The Demystification of Marissa Nadler

MarissaThis article and interview was originally published at the No Depression website on April 2, 2011. Marissa is a wonderful sound and visual artist who remains a favorite of mine, and I thought that this deserves a reprint here on my site. She is currently recording a new album for a 2015 release, and has a track on the recent tribute album to Karen Dalton. 

Valerie, the twenty-something graphic artist whom I used to work with a few years ago was also a guitarist who fronted a metal band, and she was a good soul with Indian ink hair, Keane-like eyes and translucent skin. One day as I was driving some folks over to the Astro Diner for lunch, she sat in the back of my truck and shuffled through some discs that I had shoved out of the way and under the floor mat. I could see her smile in the rearview mirror and in her flat, po-mo deadpan voice she sneered, “Ed digs chicks with mandolins”.

Although I’m pretty sure I don’t suffer from idiopathic craniofacial erythema, I nevertheless developed a high cutaneous blood flow which caused a radiation of intense heat. Which means that I blushed as a result to an emotional response. It’s associated with shame or modesty, embarrassment or love. Charles Darwin described blushing as “the most peculiar and most human of all expressions.”

It’s no secret nor shame that I do indeed “dig chicks with mandolins” as well as women who play guitars, dulcimers, banjos, fiddles, cellos, bells, pianos, flutes, percussive instruments and autoharps. And if they can write songs and sing, especially in the upper registers while accompanied by open tunings, fingers that pick strings gracefully and have layered vocals with Eno-isms and Fripp-eries…than I may indeed fall hard.

Which brings me to the incredible Marissa Nadler. For when I listen to her sing and play her guitar, as I watch her videos and listen to her lyrics…I feel the heat and flush begin to spread from head to toe and damn it if she isn’t the circus that every little boy wants to run away with. So it would be fair to say that Marissa’s music touches this old man in a most unique way and I just dig her.

In the press section of her website, I counted over forty stories and reviews, from small blogs and fanzines, to mainstream press like Mojo, Pitchfork, Uncut, NPR, Interview and the LA Weekly. I’ve read most all of them because I found it fascinating that a) writers (mostly male) seem to fall in love or lust, and gush over her in the most poetic manner and b) her music has been described in more strange ways than one could possibly imagine.

While I’m left in awe of Marissa’s talent, words to describe her music don’t come easy to me and I admit to feeling hopelessly inadequate. Especially when I read the beautiful, lyrical and flowing words that others have come up with. So here’s a few uncredited “cut and pastes” from the press page of her website. I could never, ever come up with these phrases on my own, but it might give you some sense of what others think of her…and please consider this as a form of graffiti and neither thievery nor laziness:

“The indie-folk pinup girl and mistress of the murder ballad.”

“She’s hacked away the art school whimsy, tossed out the crystals and burned the floaty headscarfs.”

“Simple, melancholic fingerpicked folk ballads that take advantage of her sonorous, spine-tingling vocals, narrating tales of damsels in distress or lovers absent or dead.”

“Compelling medieval twang.”

“A markedly haunting pathos, musing on death, sadness and mourning with an elegiac beauty.”

“Part of me wishes she’d use her siren’s call to unite Sisters of the Moon in a woodland super-group of nymphs and urban wood-sprites.”

“Marissa Nadler could be a damsel who has tumbled from a frayed tapestry in search of her unicorn, a crystal doll who has escaped from her vitrine, or a tubercular maid who has slipped out of her Victorian deathbed photograph to traipse this earthly plane.”

“She’s like a young Stevie Nicks, all doped up and duped to serve as Devendra Banhart’s geisha. Nah, too strong for that. How ’bout Donovan reincarnated as Linda Ronstadt? Except instead of a ’70s pop star, in this life she’s Fairy Queen of the Muir Woods, a mythical creature spotted only by hippie chicks who dare to eat strange mushrooms and venture into the redwoods past nightfall.”

That’s enough of that….you get the idea. Beautifully written words that conjure some sort of witchy maiden swirling in the fog’s mist, wearing long dresses of lace and satin while her black hair blows in the wind and she holds out an alabaster cup filled with a steamy potion that is sure to lure any man to her lair.

And that right there is what I’d call her curse and her blessing, because she carries this image on her shoulders that might work with many fans but also will chase others away. But she is not living in the land of unicorns and dragon slayers, and her music is not all incense and peppermints and it sits neatly on the shelf with artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to Emmylou Harris to Vashti Bunyan. There is a lot of talent, strength and intelligence in this woman, and although I”ll admit that I fell for the image at first (and have since become platonically smitten as I’ve gotten to know her) it offers great satisfaction for me to help assist in the demystification if Marissa for you and bring it all back to Mother Earth.

Marissa Nadler turns thirty this month. She grew up in a Boston suburb and then attended the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied fine art. She taught herself how to play guitar, uses a lot of open tunings and fingerpicks with her thumb and index finger. She has four “official” albums out, as well as quite a few other projects that she sells at shows, on her Etsy page, website or Bandcamp page. She has toured extensively in the US and Europe. She’s tried living in New York, which she found claustrophobic, and Los Angeles which was just too sunny. She now resides again in Boston when not traveling the highway.

I’ve read she prefers old things to new things, and she cites these folks as some of the artist’s she likes to listen to: Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Roy Orbison, Elliot Smith, Bob Dylan, Mazzy Star, Opal, Throwing Muses, Leonard Cohen and the Band. On her Covers album (available only on Etsy), she sings Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt and simply nails Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”.

She was the breakout artist performing this year at the first ever Couch By Couch West web-fest alternative to Austin’s SXSW, putting up some simple homemade videos that drew me in and reminded me that I had all of her albums uploaded, but had barely spent enough time with them. The urge came upon me to curl up with them immediately and so began several days of non-stop Nadler-maniacal obsessive compulsion which made me seek her out like some lecherous stalker.

Thankfully, writing for this site has cachet and she’s graciously allowed me into her world, although I imagine it shall be fleeting as she is a busy person. Over several days we traded messages, tweets and emails and I share our conversations:

Easy Ed: When you and I first connected, you mentioned that No Depression was a magazine you read back in high school. What were your interests back then? Did you identify at all with the and Americana scene at the time?

Marissa Nadler: Well, I remember really having an affinity for the rootsy Americana scene at the time, probably because it was so different from my own upbringing in New England. I worshipped the west and the freedom it embodied. Part of alt. country and Americana was linked to that wanderlust. My interests back then were my painting career mostly, and music was still a hobby until about age 18. I would just spent my awkward adolescence copying master paintings in my basement and listening to music on the boombox. A lot of this music was prog rock and classic rock. A lot of it was folk and americana. I loved Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams and they really spoke to me. Also, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Elizabeth Cotton. I could go on and on.

EE: I felt you were the breakout artist this year at Couch By Couch West and you certainly captured my heart with your homemade videos. You’ve mentioned that it was a more comfortable setting for you, making and uploading videos, than your previous live SXSW experience. Can you share a little about that?

MN: Ha! Thanks Ed. CXCW was a good alternative to SXSW, at least for me. To answer your question, my career has never been an overnight thing. I am not the kind of artist that some A&R guy would see at SXSW and give a big record deal too. This is mostly because I am and always have been a bit shy, and stage fright really debilitates me at those high pressure events. For the past four or five records and those related SXSW shows, the people around me, whether various managers or various record label lackeys that I was working with at the time, would really put a lot of pressure on me to “kill it.” It was as if not doing these showcases was somehow career suicide. One particular year, I ran off the stage after three songs. I am really particular about my sound, but people always see a chick with a guitar and think they don’t need a soundcheck and also assume you suck. (That and you don’t get sound-checks at festivals). So, I’m fingerpicking on a twelve-string and all you can hear is feedback. I start crying, run off stage. End. Three songs. I must add, however, that this hasn’t happened since and I am doing well at my live performances these days.

EE: You use lots of open tunings when you play guitar, and on your albums it’s augmented by all sorts of other instruments, electronics and sounds. Does that come from your collaborators or is it something you hear in your head early on in the songwriting process and direct during the recording process?

MN: I’m pretty open to what my collaborators, like Carter Tanton, will throw in the mix. Carter, who’s arrangements feature prominently on my new record, has a very delicate ear and a sensibility for melody that I trust. So, I basically just have to work with people who I love and trust that can handle playing delicately and knowing when not to play. Usually, during the actual songwriting, my main focus is the words and the vocal melody, and when I can get a real groove on with the guitar, it’s usually by using an open tuning. I can keep the bass notes droning for a constant atmosphere.

EE: I read an interview where you spoke about going into Guitar Center and being treated like the little girl who plays a pink guitar. It seems to me that anyone able to put out five albums, who has toured throughout the world, created an image of both femininity and strength in equal measure and runs a business indicates quite a bit of ambition and tenacity. How do you view your accomplishments so far and what have been some of the highlights for you?

MN: Well, that is very sweet of you, as well as observant. It is a hard thing to strike a balance between femininity and strength. If you are too strong, a lot of men in the music industry view it as “diva” behavior. If you are too meek, or wear too many dresses, people think you can’t play your guitar. I get both assumptions a lot, no matter how many albums I put out, and notoriously have had difficulty with sound-men throughout my life. I have always had a very definitive idea for what I wanted. Whether is was 7 seconds of long hall reverb on my voice or more treble, I knew what I wanted but the sound-men always seemed to think differently. The obvious choice would have been to hire my own sound technician but I have never been able to afford one. I always felt and still do feel that there is a huge double standard in the music industry. There is an argument to be made that women musicians have to play guitar twice as good and write twice as well to get the same amount of respect that the men do. Also, I find an incredible amount of pressure to “look good.” Video killed the radio star, I guess.

In terms of accomplishments, pretty much I just live day by day. I have to be honest with you that I am one of those workaholics that is never happy with the work I have done and I am constantly striving to be better, even at the risk of complete emotional ruin. But, yeah, I guess if I had to name one single accomplishment, I am pretty proud of overcoming my debilitating shyness and it’s crippling shackles to be able to share my music with the world.

EE: Can you share a little about your new album and what we can expect to hear? You mentioned something to me about a pedal steel guitar.

MN: Well, I would say that Brian McTear, who produced this record, did a great job! There are many intimate moments on the record with just guitar and vocals and there are some big, luscious arrangements. There are three songs with absolutely no reverb, which was a huge thing for me. I always and still do love the way reverb make the voice sound, but on this record I wanted it to really cut deep. I noticed the dryer the vocal, the more emotional the sounds sounded. I used to not be able to listen to my voice without reverb. Now, I can listen to it completely dry. Its so much more intimate. Carter Tanton added an incredible amount of beauty to the record with some of his choices as well.

In other parts of the record, we used Tammy Wynette recordings as a way to place the vocals in the mix. So, in some ways, it’s mixed like a classic Americana record. Nevertheless, it has many atmospheric and dreamy moments. Yes, there are two songs with some real rootsy pedal steel “jamming.” And I have to tell you, I never thought I would hear a groovy jam on one of my own records. I actually can’t even believe I just wrote the words groovy jam.

EE: What was your thought process in deciding to fund it through Kickstarter and handle the sales on your own, going outside of the traditional music business model?

MN: Well, things are changing. Everyone’s got to try something new, whether it’s artists or the labels. Its a lot of work but I’m really enjoying my freedom. I am self-distributing through a mail order system. I put pre-order buttons up on my websites far in advance, knowing I would need to be as organized as possible. I also put up a way for stores to order bulk/wholesale from me. So far, so good! (Click here for her website.) If I get overwhelmed, I may use a distributor down the line but definitely an independent one.

EE: I saw you have posted some west coast tour dates for June…where else are you planning to perform? And is your audience of equal gender and age, or is it tilted one way or another?

MN: I am planning on touring the entire US as well as the rest of the world. My audience is changing. My first and most loyal fans have always been older men who are finger picking and songwriting fanatics and music buffs. I also now have a size-able legion of black metal fans at my shows due to my collaboration with Xasthur’s Malefic. I wish more ladies would come to my shows.

EE: In reading some of your press, people sure throw many different labels or genres on your music, many I’ve never even heard of before. So how do you describe what you do?

MN: First and foremost, I take my songwriting very seriously. That is my main craft. I work very hard on the lyrics, the structures, and the melodies. I also consider myself a guitar player. Labels beyond that to help describe the music to new listeners would be dreamy, atmospheric, sultry, nostalgic, and romantic.

I told Marissa that it was my hope with this profile that I could help expand her audience a little. You know, old guys coming out to the shows are nice and all that, but I’d think a younger, broader audience would be there if they just knew her a little better. With an extensive touring schedule being put together, it shouldn’t be too hard to find her.

Here’s a list of what I call Marissa’s “official” releases, although she is an extremely prolific woman in the recording studio and there’s much more to be found in the way of compilations, live EP’s, the great lo-fi Covers album available only on Etsy, and other gems and one-offs:

Ballads of Living and Dying (2004)

The Saga of Mayflower May (July 2005)

Songs III: Bird On The Water (March 2007)

Little Hells (March 2009)

Marissa Nadler (Coming June 2011)

These links where you can learn more, hear music, watch videos and buy things:!/marissanadler

The photograph at the top of this post is credited to Courtney Brooke Hall, 2011. Copyright.