Chosen One: Marissa Nadler
Interview with Marissa Nadler.
“I like to bottle things up so that there’s a well to drink from.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Earlier this month marked the highly anticipated release of unparalleled U.S. singer songwriter, Marissa Nadler’s latest full-length album, entitled ‘July’. As ever, a special record, steeped in a fragile beauty, is masterfully created by the gifted artist whose deeply affecting songs elicits a spectrum of deepest, rarest emotion. An enriching experience unfolds across the interwoven tapestry of ‘July’ that conveys (yet again) the rarity of this special songwriter. Having released six full-length albums in nearly a decade — in addition to a plethora of home recordings, cover records and collaborative projects — the star of Nadler continues to soar the star-lit skies above us.
Album opener ‘Drive’ serves the perfect opening song as Nadler sings “If you haven’t made it now / You’re never going to make it / Seventeen people in the dark tonight” on the opening verse. An immediacy and directness prevails. The poetic prose combined with pristine instrumentation (majestic harmonies and gorgeous guitar lines) evokes an intimacy and honesty that never ceases to amaze me. The light of hope flickers amidst the void of darkness as the beguiling refrain of “Waiting for the light” forges a lasting imprint on one’s mind. The utterly gorgeous pedal steel line coalesces effortlessly with Nadler’s mesmerising voice towards the closing sections. As the notes slowly fade, a vivid sense of longing comes to the surface, akin to Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ that begins a similarly evocative and life-affirming record, ‘Songs From A Room’, from another space and time.
Joining Nadler on ‘July’ is Eyvind Kang (strings), Steve Moore (synths) and Phil Wandscher (Whiskeytown, Jesse Sykes) on lead guitar. At the helm of production duties is Randall Dunn (Earth, Sunn O))), a first-time collaboration for the pair. ‘1923’ reveals the hypnotic spell unleashed by the tight-knit group as a cinematic backdrop is magnificently formed beneath Nadler’s achingly beautiful lament. Delicate strings are placed alongside Nadler’s gentle acoustic guitar notes on the song’s bewitching intro. The first words sung by Nadler — almost whisper-like — sets the scene of estranged lovers: “1923 he sent a letter and it reached me”. A longing is embedded deep within the words, “I called you from another century / To see if the world had been kind and sweet”. The love-lorn pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and songbook of Red House Painters could form tangible reference points on ‘1923’. A timeless sound is created that is closer to a waltz than a ballad. The chorus refrain of “Baby come back to me” is one of the many truly transcendent moments captured as a Spector-esque wall of sound seeps into the pools of your mind.
‘Firecrackers’ showcases the power and glory of Nadler’s voice. The vocal delivery is a joy to behold, particularly on the rise during the chorus refrain, “Firecrackers / Burn into heaven on the floor”. Wandscher’s pedal steel forms the ideal compliment that reminds me of the close connecting worlds of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter and Nadler’s newfound ensemble. The spirit of americana is journeyed throughout the song’s trajectory as “We have drunk our summers away” is sung on a later verse. A love song — raw and bare — is unfolded before your very eyes: “I saw your face everywhere I looked / You sat across from me / And baby I’m a ghost when you’re away”. The acoustic guitar and voice of Nadler casts a magical spell on “We Are Coming Back”, a reminder of the endless capabilities of the singer-songwriter’s solo performance. One of my favourite lyrics appears on a later verse, “Still I live many miles away / So I can miss you a little everyday”.
The brooding tour-de-force, ‘Dead City Emily’ traverses the darkness of one’s fears, doubts and internal struggle, but it is clearly evident as Nadler sings “Oh I saw the light today / Opened up the door” that the light of hope proves victorious. A loneliness hangs in the air: “I was coming apart those days” hits you hard and deep. A lovely parallel exists between ‘Dead City Emily’ and the cinematic folk oeuvre of Nick Talbot’s Gravenhurst. Some beautiful imagery of “birds flying in the breeze”, and the “colours on the trees” that “change from red to green”. ‘Was It A Dream’ is a gorgeous folk opus that evolves into a reverb-drenched cosmic country gem. The intricate arrangements of strings and guitar creates a symphony-like, celestial sound that awakens your senses and truly heightens all that surrounds you. The beautiful rise, as Nadler sings “Hoping I wake up / Somehow next to you” beneath a crescendo of strings provides one of ‘July’s (many) defining moments and breathtaking epiphanies. Somehow, the song feels like an amalgamation of the most lucid of dreams and the insular world of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’.
‘I’ve Got Your Name’ is a stunning piano-based, soulful ballad. An ethereal dimension is tapped into here — bringing to mind the likes of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell — as a road trip (from New York to home of Massachusetts) becomes the focal point. The second verse could easily be a lost verse to Mitchell’s ‘River’: “Riding back to Massachusetts / Couldn’t even see / From snow the road was studded with Christmas trees”. An illuminating spell is cast upon the refrain of “I saw fire then” as the flow of words turn to embers of a burning flame. ‘Desire’ is a glorious tower of songwriting and reveals (perhaps) the most compelling songs of ‘July’. It is how Nadler is capable of translating music and words into such affecting, vast seas of emotion. Desire is painted so strikingly clear on the song’s sprawling canvas of sound, particularly on the chorus as Nadler sings, “I could fall for you / You had eyes for me”. The songbook of Leonard Cohen comes to mind as Nadler’s sheer poetry evokes a heart that is laid bare: “You’ve got no lines on your face / Mine are mapping out the spots where we lay”.
Similar to ‘I’ve Got Your Name’, a heavenly piano-led ballad brings ‘July’ to a fitting close. ‘Nothing In My Heart’ brings to mind luminaries such as Sharon Van Etten and Nina Simone. As the lyrics of ‘Drive’ return to my mind, “Still remember all the words to every song you ever heard”, I feel those very words reflect the empowering feeling in which the cherished songbook of Marissa Nadler ceaselessly awakens.
Interview with Marissa Nadler.
Congratulations, Marissa, on your truly stunning new record, ‘July’. Words fail to begin to describe the sheer beauty and profound impact this record has had on me these past few weeks. You must feel deeply proud of your latest album, it really feels a culmination. Before the recording sessions ever took place, can you recount for me the space and time these songs were written, Marissa?
MN: Thank you for your kindness. I feel really good about the album…I mean as much as there are always little bits of things here and there that you could record over and over and over again. Nevertheless, once you release something like an album into the world, you just have to let it fly away. Part of the art making process is learning how to let go.
I wrote the songs last year in a very concentrated period of time. I didn’t write for a long time and then I sat down and wrote about 20 songs (9 of which got cut) for the album in a few months. I like to bottle things up so that there’s a well to drink from.
I would love to gain an insight into your song-writing process. As with all your formidable records, your beautiful prose and poetic words evokes a lifetime of emotions and memories, both old and new. For example, I would love to discover the significance of the album-title of ‘July’?
MN: Well, the album details the events of my life from one July to the next. Randall actually was the one who named it because I was struggling. I had no idea what to name it. We recorded the album in July so he suggested it and I loved the idea. I like simple, one-word titles. They are bold. Obviously, this is not a summer record. There is nothing summery about it.
The album was recorded in Seattle’s Avast Studio, working for the first time with producer Randall Dunn (Earth, SunnO))). Also, there is a wonderful cast of gifted musicians present on these sessions, forming the ideal sonic backdrop to your deeply affecting songs. I would love for you to please reminisce on the recording sessions for ‘July’? What were your main concerns and aims from the outset and what were the typical day-to-day routines like? I can imagine it must have been a special experience.
MN: You know, I had written all of the vocal layers beforehand as parts of the actual songs. So, the first few days in the studio I was alone with Randall at the board, tracking the guitar and vocals. Then we brought everyone else in!
Honestly, I really loved working at Avast! And I am looking forward to going back there for my next project.
The album opener ‘Drive’ is a masterpiece. It’s a fitting opening to a truly captivating journey you take the listener on. The gorgeous layers of ethereal harmonies and tapestry of acoustic guitar notes conjures up the timeless sound of Jackson C. Frank, Sibylle Baier and so on. Your mesmerising vocals are wonderfully melted beneath the mix of divine cinematic sounds and textures. Can you talk me through the construction of this song please? There are certain lyrics here that resonate powerfully for the album as a whole, I feel. “Waiting for the light” — a sense of searching is interwoven throughout the record’s divine fabric — could serve the prologue to ‘July’.
MN: Thank you. I think that ‘Drive’ is lyrically very autobiographical. It’s all in the lyrics, in terms of what the song is about. There’s a sadness and frustration I express during the song, but also hopefulness.
‘Dead City Emily’ is a joy to behold. You sing “Colours on the trees / Change from red to green / It’s a dead city Emily” on the opening verse that always hits me deeply. It’s the immaculate instrumentation and production of the song, and how it evolves into full-bloom towards the closing sections. Did ‘Dead City Emily’ originate as a solo acoustic demo, Marissa? Again, the theme of light and hope/survival comes to the fore as the lyric of “I saw the light today” diffuse into the mix. This is (yet another) pinnacle of the album.
MN: All of the songs originated as solo acoustic demos…though there really isn’t much else on that track. I mean there is Steve Moore on synth and me on 12 string…maybe some bass from Jonas.
This song is about the contrast between depression and hopefulness as told to a friend.
I love the placing of the sparse piano ballads, ‘I’ve Got Your Name’ and closer ‘Nothing In My Heart’ in part B of ‘July’. A hidden dimension is tapped into here, giving the album a heightened sense of other-worldly oblivion. I would love for you to talk me through both these songs. The immense power these songs conjure up is nothing short of staggering, where the cosmic spirit of Judee Sill beautifully drifts in the air’s atmosphere.
MN: I really enjoyed writing both of the songs, especially stacking my vocals and creating those weird harmonies. ‘I’ve Got Your Name’ is definitely about someone who did me wrong. Oh dear.
You have a rich body of work already behind you, ranging from 4-track recordings and covers albums to immense full-length releases and a plethora of collaborations. Now with ‘July’ added as the latest chapter to your cherished songbook, I would love to gain an insight into the narrative that connects these works that ties the delicately beautiful works of yours together? I’m always amazed just how prolific you are: music ceaselessly flows from your heart and mind. A new release of yours is always a unique work of divine art.
MN: I have been pretty busy in the last decade or so. I enjoy singing and writing songs and sometimes I just don’t come up for air. It’s what I do. There’s really no narrative thread other than the fact that I’m writing about my own life and the people in it, like most songwriters do.
You will soon embark on a U.S. and European tour. How much of an inspiration does traveling and seeing different cities and countries have on the inception of a new song? You must be looking forward to these upcoming shows. Will you be joined by your trusted ensemble or will they be solo shows?
MN: I have a new band with Janel Leppin on cello/synth/vox and Nina Violet on viola/lapsteel/vox. I’m excited but also a bit nervous. I just hope that my energy stays steady and I can stay healthy on the road. To be honest, I write most of my songs when I’m at home. When I’m traveling there isn’t enough time to really take in a city. One of these days, I hope to actually go on a vacation and really see some sights.
Lastly, I would love to know what records you’ve been listening to most these past few months?
MN: Locrian, The Dirty Three, Catherine Ribeiro and The Alpes…
‘July’ is available now on Sacred Bones Records (USA) and Bella Union (EU).