me to a lot of cool music. Our childhood was a little like that scene in Almost Famous where the big sister leaves him all the best records.
In terms of lasting influences, I never tired of Joni and she is a huge influence on my guitar playing and general view as an artist. I discovered Leonard Cohen through the Nirvana song ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and also through Nina Simone‘s cover of ‘Suzanne’. I also am very into shoegaze and girl bands, and love Mazzy Star, Belly, Mojave Three, Throwing Muses, etc. A lot of the reverbed out atmospherics of some of these 90s bands really influenced me. I could go on and on. I guess I like to make my music an amalgamation of all the things that I love. And this bank of influences is constantly growing and changing.
Who are you currently listening to?
Well, this may be disappointing but I really only listen to old music. I have been obsessed with the Loudon Wainwright III song ‘Motel Blues’ lately. It is the best song about being lonely on tour and needing what all humans need. I also have been on a real Otis Redding kick, and I listen to “remember me” constantly. I tend to get really into a song and play it over and over again.
What would your death row dinner be?
That is a hard one… probably the hardest question yet! I can’t really see myself on death row. I am too much of a wuss and would probably hang myself before I spent any time in jail. I also really cannot imagine ever killing someone and ending up on death row. But, lets just say I did kill someone and ended up there, I probably would have Japanese food. I am a huge Sushi fan. Miso soup. Strange, I know. But, I guess I would want my strength and mental fortitude for the “next level” – whatever that may be.
What can you not live without?
Another hard one… I can’t live without love.
What the world needs now is…
Understanding of other cultures. I think people need to be more empathetic of other situations and the world would be a much more peaceful place.
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Nadler’s self-titled fifth album is set for release in June.