Marissa Nadler On Her Most-Streamed Song And Life On The Road

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A Marissa Nadler song sounds like nothing else. You could describe her voice as ethereal or otherworldly, but that wouldn’t fully capture its supernatural, siren-like quality, or the mesmerizing power of her finger-picked guitar melodies. Over the course of seven albums, Nadler has excavated pain and heartbreak both indirectly and head-on, but always with a careful and exact scalpel.

On September 28, the Boston-based Nadler will release her eighth studio album, For My Crimes. Recorded with producers Lawrence Rothman and Justin Raisen at Rothman’s Laurel Canyon studio, House of Lux, the album boasts an impressive array of collaborators, including Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, harpist Kristin Kontrol, and drummer Patty Schemel of Hole. Nadler is also a Rhode Island School of Design-trained visual artist, and this is the first time she’s releasing music with one of her own paintings as the album art. She calls For My Crimes her “Laurel Canyon album”, and says that Neil Young was particularly present in her mind during the recording process.

When I call Nadler, she’s in Los Angeles, visiting friends, practicing for her upcoming U.S. and European tours, and recording some new material. For My Crimes is out September 28 on Sacred Bones Records.

I hear you’re a cat lover!

[Laughs] Yes! I have Twila, who is a tortoiseshell cat, she’s 13 years old, and she’s very cute. They’re known for tortitude, which is their own little attitude. I also have another cat in my life; my mother has a cat named Samantha, she’s a black cat and she’s really, really cute and mean. I’m definitely more of a cat lover, I didn’t really grow up with dogs, so I think cats are really cute.

I’ve been listening to the new album, and I think it’s incredible. I’ve really been enjoying it a lot.

Thank you so much, that’s really sweet.

I’ve loved your music for a long time, so I was so thrilled that this new album is just as strong, if not stronger, than your last few, I would say.

Thanks. I feel good about it, songwriting-wise, for sure. I’m excited, I hope that’s the consensus, you never know.

I read that you made a few paintings channelling specific tracks on this album, and that this is the first time that any of your visual art has been on one of your album covers, which I thought was really interesting.

That’s true. I had stopped oil painting for many years, because I was really having a hard time balancing the two, fine art and music. It always seemed to swing from one to the other. I just got back into it. I was doing a lot of art teaching, and one of my students, an old lady, in her mid-90’s, kind of made me realize that I wanted to keep painting, and start again.

That’s amazing. What was it about your relationship with her that made you realize that you wanted to keep pursuing art?

Well, she said to me, “I’ve been looking at the world really differently since I met you, and seeing colors again.” It was just really inspiring to kind of slow down. I’ve definitely kept my feet in the water, or toes in the water, whatever the expression is, in terms of making art. I was using that to make animated videos and photographs and drawings, but hadn’t really painted, painted. I really missed the liquid, viscous feeling of it, and it’s kind of physical. So I was painting a lot of memory landscapes of all the beautiful places I’ve seen all these years of travelling, feeling, like, not tethered to painting face portraits anymore. So, there’s one [painting] for “Blue Vapor”, and I tried to name all the new paintings after different songs—there’s this exploding body painting that’s for “Interlocking,” and “For My Crimes,” there’s kind of an exploding head. I get bored easily, so I kind of like to have something fun happening in the painting.

How are you going to be sharing those paintings?

I actually had started to put the paintings on my website for sale, and I sold them all, actually, which is really encouraging, because who would have ever thought you could make money selling art? [laughs] It was my first love, it was what I went to school for, and so it’s been cool to see that fans of my music are kind of interested in that side of me. So I took pictures of them, and I’m going to make prints, so maybe I’ll make a postcard set or something. I’m inspired to make more, I might do a residency or something, try to focus on a series of paintings. When I’m done with this, there’s going to be a few years of touring, I think, on this record. So I’m going to do watercolors.

Speaking of tour, it seems like a lot of artists have a difficult relationship with touring. Do you have any anxieties about your upcoming tours?

Yeah, I think all this uncertainty in my music career, or whatever, or anybody’s music career—I guess I try to live in the moment as much as possible on the tours. The stage fright’s pretty much gone, and most of the people coming to the shows are really, truly fans at this point, or know my music and know that I’m not some great—I’m not, like, known for performance antics or a stage show, it’s just the songs and a simple presentation. So I feel like I’m fighting against less obstacles now, but it is hard. It’s hard to be in two places at once, so when you go on tour it’s hard to stay in touch with people in your life at home, and there’s a lot of consequences that come with having to travel for a living.

“It’s Hard to be in two places at once…There’s a lot of consequences that come with having to travel for a living.”

I’m kind of an introvert, so being around a lot of people all the time can be hard on the energy level. So, that’s why these tours are kind of short, but there will be a bunch of them. But I think I’m just one of those people that needs the recharge time, and it’s hard to live out of a suitcase after so many years. But at least they’re slightly nicer hotels now—not too many floors anymore, but I certainly paid my dues. [laughs] You know, little things—your body changes as you get older. Driving for eight hours can be tough.

I read that while you were on tour for [2016’s] Strangers, you wrote a lot of songs—three times as many as you needed for your next album.

Yes, when the tour ended to recording [Strangers], I think I wrote a lot of songs.

How many songs do you write that never really see the light of day?

A lot. It’s weird, because I am so introverted—sometimes it’s hard to know which ones are good and which ones aren’t. Some of the best songs get left off records. Like “Leave the Light On,” for instance, I wrote during the July sessions, and it didn’t ever get put on the record because the recording in the studio didn’t sound that good. That was a demo, and it became streamed more than any of my actual recordings.


I try to keep the demos organized and try not to throw away any ideas. I have these folders called “Fragments”—they’re incomplete melodies, melody ideas—I just put them in a folder, and then my finished demos go in a folder. I try to erase the really bad ones so that they don’t get discovered.

While we’re talking about songwriting—this is your eighth album, and you’ve had a pretty long and prolific career at this point. How has your songwriting process evolved? Is it different now?

Yeah, I mean—I think that I’ve had some intel on what moods I’m in create the best songs, and I’ve come to realize that my best records are the ones that I needed to make, not felt like I had to make, but being on a record cycle or having labels—sometimes it just feels like it’s time to make a record. I think with July and this new record, For My Crimes, [were] two kind of pinnacle moments in my personal life, where songwriting had the medicinal balm that kind of helped me to process things. So I think my best songs are ones where I’m really feeling them, I guess. I certainly don’t want to romanticize having—romanticize—you know, I don’t know what I’m trying to say so I’ll cut that sentence short. [laughs]

Romanticize depression, in a way, or romanticize sadness? Is that what you mean?

Or breakups, or melancholy, or heartache. I am all for happiness, it’s just when I’m happy, I’m not as prone to want to write a song. That’s all. I have just as many happy moments as sad ones, I think, it’s just that for whatever reason, I’ve always been musically attracted to slow and beautiful melodies, and kind of, like, the human emotions of longing. I don’t know, they just kind of blend together in a very natural way.

You’ve really made it into an art form, I would say.

Aw, that’s sweet. Well, you know, it’s like—I guess, there’s a lot of time in a life, and I guess if I call myself a songwriter or if I call myself a painter, I just want to make sure I’m doing those things all the time. Something about—I have kind of a crazy work ethic, I try and work on relaxing. You have to experience life to write songs, and step away from work and live a little.

“You have to experience life to write songs, and step away from work and live a little.”

You need things to write about, absolutely. So, the way that place shapes an artist’s work is always really interesting to me, and I know you’re based in Boston, but I was interested in your choice to record this album in Laurel Canyon.

In terms of living in Massachusetts, I think the seasons have been really instrumental for me in shaping my aesthetic and how I measure the passing of time by the changing foliage and landscape that’s so mercurial in the northeast. I did choose to record somewhere else with new people in a new place because I just wanted to inject some newness and new energy into the material. I wanted to have a stripped-down record because I was writing those kinds of songs, I kind of wanted to do a little bit of an opposite approach than my last one, just for fun. I heard Angel Olsen’s last record and really liked the way her voice sounded on it. She’s a friend, and I looked at who produced it, and just one thing led to another, and they were excited. I took a look at the studio, it’s in a house, it’s really beautiful, surrounded by all this history—some of my favorite songwriters. So it is kind of my Laurel Canyon record, the production being a little bit of a nod to the influences.

I think that really comes across. “Blue Vapor”, in particular, is such a—you know, I wouldn’t normally use this word to describe your songs, but it’s a banger, almost!

Mmhm, a slow banger. I love that kind of—I love to rock out. Maybe the next record will sound all like that, you never know.

What made you decide to give it that heavier sound, incorporating drums and electric guitars in ways that sound new for your music?

Even in the demo process it was a very electric song; there were no drums in the demo, but it was one of those songs that kind of came out with a lot of energy; I wrote it in a mood. Sometimes songs come really fast, and that was just one of those. I didn’t really think about what it meant, or what kind of story I was trying to get across, the melodies just sort of came out, and I quickly demo-d it and put electric guitars on it.

I was kind of thinking about Neil Young a lot, just his strumming. I’m kind of a shitty strummer, I’m a good finger-picker, but I’m a lefty and I play righty guitar, so strumming’s always been counter-intuitive for my right hand, for whatever reason. But I was kind of trying to channel that Neil Young-y vibe. The demo has these kind of Cortez the Killer-esque riffs, but then the guys heard it and suggested Patty Schemel from Hole for drums and that was fairly surreal for me, having been a huge Hole fan. She was nice, and everybody that worked on the song was nice. Kristin Kontrol was nice, I love her music, and the harmony that went on that song was something that I would never do, like, it’s not a note I would have gone to, and it really changed the song for the better and made it cooler. Kind of a fun collaboration of new people.

Yeah, there are a lot of collaborators on this album—Angel Olsen is on a track, Sharon Van Etten is on another one—

Yeah, I love both of them. You know, I wrote a lot of the harmonies ahead of time, and it just seemed like a time that everybody was in the same place. Sharon was in L.A. and wanted to check out the studio and hang out, and it was just a bunch of good coincidences of Angel wanting to sing, and knowing Justin and Lawrence. I had worked with Janel [Leppin] before, and she’s such a great string player, I had her add the cello when I got home, back to Boston, and had some time with the track. So it all came together nicely. I played a lot of the instruments, I played quite a bit of new stuff—I did all the electric guitar and some of the bass. It was organic.

This is such a raw and personal album, and so I have to ask, are you in a relationship right now?

Yes. But I guess I don’t want to get into—I know, it’s so hard not to, writing about this record, but it’s partially because the timing is bad. I’m kind of still figuring things out, and so it’s too soon to talk about it in any public way. Although, you know, what’s in songs can be interpreted a zillion ways. I sometimes like to leave things a mystery. At some point, I always wonder how much to share, how much to let the art stand by itself.

Katherine Flynn