Dedicated to Women Guitarists and Bassists

“I’m a musician, not a female musician” : An Interview with Marissa Nadler

June 1, 2016
Written by
Laura Braun
Photo by
Ebru Yildiz

Marissa Nadler pulls a black sheet across her body, shielding her eyes with one hand and extending the other palm up in a statuesque pose. The slightest hint of a smile, although barely detected, crawls across her lips.

In striking black and white, Nadler’s cover for her latest release Strangers (Sacred Bones/Bella Union) could easily be confused for one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s portraits of Patti Smith, or even a bewitching scene from a Fleetwood Mac record. Such ideas aren’t news to Nadler, though – she’s heard all of the comparisons before.

“I get compared to Joni Mitchell a lot. I love her and I grew up majorly inspired by her. I started using open tunings because of her. There’s nobody I can recall being compared to that I mind at all, but it’s hard when you’re female and a musician. The reviews always compare you to someone else,” says Nadler.

At this point in her career, it seems that perhaps the comparisons are bit extraneous. Nadler’s latest album is her seventh studio release since 2004, with several more EPs and self-releases sprinkled between. It’s been two years since her last release, July (Sacred Bones/Bella Union), was unveiled to enthusiastic reviews. The release was hailed as powerful, volatile, and downright Lynchian. It was also called “the Best Overlooked Album of 2014” by Spin, a somewhat unfortunate compliment when it comes to sales and a fact which Nadler has always dealt in her career. After being dropped from label Mexican Summer (named for one of Nadler’s own songs), the musician told the Village Voice in 2011, “The problem was I think my records have always been critically well-accepted, but never sold lots of copies.”

It would be hard to know that based solely on Nadler’s social media presence or tour schedule. Online, her fans leave loving praise behind in heaps on each post about the new songs, claiming they’ll wear out the record by week’s end, thanking her for creating the soundtrack to their year, and promising to see her at her international tour stops.

“There’s a fan base and I don’t take that for granted, because there were years without that,” Nadler says of her extensive tour dates.

Her intricate lyrics and poetic guitar playing resonate in a way transforms her social media posts into a Q&A begging for clarification on her lyrics and storylines. The way her fans hang on each line and pour themselves over each word, it’s hard to believe that the bulk of Strangers didn’t just come to her in a dream. Instead, she says, “I treat writing like a day job.”

“I got started writing the record when I got home from touring in July… Wait… It all blends together,” says Nadler, skeptical of her own memory. She checks a calendar, pauses, and more confidently declares, “It was October.”

“I started recording in September 2015 and I started writing it in autumn of the year before. I basically spent a year writing it, but it wasn’t that entire time. I had writer’s block and my tried and true muses had been exhausted,” she says.

“That’s kind of the nature of record labels and their timeline. In the past, I thought ‘It’s time to write another record!’ and I’d wait for a muse to fly through my window. This time I had to sit myself down and just do it.”

The work paid off. Strangers presents Nadler’s richest sound yet without ever straying from the deeply personal storytelling that her fans love so much. With stories of friendships lost and relationships renewed, Strangers is the story of transition, almost a belated coming-of-age account, or maybe just of coming to terms for the recently married musician.

“For a record like July, it was easy to say that it was about a breakup and reconciliation. This has broader themes, so it’s harder to sum up… In some ways, Strangers is my saddest record. It’s bare, so the instrumentals come alive. Even when things are working in the romantic department, I still find myself lonely or depressed sometimes. It’s not a solvable problem… The album is more emotionally complicated. I’m romanticizing romance itself as a cure for my melancholy. This is more realistic in a lot of ways, strangely,” says Nadler

“All the songs touch on the world feeling so large, but so small at the same time. There are a lot of lonely characters. It’s about me and some of my friends. Distance, alienation, solitude —those are the basic themes. There’s not one singular message as its own identity. There are end of the world and apocalyptic themes.”

Strangers’ second track “Katie I Know,” stands out with a distinctive kind of heartache. The delicately soulful intro has an almost 70s feel that sounds like it could have floated right off of Air’s score for The Virgin Suicides or even Heart’s Dreamboat Annie. The lyrics tell the story of friendship outgrown, a disheartening phenomenon that tends to resonate with most women of a certain age.

“It seems like women go through it especially, the end of friendships. When you’re young, friendships with women feel like long love affairs… It’s funny that people don’t really talk about it. The world has gotten smaller for me. My career has gotten bigger, but my world is smaller. My dad always said that I would be lucky if I had two good friends in this world and I finally get that,” says Nadler.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking. I thought it’d last forever. I didn’t see it coming, but people get married and things just really change. The song starts with sad return. It’s very literal. It’s about seeing her childhood home and the pictures hanging on the walls just like they’d always been, but the friendship being different and distant. It’s about hoping for reconciliation and missing somebody. “

Since she began songwriting in her mid-teens, Nadler says that her music has always tended to be on the sadder side. Idolizing the musicians that she describes as “outsiders” like Courtney Love, Mazzy Star, and Pink Floyd, she found the groundwork she needed to build her signature blend of shoegaze gothic folk. Listening to her early work, like 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying, the evolution clear. She’s gone from an acoustic-wielding troubadour to a composer of sumptuous soundscapes (she largely credits learning home recording for her rich harmonies and instrumental lines). Still, she relies on her closest friends and family to keep her work from going over the line, emotionally.

“In terms of actual lyrics, I have an insecurity complex. My brother is a successful novelist and my husband is a writer. I have a few trusted people read my songs as a ‘cheese-o-meter,’ like, ‘are these lyrics making you want to vomit?’ You want to be sentimental, but not cheesy. There’s a fine line. It’s an editing process… When you’re releasing writing and you know it’s going to be scrutinized, it fucks up the process. When I was in art school, I was writing with a typewriter and singing in Spanish and I didn’t think anyone would hear it. I was creating in a vacuum, but you can never get that back. You have to accept that people will tear it apart and then accept it,” says Nadler.

Recently, Nadler joined PRS Guitar’s artist roster alongside Carlos Santana, Dave Navarro, and an impressive list of other guitar heroes. Looking at the list, it’s hard not to notice that Nadler is the only XX chromosomed artist. She’s riffed before on the connotations of labels like “folk” and “ethereal” as weak and unprofessional when applied to women. Her presence alongside prestigious names on the PRS list is one more way she’s evened the playing field.

“Elliot Smith, for instance, was rarely called a folk singer. Same with Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse. You have to hit people over the head to break the genre tag, I’m still a ‘wispy folk singer’ in a lot of reviews… When it comes down to it, it’s like men telling you to ‘smile!’ on the streets. There’s a big double standard and I’m glad that there’s this wave of women who want to talk about gender politics in music. I’m a musician, not a female musician. There’s definitely a movement happening.”

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