We talk with Marissa Nadler

human braiding hairRecently, I caught up with Marissa Nadler in Williamsburg, to talk about many things related to music, as well as her latest album, July. Nadler’s vocals are, at once, spooky and serene. Onstage these days, she is joined by backup vocalists and instrumentalists. I caught her nearly sold-out show at Glasslands recently, with a crowd so quiet one wouldn’t have guessed how many people were actually there. It’s great to see Nadler finally get the credit and attention her music deserves. Here, I get to discuss all this and more.

How do you feel at this point in your musical career?

It feels nice to have the support from my labels Sacred Bones (U.S.) and now Bella Union (U.K.). It’s really redeeming at this point in my career. I feel almost like I’ve been given a second chance, and I have some momentum again. I played so many years in a row to like 10-15 people. I paid my dues. It feels nice to be playing to bigger crowds now. Hopefully people will keep coming back.

How is your current album different from previous ones?

Sonically, the addition of the choir-like vocal arrangements is something I’ve never done before. Janelle and Nina do the vocals onstage, but on the record, I sing all of the different layers. I did them all before going into the studio.

I think this album shows a steady progression. I feel proud of all of my albums and I just see this one as a continuation of a long stream of albums, a body of work. It’s a narrative of my life. I think I feel especially good about this record. My vocals have gotten more natural. When I first started, I didn’t really know how to sing. I was singing in a lot of falsetto. It took me a long time to realize that my normal voice is a little lower, more sultry. It has more of a mezzo vibe.

You’re releasing an album called July during one of our coldest winters to date. Is there any connection?

I wasn’t really thinking about seasons when I created the title. It’s more of a poetic device to me. The record kind of details what happened from one July to the next – the whole year’s events. It culminated with a recording of the record in July. I didn’t know what else to name it honestly. I like one-worded names for things. I think that’s kind of evocative. Maybe I’ll make an album called December and release it in the summer…

Outside of your career as a musician, you also teach music and art. How does this impact your life and career as a musician?

I teach therapeutic day school at a high school for three days a week. It’s pretty flexible. They know what I do in my real life. I got the job to get away from music a little bit, actually, while I was writing the record. I teach music, art, and recording. It’s really been a life-changing experience for me. I’ve had some really personal successes with students. The students come from troubled backgrounds. One of my students didn’t know he was talented when he started working with me. He just recently got into art school! I never imagined helping to change someone’s life like that. Being an artist, your world is a tiny bubble. In order to write a book, a novel, an album, you have to isolate yourself. It’s nice to be working with other people.

As a shy performer, how does this impact your stage performance?

I’m never going to be Judy Garland or a ham up there on the stage. I don’t think people come to my shows and expect to be entertained in the traditional sense of the word. I used to drink heavily before I played, and that actually caused a lot of problems in my career and got in the way of things happening sooner for me. I don’t drink anymore, which is really good. Now I just try to take care of myself and do nice stuff before shows. I try to eat healthy. I still get really nervous at shows, but I’ve gotten a lot better.

What is one of your favorite songs of all time?

I have so many. The first one that comes to mind is a super depressing song. It’s a Leonard Cohen song, “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” I could go on and on for hours and hours about listing favorite songs. I really grew up with classic songwriters, my bread and butter. I honestly don’t listen to modern music, unless it’s like my friend’s band or a few exceptions – Cat Power, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, and some of those contemporaries. I can’t keep up with those new hipster bands coming out every five seconds. I have a satellite radio in my car cause I drive a lot, and I always think to myself, “Who are these bands?”

Who did the artwork on your new album?

Derrick Belcham did the artwork. He also directed my “Wedding” video and the “Dead City Emily” video. We were doing press photos, and I ended up using a different person’s press photos for this cycle, but I loved that picture on the album. I liked the stark simplicity of it. It’s very confrontational. I’m really happy with this cover’s artwork. For the limited edition, I did the design – the drawing for Sacred Bones cover.

What’s it like playing in New York?

I absolutely love playing NY. Everyone there has always been so so so supportive of my music that it truly feels like a second home to me. That being said, it’s almost easier to play in anonymous cities where I can stay backstage, play the show, and have no interaction. There, it’s like a job rather than a social interaction. Social stuff is really hard for me. It’s really nice to have the band, though

What sort of vibe do you think your songs give off? What is the best and worst descriptions of your music that you’ve ever heard?

I think my songs stand on their own. I try not to pigeonhole myself with genres or tags or vibes. But, obviously, it’s a dark and heavy vibe. The best description of my music that I’ve read is from a hilarious website called Jarred and Petey. They write from a comical point of view and dig the black metal scene but also stuff that isn’t quite that way (as I’m obviously not Black metal). Here we go!

“Its no secret that your song is VERY sweet sad music about amerrica and all the indians, but what about when it’s the scarey rock men who look like hollaween and scream at gramma lucy????????? ” Were you in sun o???????? Thats a BAD band mrs nailer!!!!” Mrs. nadler wrote a story book in a long bautiful dress with a quill pen while me and petey were doing our scient test which she made way too hard and its about a very bautiful indian who had a crush on a pilgrim with a buckle hat at recess.

I’m really just so glade you made this dreamy cool floating song for when i can’t go night night because xas thur scares me with his light saber and tries to ruin the pilgim parade”

It’s seriously Laugh Out Loud funny shit. I love them so much. I really hate when music journalists just compare female songwriters to each other, almost in a way to make a competition. It’s a pet peeve of mine and I think it’s the best to have power in numbers.

What’s in store for you musically for 2014?

Lots and lots of touring and festivals. Once that dies down, I want to do an artist residency in a warm weather climate to write some new material. I have a split 7″ coming out with a band I’m excited about… lots of stuff.

Where would you love to perform your music?

I like dingy rock clubs with grafitti on the bathroom stalls. I also like old churches.

Catch Marissa Nadler at Baby’s All Right on Wednesday, March 19th, with Mt. Royal, Ballet School, PINS, and Simon Raymonde.

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About Christine Thelen

Christine is a music writer, photographer, and English teacher living in New York. She's been writing for Short and Sweet since 2008 but writing about music since 1999. She loves photographing and interviewing bands most of all. Notable interviews include Underworld (England), Supergrass (England), Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (Wales), Hefner (England), Zero 7 (England), Nylon Union (Slovakia), Clinic (England), Hundreds (Germany), Nive Nielsen (Greenland), Alcoholic Faith Mission (Denmark), Captain Fufanu (Iceland), and the Postelles (NYC). Watch her on the ShortandSweetNYC Youtube Channel.
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