The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Emerging Into Sunshine: Marissa Nadler Interviewed
Erin Lyndal Martin , June 18th, 2012 13:44

In the wake of the release of Marissa Nadler's new record The Sister, Erin Lyndal Martin caught up with her to discuss the creation of song worlds and the recurrent themes in her work

Thirty-one year old Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler has been releasing records since 2004's Ballads of Living and Dying. A visual artist self-taught on her brother's guitar, Nadler quickly learned her way not only around the instrument but around the record industry and the touring business as well. Critics have labeled music with all kinds of strange, barely existent sub-genres, but they've frequently settled upon "dream-folk," largely because of Nadler's haunting voice and dusky guitar.

But there's nothing psychedelic about her lyrics or the stories she tells with them. Nadler is a traditional enough songwriter that she often invents characters she revisits across albums. When I spoke to her in 2011 for The Rumpus, she spoke of there being three songs on her that year’s eponymous album alone that were sequels to past songs of hers. That album was written after Nadler was dropped from Mexican Summer - a record label named after one of her own songs. She rallied with a Kickstarter campaign to fund its making, which for those who had donated money was accompanied by an EP of songs that hadn't seemed quite right for the full-length. Marissa Nadler was full of sad songs about controlling men ('Puppet Master'), the desire to hibernate ('In Your Lair, Bear'), or about the difficulties of functioning with depression ('Wind Up Doll').

Now, Nadler is back with The Sister, released on her own label Box of Cedar. The Sister, Nadler explains, is comprised of songs that felt connected somehow to the songs on last year's release but weren't necessarily bound by the same narrative tissue. Instead of being about sleeping away winter or being controlled by men, these songs are about women who find their fiery hearts again and couples who are determined to make their relationships work. Sure, there are still songs about addictions and such (this is still Marissa Nadler), but, for the most part, her music has never sounded quite so sure in its own skin. The Quietus spoke to Marissa about the history of her most recent albums and the creation of fictional characters within her song worlds.

You self-released Marissa Nadler last year. How did that go, in terms of the business side of things?

Marissa Nadler: It went really well. It exceeded my expectations in the US, so I'm hoping some of that bleeds over into Europe. There's obviously a financial limitation to how much I can do without any backing. The most important thing for me is definitely the music and not the business side of things. I was very happy with the record.

You turned 30 last year, which I'm about to do soon, and it got me thinking about the way you might notice changes in your voice or your music as you grow older.

MN: Oh, you know, 30 is the new 20. It depends what kind of musician you want to be. Like, some of my very favorite successful musicians didn't get to be famous until they were older. Like Neko Case, for instance, or Cat Power, even didn't secure the kind of reputation she had until she was older. I know if you want to be Britney Spears, you kind of have to do it when you're 18-25. I've noticed that I seem more comfortable with my singing voice, and it's sounded more and more natural over the years. When you first start out, you sing in a way, and now I just sing like myself, and any kind of affectation that was there in the earlier records isn't there anymore at all. It's a very pure delivery.

Do you find yourself revisiting things you wrote years ago, or do those threads not resurface?

MN: I have some reccurring characters. I have some archetypal female characters, or they are alter egos of myself or representative of people that are in my life. Over the past decade, I think, those things have been ways to talk about growth and personal change. A lot of times, the character of Mary in my songs is pretty much an alter ego for myself in different ways for myself where different things could happen. The songs are a little bit like that movie Sliding Doors. In the song, I will make a bunch of different outcomes for my life, and I get to live them out that way.

In a lot of my other records, specifically Little Hells, which is the one with 'Mary Come Alive' on it, Mary is this very misanthropic and unhappy person, and in the song is grappling with whether to find meaning in life. And in the new EP - and it is an EP, really - she reveals she's found meaning through a lot of hope and light and love, and how she's kind of looking again on many unhappy years and coming out of that.

I'm introducing a lot of new characters on this record, actually.

Constantine and Christine are both new, right?

MN: Yes, and those are representative of real people in my life. But the real big different between this Sister EP and my older work is that it's a lot more confessional, very bare-bones, like 'Apostle,' for instance, is very up-front, and before I would write about people or myself in this very veiled way where it's not very revelatory.

What would you say 'Apostle' is about to you?

MN: Apostle is a song basically about addiction. And relationships. 'Apostle' and 'Wrecking Ball Company' are both about trying to hold on to relationships and make them work. As opposed to being a breakup record or a heartbreak record or an unlove record, which is very different for me.

I noticed the themes on Marissa Nadler were in songs like 'Puppet Master' where the man has control, or there are songs that seem to be about waiting, and the characters didn't seem to have as much agency as they do now on The Sister.

MN: The self-titled record, a lot of the songs were about trying to close this chapter of my life. I had really been hung up on this one muse for a very long time, and there are no songs on this new EP about that guy. There's 'Puppet Master' [on Marissa Nadler], which is definitely about being controlled and manipulated by somebody, but on this new collection of songs, I'm free of those strings holding me back, but it is still a bit of a shaky ground. 'The Wrecking Ball Company' is all about somebody trying to break down all these walls that have grown up around me, which is the result of that one person I wrote all the songs about. It's very much a different source of inspiration this time around.

Do you feel like you had to go through that process of all the songs on the self-titled album to get to where you are for these songs?

MN: Well, a lot's happened in these two years. I basically had written a lot of those songs for the self-titled record a while ago, and a lot of the newer ones, on the EP, are very new. I think just a lot happened between then and now. I just really started a new life for myself. There's three songs from that session [the self-titled record] on this album, 'Love Again, There Is a Fire', 'Your Heart Is a Twisted Vine', and 'To a Road, Love,' were also recorded on the self-titled sessions, and I kept those apart for stylistic reasons. They work together really well, but not with those songs. It wasn't that they were lesser songs; I thought they'd go better with a new set of songs. 'Love Again, There Is a Fire' is a more hopeful song, in a way, and the other record is a lot more about closure.

I don't know if you have the same boyfriend, but I know he did the album artwork, last time around, and it looks similar this time.

MN: I do! He did it again. Well, [the artwork is] a nurse, and personally I see it as a Sister of Mercy kind of nurse. A lot of the songs I said are, for instance, 'Christine' is about someone who has this very downward spiral in the song. I feel like there is a very healing quality about some of the songs, hopefully, and some of the songs are about illness and recovery, like emerging into sunshine.