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A Quietus Interview

Porch Songs: Marissa Nadler Interviewed
John Doran , May 23rd, 2016 06:44

Marissa Nadler has just released her new album Strangers. Here she talks to John Doran about apocalyptic visions, personal crisis and the need for constant creative change

It’s getting a bit close in here. Let’s throw the window open and air the room while we go outside for a while.

Marissa Nadler sits on the porch of her “little Massachusetts treehouse” on a clear May day as birdsong punctuates the silence of Jamaica Plain. This is the exact spot where her deeply affecting and beautiful new album Strangers took shape last year. She practically wore grooves into the decking - pacing, sitting, writing. No procrastination or giving in to writer’s block for this musician though, she attacked the task like a lifer; like a 9-5 grafter. She’s the first to admit, a baby (or maybe even several babies) may have been thrown out with the bathwater given that she wrote 60 songs for this new LP - only to abandon 49 of them. (She maintains that some of them weren’t that good but luckily for us, a few have been rescued; label Bella Union have made eight of the demos available on a limited edition cassette.)

Strangers represents Nadler’s creative road widening ever further. And this is even though she’s on to her seventh album (or 13th, if you include self-released long players). I can see a billboard. It says: “You liked July? You’re going to love Strangers.”

Like William Burroughs spending days on end secluded in a Tangier hotel room, staring at nothing but his foot, opiated beyond the desire or ability to move, she stared at the same view every single day for months while sitting on this porch. Except instead of a withered junkie’s foot, what she saw was a window across the way. And through that window was the partially occluded view of a neighbour. A woman who became ‘Shadow Show Diane’, one of the figures inhabiting the strange land of Strangers. Through a window she saw the entire universe full of dying stars and crippled planets. And through that window she saw one planet in particular and all of its terrible entropy.

There is no time for writer’s block when you’re a grafter. Like Brion Gysin spending days on end secluded in a Paris hotel room, staring at nothing but a utility knife and a pile of newspapers, she set about a stash of National Geographic and Universe magazines with a box cutter, letting a flurry of clauses, phrases and words, fall where they may, affixing with glue stick; part fine artist, part wordsmith, part resting schoolteacher.

Like Jan Švankmajer secluded for days on end in his own front room, staring at nothing but the trappings of his own life, she armed herself with the contents of a little Massachusetts treehouse, modelling clay and a camera; her will transformed the domestic into art.

Dreaming without sleeping. Remote viewing. Searching old information channels. Investigating arcane and hidden routes through creative thickets. It sounds like a lot of effort to me but then she was up against the toughest of adversaries, herself and her own back catalogue.

Open up the Americana thesaurus. Its spine is snapped through overuse. It always falls open at the same page. But her work is not dusty. It is not hazy. It is not smoky. (Although some of her press shots are admittedly.) Her work is solid. Her work is muscular. There is nothing ill-defined and vaporous about it. It has the quality of living flesh - sometimes bruised, sometimes grazed but always coursing with vitality. Let’s leave the smoky atmosphere for Hollywood and the HBO box set, this is something urgent with blood and dirt under its fingernails.

But it’s getting chill out here and it’s clouding over. Let’s go back inside to talk.

Let’s start with your new album Strangers; it’s less autobiographical than July isn’t it?

Marissa Nadler: It’s still autobiographical but it’s about different things than July. This record is dealing with friendships dissolving and inner strife [LAUGHS] as opposed to love and heartbreak.

When you’re talking, as you have done in the past, about your own life, how difficult do you find it writing about this material? I think there’s a great misconception isn’t there, that if you write about this stuff it’s automatically going to be cathartic but actually it can be more painful to address it like this.

MN: Yeah, it was actually a difficult record for me to write. I do find it easy to write songs about heartbreak; it comes really naturally to me. It was a little bit more difficult for me to break my mould and tackle different subjects. You know what it’s like because you’re a writer. You don’t want to tread on the same territory. Writing about the personal stuff was a little difficult because I’d worry about who would read it and who would be offended by it.

Do you ever have to take a real story and couch it as if it were fiction, changing the names and the places etc?

MN: Yeah, I do. I change all the names now because back in 2006 I used a friend’s real name and wrote this really weird song that wasn’t really about her. It was kind of a death song and when she heard it, she was really offended by it. I tried to explain to her that my songs are only partially based in truth. But after that I learned my lesson and I always change the names.

Tell me about the mix of autobiography and straight up fiction on the album.

MN: Sure. There are a lot of songs on the album that are envisioning the end of the world, such as the opening track ‘Divers Of The Dust’. It has to be fiction because nobody really knows how the world is going to end… yet. [LAUGHS] Although I think we all have some ideas, maybe.

The reason I’m interested in this divide between fiction and non-fiction, autobiography and fantasy has to do with something that has been discussed a little bit in the media recently. There have been a couple of big albums out recently, one by Beyoncé (Lemonade) and one by PJ Harvey (The Hope Six Demolition Project), that clearly show how critics (who tend to be male) tend to presume that female singers write autobiographical lyrics and don’t consider that they may be writing a fictional narrative. Have you noticed this in relation to your own work?

MN: Well yeah, I think that female musicians are constantly fighting an uphill battle in general and I think what you are saying is right in a way. Even when I’m not writing heartbreak songs… the fact that songwriting is so difficult and music criticism has become so content driven means that sometimes critics can go for the easy descriptors [rather than an in-depth analysis].

I’m currently reading the proof of DBC Pierre’s new title Release The Bats, which is a book about writing books. And the first thing he says is that the gap between what people say and do or the gap between how they perceive themselves and how they actually are is where literature lives. And I was wondering if this is where your characters live, or if there are other conflicts that bring them into being.

MN: Strangely enough, with regards accuracy, the word character is a little bit misleading, in terms of this new record for me, because even people like Shadow Show Diane… they are all real people. Janie from ‘Janie In Love’ and Katie from ‘Katie I Know’ are friends of mine. Shadow Show Diane is a name that I made up for a woman that I see through a window from across my porch. It sounds really creepy but it’s not I assure you. I agree with what DBC Pierre says but everyone on this album is a real person.

Can you tell me more about the lady you see from the porch?

MN: [LAUGHS] Gosh, well… I spend a lot of time sitting on my porch. It was kind of a lonely year in some ways. Songwriting can be a very isolating activity. You have to stay alone by yourself to really get it done. So I was going through all this shit and you can see right into people’s windows from my porch. It was kind of interesting that while I was trying to make up songs, these little stories, these little vignettes, that I could see into someone else’s world through a window. It was a little bit of a joke in a way. Perhaps that’s unexpected for someone like me in a way. It was as closely augmented to a joke song that I’ve ever been.

Talking about the fictional aspect of the record then, which is you meditating on the end of the world… when artists talk about the end of the world, they’re usually not talking about the end of the world are they? Is this a metaphor for something else?

MN: Yes. I think I was having a lot of (personal and professional) anxiety and depression when I was writing this album and for whatever reason I was drawn to the idea of the end of the world before I really knew why. Around the same time I was going into the studio to work with Randall Dunn, who I have known for a really long time, I was also just about to get married and I think I was freaking out a little bit about it. Just the finality of it. He said he thought the songs weren’t so much about the end of the world as the end of my world. I got really upset at him at first because of his armchair psychology but I think there was a little bit of truth in that... which is why I got upset. There was part of me that was totally terrified and using it as an escapist theme.

Now that you’re blissfully married has the apocalyptic side of your writing subsided slightly?

MN: No. I’m sure you’re aware that just because my personal life may not be in shambles any more it doesn’t mean anything has been solved. A ring doesn’t solve problems. Let’s put it that way. I think I’m still having dark visions. I think I’m just a little bit fatalistic. There is a personality flaw at work perhaps…

I don’t want to say anything specific here but I do know that generally speaking apocalyptic visions can be a symptom of psychological trauma. It’s easier for people who ‘have trouble’ to envisage the end of the world than it is for them to picture the collapse of their own psyche.

MN: I guess they do. Which makes me worry. [LAUGHS] I was definitely going through something… Anyone who is writing songs [like these] is definitely going through… something. But I think maybe I feel a little bit better now than I did then. Also I was just desperately trying to write a record that was as good as July but different. There is a lot of pressure on you when you’re on your seventh album. And this is actually more like my ninth album if we’re counting properly. And it became a case of, “What the fuck am I going to write about now?”

No one can question the amount of effort you put into this album. Is it true you wrote 60 songs in the run up to recording Strangers?

MN: Yes… but some of them weren’t very good. The demo process was very long, I wrote songs like it was my day job. I started writing them the day I got back home after the July tour. I was writing sonically, thinking I was going to make a ‘band record’ this time. And that was partially because it’s too psychologically difficult for me to contemplate continuing touring alone. Like the way you met me and saw me that night [in Utrecht, at Le Guess Who? festival]... that’s very difficult for me. But also it’s about not having the capabilities to have the fuller sound. I’m not really into electronics and looping. I mean, I’m sure I could sync to a backing track, but really I wanted to write a record that I could develop and could tour without finding myself alone in foreign countries continuing this isolated life.

Yeah, I saw you in Utrecht, and while you clearly weren’t panic ridden, you were perhaps slightly uncomfortable, or that’s how it seemed to me, with you asking to have all of the lights turned down… To me this just added to the intensity of the performance and you could have heard a pin drop in a crowded beyond capacity venue, which isn’t something to be sniffed at. Is this kind of anxiety not something that abates through repetition?

MN: I have gotten slightly better. I’ve been taking beta-blockers since then. I take them one hour before I play. I used to have to get totally drunk to be able to stand up in front of people but I quit drinking three years ago. But yeah, my whole body seizes up with panic, my hands won’t even do what they’re supposed to do, I will mess up even the simplest chords, that I have played a million times before.

Well, I’m going to be seeing you live again soon and I was blown away to hear that Wrekmeister Harmonies are going to be your band!

MN: Yeah, it’s very cool. At first I wasn’t sure if it was going to work because even though I love their music we’re very different. But we got together for a week of practice in Portland, Oregon before my tour with Black Mountain started and it worked out really well. Esther is a very sensitive player and JR has this great atmosphere with what he plays. I can’t quite afford to hire a band yet, I’m still kind of struggling so to tour as a package is good. We have the same manager, we’re in the same scene and we’re friends, so I think it’s going to be fun. Unless fun is the wrong word to use… doomy fun!

Can you tell me about the use of the cut up technique which I believe you’ve utilised on the track ‘Divers Of The Dust’?

MN: Yes. I was struggling with a little bit of writer’s block. My husband is a writer also but more into absurdism. He said, “You should try the cut up method.” I cut up about a million copies of National Geographic and Universe and I think that’s why the end of the world theme started looking so appealing, because I was literally cutting up the universe and making word collages out of it. Because I used to teach art, I used to have all of these books and magazines about natural disasters, the universe and nature.

I would never say that Strangers is a maximal record; it’s obviously still quite restrained but by your own standards there is such a rich amount of texture and depth to this album. Has it been a slow progress into new territory and expansive production techniques for you?

MN: It has been a slow process. For the first records I really never thought about anything other than the song itself. I thought that this was what the job of a songwriter was. I was really approaching music from a very different standpoint. To me when I was younger the song was just the melody. I think as I’ve gotten older and have been recording myself I’ve become aware of just how many layers can exist within a song besides just the main vocal. And this is why I have gotten into harmonies and why it has been so great working with Randall who is a master atmosphere maker. We make a good team, because he really loves to create these luscious sonic beds for the song to exist in but it’s never at the expense of interfering with the song. His purpose is to elevate the songs.

People can act surprised when they hear about your connection to bands such as SunnO))), Earth and Wrekmeister Harmonies but it actually makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? The connections between folk, Americana, drone and outsider metal… these things are not all that far removed are they?

MN: Exactly. Especially with a band like Earth. Some of their songs truly are Americana landscapes. I could easily picture myself singing on top of those records. I think there are a lot of crossovers really.

There’s another Earth connection because Steve Moore plays on Strangers doesn’t he?

MN: Yes. He’s amazing. It’s no secret really that Earth is one of my favourite bands. So when I found out he was going to play on the record it was really exciting.

Now perhaps something that is slightly surprising is the fact that you’ve worked with Xasthur, the USBM artist. I was wondering how that came about and worked in terms of recording.

MN: Oh my gosh! One of my friends, Jonas was playing bass in Earth and he was on tour with Xathur and SunnO))) years ago. It was a rare tour for Scott because he doesn’t play live a lot. Anyway, he had just gotten into folk music I guess and he was really into my music. Jonas said to me, “There’s this dude called Xasthur who wants you to sing on his record and I was like, “OK!” I went over to his house. He lived just outside of LA with his grandfather and a black cat. He was very nice actually. He was doing a DIY set up. He said, “Just sing whatever you want.” It was very good for me, very freeing, to not use words and to do something very guttural and angry for a change.

So when I heard about you working with Xasthur I was like, “Well, I get it… it makes sense to me really.” And it made me think of when I first heard Jesse Sykes singing the ‘The Sinking Belle’ track with SunnO))) and Boris on the Altar album. But then when I was googling this the other day it blew my mind to find out that you’re both graduates of Rhode Island School Of Design.

MN: Yeah, Jesse Sykes and I are extremely good friends. We have a lot in common actually. In fact I’m planning on singing on her new album. She’s been working really hard on this record for a very long time with The Sweet Hereafter. I’m very excited for her new record. I think it makes sense for songwriters like Jesse and I to work with different people. I think our voices go well over different worlds and different types of music.

So even I’m aware of the reputation of Rhode Island… it has a formidable list of former students that includes Talking Heads, Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Les Savy Fav… I was wondering if the study of fine arts has influence what you do as a musician.

MN: I think so. I identify first and foremost as a fine artist. Even the way that I put words together; this could be called painterly and the combinations don’t always make sense. My mom is an abstract painter. I think there are a lot of people who are fine artists and musicians also. I think it’s a common thread, the way the brain words. I used to hang out at Fort Thunder, this warehouse Lightning Bolt used to play in and they became one of my favourite bands. The two Brians are both great artists as well. I love Lightning Bolt so much… sometimes I think my next album should sound just like them!

Well, that’s something I wanted to ask you about. It’s not just that your songs are efflorescing texturally but they’re becoming literally sonically heavier as well, above and beyond the spiritual heaviness that you’ve always had. Take ‘Janie In Love’ for example, that is one hell of a heavy song. Have you gone as heavy as you’re going to go for the time being or does this track point the way forward?

MN: I think it points the way forward. When I demoed that song it had these gunshots that I simulated with my Juno synthesizer. Randall and I debated it and he was like, “I don’t know… I think it’s kind of cheesy.” And I was like, “Whatever…” My point being that when you’re a lifer, you’re not looking to have your breakout sophomoric effort, you have to constantly keep on reinventing yourself because not only will people in general lose interest but even I will lose interest. So I can imagine writing songs that are even heavier now, not the least because I’m starting to write songs on the electric guitar. But I think that the Black Sabbath cover that I did, ‘Solitude’, kind of points of the direction I want to go in that has more space. My earlier work has all of this finger picking in it that uses up all of this space. As I play electric and I’m becoming more confident as a guitar player, I think I'm becoming more interested in these more expansive, space-filled, electric wanderings.

So, can I ask you a bit about quitting drink? I’m not sure how you refer to it by the way, quitting, abstaining, getting sober...

MN: Yeah, sure.

What precipitated it?

MN: [LAUGHS] I was just a fucking mess, there’s no pretty way to put it. I wasn’t drinking during the daytime or anything like that but I have a very addictive personality and always have. I started [drinking] in my late teen years and continued through college and into the early years of my career. I had a lot of missed opportunities because of not being able to handle my liquor, things like bad shows. But mostly what precipitated it was how it was contributing to my mental health breaking down. Alcohol and depression don’t mix very well as I’m sure you know, it makes everything worse. I hit a point where I knew that if I kept drinking it wouldn’t go very well.

You’re currently having what could be termed a ‘second act’ in creative terms at the moment, and you intimated to me last year that perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t quit drinking.

MN: I think there’s definitely some truth to that. I think when you’re drinking you don’t have the clarity to think about things. I think it was definitely necessary for me in order for me to start a new period of my life. I was 32 at the time and it was starting to take its toll physically and mentally. It’s not easy to talk about obviously but I think it was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made for myself. It’s not easy, especially when I’m touring and everyone is partying and I’m backstage playing Scrabble or drawing in my notebook because I’m a total nerd now.

Yeah, but then you’re not waking up sick to the pit of your stomach in a Travelodge just outside of Wolverhampton with the fear of almighty God in you. There are pros and cons right…

MN: Exactly. I know. The grass is always greener but it is really nice to not wake up with a hangover… especially on tour because there’s nothing worse than having to sit in a van for eight hours after a long night. And now I’m drinking coffee and feeling quite good. I’m only 35 and I feel quite young for a change.

When you look back at your childhood now, can you see any early examples of being interested in what informs your art now? Have you always had a certain kind of temperament, I guess is what I’m driving at.

MN: I sure have. I was always an emotional, tearful kid. The teachers used to worry there was something wrong with me… I’m being slightly tongue in cheek because I guess I was well adjusted really. As a child I was really focussed on my fine art - I took it very seriously. I would listen to my parents’ prog rock collection in the basement and copy Leonardo DaVinci paintings. I really wanted to be a master painter. I didn’t think I’d ever become a musician because I was so shy. I was like Cousin It with my hair covering my face but there was a clear attraction to melancholy I think.

The first concert I ever went to was Procul Harum and Jethro Tull with my parents. They were less into the hippy folk end of prog and more into the 70s stuff, way more into the jam-iness. I grew up listening to a lot of Yes. My brother used to try and get me to write fan fiction while looking at the Yes gatefold artwork. I remember all of those records playing throughout my childhood and thinking that I really wanted to be an artist.

Marissa Nadler is currently on tour in the UK with Wrekmeister Harmonies. Strangers is out now on Bella Union

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