Chosen One: Marissa Nadler
Interview with Marissa Nadler.
“The times you think of speaking
There is nobody near
The times you think of listening
There is nothing to hear
There is nothing to hear”
—Bill Fay, “Narrow Way” (1971)
Words: Craig Carry, Interview: Mark Carry
For well over a decade now, the beloved Boston Massachusetts-based songwriter Marissa Nadler has been quietly amassing a soul-stirring body of work which is both unrivalled amongst her peers while (almost effortlessly) managing to channel the same spirit as earliest U.S. folk musicians from bygone times. Two years on from the mesmerising “July” (an album that “details the events of my life from one July to the next”) there are noticeable points of departure on “Strangers”, Nadler’s seventh full-length album, released via Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones (USA).
Interestingly, “Strangers” finds Nadler’s sonic palette expanding (synths and drumbeats are at times added to Nadler’s voice and guitar). But despite the added instrumentation and more intricate arrangements, a purity forever remains. Beautiful subtleties exist within the sonic tapestries (feint synth passages hinting at harmony or choral works, recalling the likes of Bert Jansch or Townes Van Zandt, L.A. Turnaround or Our Mother The Mountain, for example). Crucially, Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Earth, Black Mountain) remains on production duties. Like kindred souls Tucker Martine or Thomas Bartlett, Dunn’s mystical sleight of hand somehow manages to faithfully preserve the spirit of his subject’s artistry while making the songs an even more heightened experience for the listener in the process. He manages to bring us closer, even – we are less strangers than witnesses – all the while meticulously fine-tuning Nadler’s prized songs, only always for the sake of the song.
While previous works have been explicitly “autobiographical” in nature, lyrically there is a certain sense of the surreal mixed with the personal here. Songs do not seem to occupy clear focal points while their genesis don’t seem to be limited only to lived experience. Imagery such as disintegrating cliffs, towering skyscrapers, darkening woods and deep rivers are offset with characters often feeling at odds with the world they find themselves in (or more accurately find themselves suspended into all of a sudden). There’s a tangible sense of contrasting dichotomies lying at the heart of “Strangers” (between the familiar ad the unfamiliar; safety and danger; darkness and light; life and death) which makes the journey Nadler takes us on all the more real. Tangible. Life-affirming.
While the listener looks to navigate their own way through the dense maze of Nadler’s grippingly challenging and irresistibly cinematic sonic canvas on “Strangers” one finds oneself looking for recognisable points of reference, as if on the search for evidence of the familiar (reassurances, even). The lack of a fixed point of view (and therefore no clearly defined sense of a known space or time) forms the basis to Nadler’s haunting gothic tales here. We find ourselves suddenly suspended inside an already-moving orbit or an already-unfolding story with no known sense of a beginning or ending. The startling effect is akin to experiencing the short stories of George Saunders, Chris Marker’s ‘La Jetée’ or perhaps the still photographs of Paolo Pellegrin.
Like all of Nadler’s previous works, it proves a futile exercise to limit an album’s achievement by merely isolating individual songs. For Nadler has over the last twelve years also attained a true mastery and wide-eyed appreciation to the full potential of the album as an individual piece of work, a living document to her own craft (and life). From the heart-stopping piano-led ballad “Divers of the Dust”, we can immediately feel the impending sense of danger that may be about to unfold: “Divers of the dust / You can help me if you must”. “It’s hard to know / When to let go” sings Nadler in the haunting “Katie I Know” (interestingly, referencing names – whether fictional or otherwise – has often formed the basis for some of Nadler’s most prized songs, take “Dead City Emily” or “Janie In Love” for instance), it seems like a perfect analogy to what a songwriter’s mindset must be: constantly aware of the present tense even as it becomes the past, open to every living experience as it unfolds in the here and now. Whether such gifts can be attributed a blessing or a curse must be oftentimes blurred.
As the world in the songs of “Strangers” begin to disintegrate and dissolve around us, moments of epiphany and realisation abound too. Central characters find themselves at places they formerly called home only to find themselves feeling an unnerving sense of alienation; only seeing the unfamiliar in the familiar. Other moments of realisation occur on “All the Colours of the Dark” when Nadler sings: “This is not your world anymore” across a glorious backdrop of chime-like piano notes and a steady (as if reassuring) drumbeat (recalling the timeless songs of Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse).
Indeed, Nadler’s divine art has always been about losing oneself in a moment only to regain that sense of self (ultimately through the songwriter putting pen to paper) once more. The cycle continues as we continually – and ultimately – find out more about ourselves in the process. One can always find solace and hope in the joy that Marissa Nadler’s timeless songbook brings, for she majestically navigates that narrow way so we don’t have to. And like a silent witness we can quietly navigate that darkness with her. For we are not strangers after all.
“Strangers” is available now on Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones (USA).
Interview with Marissa Nadler.
Congratulations Marissa on your sublime new record, ‘Strangers’. This batch of songs represents your finest work to date; such empowering songs of heartbreak awash in a kaleidoscope of ethereal and otherworldly musical patterns. Please discuss for me the making of ‘Strangers’ and how the (music-making) process changed in any significant way from your previous ‘July’ LP?
Marissa Nadler: Thank you so much for the very kind words. My process is always about the song. You can’t build a house without the foundation. These songs could have gone many different directions sonically, though I knew I wanted the melodies, structures, harmonies, lyrics, instrumental lines to remain the same. I was more open to experimenting this time around with adding drums and creating more dynamics in a purely musical sense.
‘July’ marked your first collaboration with producer Randall Dunn and he remains at the helm for ‘Strangers’. I feel this deep dialogue between you both can be felt throughout the new record’s expansive and adventurous sonic terrain. Can you talk me through the transformation of these songs (from the original demos) as they bloom into their final entities? How do you feel the collaborative process has developed with Randall?
MN: I think Randall has a very good pulse on what my influences are- ranging from girl groups to spaghetti western soundtrack- to shoegaze- to 70s prog rock to classic rock to country balladeers.. I think he’s also into stuff I’m not as familiar with, and working with someone who brings their own unique influences into the mix can result in a unique amalgamation of sounds. He’s also a great friend and has a wonderful circle of talented musicians with him that make working with him even better.
‘Katie I Know’ embodies the rich beauty (forever) inherent in your mesmerising folk tales. Tell me about the characters depicted in ‘Strangers’, Marissa? The layering and sumptuous arrangements of a song such as this leaves a profound impact on the listener. I wonder was this song a significant breakthrough or gateway into the rest of the record?
MN: I don’t think of them as characters (this record or the last few).. They are real people in my life but I guess they’ve become characters now that they are in these songs.
Katie I know is a really personal song. I’m very happy you like the layers. I wasn’t sure what people were going to make of it but at the same time I knew that I was happy with it so…
Please take me back to the recording of ‘Strangers’? One record that comes to mind when reflecting on the immaculate production and highly emotive quality is Julee Cruise’s ‘Floating Into The Night’. ‘Strangers’ encapsulates that ethereal dream-pop realm so masterfully. Would you often have reference points (in terms of records or perhaps poetry, authors, films) when it comes to beginning a new chapter in one’s songbook?
MN: I honestly don’t intentionally go about making any certain genre. Influences just have a way of getting into the brain. I will say that the impetus is not usually books or records.. it’s usually personal relationships and experiences that are catalysts to my songwriting.
The sparse lament ‘Dissolve’ serves the perfect close. Again, the record’s aesthetic quality and dynamic range creates a surreal backdrop to your deeply moving songs of loss and heartbreak. As always, an undying light of hope resides deep in the songs. Can you shed some light on the writing process, Marissa?
MN: Thank you. My writing process is very organic and intuitive. I just led the melody lead me.
What do you feel were the defining records for you Marissa, in terms of leading you towards your songwriting path?
MN: There’s so many it’s truly impossible to list.. but I would say generally that I gravitate towards pure music.. pure voices, pure emotion. It doesn’t matter what genre. My first true music loves were Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Elliott Smith, Townes Van Zandt, Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Pink Floyd, Neil Young. I mean more than anything I truly grew up immersed in those kinds of songwriters.
I would love for you to discuss your earliest musical memories: the first song you wrote, the records in your family home that made a big impression and your life in music to this day?
MN: I have to say that I have very few childhood memories that are more than colors and feelings. It’s very strange but I do not know the first song that I wrote. I remember always loving to sing though.
“Strangers” is available now on Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones (USA).