Marissa Nadler

Marissa Nadler’s retirement goal is to make a soundtrack with David Lynch. At least that’s what she wants to do when she gets “really old.” It’s a pretty realistic goal, because not only is David Lynch heavily into his whole sad-circus-boy musician thing, but Nadler’s music is just the sort of thing that should be playing while Kyle MacLachlan or a lipsticked vixen find themselves in some kind of criminal scenario. And since Nadler’s upcoming LP, July, will be on Sacred Bones, that means the two are now signed to the same label.
July (out February 4) is Nadler’s sixth full-length studio release. She also told me it’s the first time she’s felt like there’s not an ounce of filler on an album she’s made, so you’ll be diving into a whole slew of artist-approved material. I called up Nadler last week to talk about her new album, signing to Sacred Bones and why you shouldn’t describe her music as “ethereal.”


Let’s start off by talking about your new record, July. How do you think it differs from previous releases?
I think the record feels very different. One of the big things is that I worked with new people for this release. I mean, obviously I’m the sole songwriter, but I worked with a new producer for this record, Randall Dunn, and he’s worked with a lot of heavier bands, almost black metal. Doom and drone music. So it was just interesting to have a kind of different sonic power develop under the bed of these songs. My music’s always been a little dark and sad, but the sounds kind of match the words a little bit more now.
Was the darker sound an intentional decision or was it just a result of who you were working with?
I think it’s a natural progression, a little bit of both. I think it would be doing the songs a disservice if I said “This is a dark record,” or “These are dark songs,” because they have universal themes that could relate to lots of people who may like all different kinds of music. I knew going into it, working with this group of people, that there were going to be some changes. Which is good, especially six or seven records in. It’s important to keep changing things, always.
It seems to me like there could be some kind of narrative, or constant thematic element that runs through July. Am I right?
There is. The record is called July because it chronicles the events of my life from one July to the next. I started with a series of events that became the zygote of the album. So it’s very chronological because the way it moves through the album is the way it moved through my life. It’s very personal, it’s first person. It is a narrative. It’s confessional, I guess. I don’t like to use that word. The songs are personal, so it makes sense it would come out as a narrative.
You kind of touched on this earlier when you were talking about the problems with calling your record “dark.” Would you say there’s a particular word or phrase that you think people use too often to describe your sound?
Yeah, maybe haunting. Or ethereal. I think ethereal can come across as weak, I’m not like that. Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve spent the last ten years off and on touring. This is kind of a feminist argument, I get a little bit sick of it. I mean, really? You can be delicate and stuff without being a pussy.
You’re not just some kind of evaporating essence.
Exactly. Years ago at a show in France a guy came up to me and said he thought I would be more ethereal in person and it pissed me off so much. Like, how did you think I was going to get to France? With a tiara on? On a magic carpet? I mean, I was kind of hoping with some of the grittier details on this record that more of my personality would show through. I think when I was younger—I put my first record out ten years ago—so I think when I was younger I wanted to create this mythology to escape this reality I was in. And now I want to write real songs that people can relate to, so things have changed.
So you would say your songs are more grounded in reality now than they had been in the past?
Oh, 100%, yeah. They weren’t founded in any reality really on the first two records. I was preoccupied, I think, with different things. And when you’re younger, you don’t want your reality. I grew up in the suburbs, in a small town in Massachusetts, and I wanted to be a lot of different things when I was 22, but when you’re 32, you’re a fully realized person. There’s a huge difference between the records someone puts out in their twenties versus the records they put out in their thirties.
Definitely. And along that same path of evolution, I know when you were younger you worked a lot in visual art. Is that something you’re still involved with?
I actually teach fine art. I got the job when I was about to stop playing music. I was feeling like, “I can’t tour anymore, I can’t do this.” This record kind of feels like a second shot. A second chance or something like that. I have really good labels behind it now, which I didn’t before. And yeah, I do paint and draw all the time. I feel like the two forms, music and visual art, are closely unified.
What was the last thing you painted?
Well I actually just finished the limited edition vinyl cover for Sacred Bones. It’s a really intricate painting, drawing. I’m really excited because it’s the first time I’ve drawn my own record cover. I think I shied away from it for a long time because it seemed like too much pressure involved in the packaging of the release.
I read in a recent interview, you said that you don’t believe in “style over substance.” Do you think there’s an issue in music today of artists choosing style over substance?
I do. I mean, I don’t know. I have to be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of new music. I mean, some new music, if someone sends it to me, but it seems like there’s just so much hype in the indie music world. Especially new bands that come up real quick without paying their dues and it’s just a world that I try to stay out of. I think that being an artist should be something that is long term. It doesn’t happen quickly. Maybe I feel that way because it never happened quickly for me. Laughs. I definitely worked for it for a long time. And I don’t want people to think of me as just a witchy, ethereal princess. Especially with female musicians, there’s such pressure to look hot and sexy. It’s tough. I just put together an all-female band actually.
Who’s in your band?
It’s this girl Janel Leppin. She’s an amazing cello player, she’s so good it’s crazy. And this girl Nina Violet, she’s a singer/songwriter in her own right, but she plays viola. It’s just fun to not get that traditional backing band, but have this all-female ensemble. I’ve done the drum/bass thing before, and it just didn’t seem appropriate with this album. I needed to recreate my harmonies live ’cause it’s such a big part of this record, and both girls can sing.

So in 2010, you provided vocal for a Xasthur album. What would you say would be the strangest collaboration you’d want to do?
Well, I’m not sure if it’s strange, but what I really wanna do as I get older and older, when I get really old, I wanna do soundtrack work. My dream come true would be to work with Angelo Bagdelementi or David Lynch. Yeah, that would be a dream come true. So I’m holding out.
Well, I did hear that David Lynch is going to redo the ending of Twin Peaks, so maybe.
Maybe. We are on the same label now, which is crazy. The thing with Xaster was fun because I got to do wordless vocals. I didn’t have to deal with certain sounds, and I think that would be fun, to do an ambient record.
Are you excited for your upcoming tour?
Oh my god. I’ll be the first to admit, I have a kind of a mixed relationship with live performances. I have stage fright, it’s been hard in the past, but now it’s not as bad as it used to be. I have a little bit more confidence. But it’s hard. I just want to play well, I want it to sound good. I hope people come to the shows. That’s my goal, and nothing really beyond that.
Do you have any rituals or anything you do to combat your stage fright?
Well, I used to get wasted. Now I don’t. I don’t drink anymore, so I’m stuck with Tetris and coloring books. Or, I have a sketch book, and I try to draw. That relaxes me. Alcohol, you think it’s a good social lubricant, but really it takes so much work, and it took me a long time to realize that. You think it makes things easier, but it doesn’t.
Do you have a favorite track on July?
Maybe Anyone Else. The good news is, with this record, I had to think about that question. And I think this is the first record I’ve made where I really do feel good about each song.
Do you mean that previously there have been tracks you’re not happy with, in hindsight?
I think there aren’t obvious singles on this record. I feel like maybe in the past I’ve had moments on records where I felt like it was filler. I don’t feel like that with this one. Not that I ever intentionally did that, but in retrospect, on each record I probably like half of the songs and don’t like half of them. I’ll probably do that with this one too, because I think artists are their own harshest critics. I sing a lot differently now then I used to. I can’t even listen to my first two albums, because I’m like, “I can’t believe I used to sing like that!” But no one else notices. I’m very self-critical, but I think that’s a good thing. Nobody else is going to tell you the truth.