Marissa Nadler is a Boston-based musician who “wastes no time in cutting close to the bone on “July,” her latest album and first for her new labels, Sacred Bones (US) and Bella Union (Europe).” Her music is rooted in old-school country and folk but brings in elements of experimental and black metal, which makes for a very different, exciting approach to this kind of music.
I kicked off our interview by asking her about the DIY and small venue shows that she mentioned remembering fondly from her time in Baltimore.
Are there fewer DIY venues in Boston or in the other cities you play?
Definitely, I mean, I don’t play a lot of house shows just because I feel like I like to have a separation for me, I’m kind of a shy person, I’m not the kind of person to stand in the middle of a room with a microphone you know?
Do you get stage fright or ever feel uncomfortable?
Well it’s gotten a lot better, in my early years it was terrible, but now I’ve kind of reached this place where I only get a little nervous and after the first song, its usually totally good. I think it helps that the people coming to the shows know the songs, and they aren’t talking, so there’s not the aspect of trying to win people over, which is there if you’re just starting out and you’re opening for somebody, that’s very difficult I think, especially because subtle music doesn’t immediately go over, it’s more of a slow burn.
That makes perfect sense. I’ve seen you mention that working with Sacred Bones was a nice improvement over the stresses of self-releasing. Do you think you could ever go back to self-releasing?
I hope I don’t have to, honestly. I’m enjoying this record cycle. It’s really nice to have Sacred Bones and also Bella Union on board just because ideally I want to be spending my time making art and music and not getting in front of a computer, posting stuff every single day, because thats a full time job in itself. What record labels do, to do it right, it’s cool, but I don’t know, I’m happy right now
I hear some kinship with the Cocteau Twins (Bella Union is run by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie of that band) so I imagine it’s cool for you to be on Bella Union in that regard.
Yeah, I cant believe it’s even happening, I didn’t tell anybody about either of the labels until the ink was dry because I was so sure that something bad was going to happen, it felt too good to be true and it’s very exciting
I’m glad to see you have that support, I know that I’ve had more trouble setting up interviews with local musicians, so it was nice on my end to have your label making this go smoothly.
Yeah, it seems like it’s a pretty well-oiled thing, also I haven’t played in Baltimore in a while, so I have no idea who’s going to show up, because I have not built up a fan base there. So I’m hoping the label can help with that
We’re going to push out this interview and hopefully that will help a little. It does seem like it’s actually you on your social media, Twitter and Facebook.
Does this help when playing a city you haven’t been to in awhile, being active on social media?
It’s kind of a necessary evil, I think it’s pretty necessary for a musician of my level to be honest. You’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not. I’m not a great person on Twitter, it’s really difficult to do well, but I think it does help to get people to shows, to answer your question.
Yeah I do comedy shows around here and I tweeted that I was listening to your music
Yes I remember, so you’re a comedian?
Yeah I like to think! In addition to singing you’re a teacher right?
The music is definitely the number one priority, I teach fine arts and I really like it, it gets my head away from the music industry a bit and I get to work with other people, the music industry, especially the writing, is kind of a solitary pursuit so it’s nice to get outside of myself.
I’m noticing that a lot with creative people, at least just in my humble stuff, being a performer but also writing for this magazine, or I know musicians who also write or act so I think thats cool – especially with something like teaching which gives you the flexibility to go on tour.
They are very flexible, my tour dates are really ramping, and with teaching I like getting to be someone different that day
Do you think that being a teacher ever informs your songwriting?
No I think they’re pretty separate, I don’t see a parallel there.
So here at the magazine our favorite track is Dead City Emily, is there a story behind the lyrics?
Well I’m sure you’ve heard the story in the lyrics, its pretty self-explanatory I think, the narrative device that I use is a conversation the narrator has with a friend, in order to express whats going on with her life , it’s conversation as song, I think the atmospherics in my music is more what people are responding to than the words.
I actually first came across your music through the Xasthur collaboration, and the metal scene, are there some pitfalls as a singer being associated with that scene or community?
I don’t think so, I think I have more in common with the black metal community than the folk community. If I had to pick a side, and it’s only because I use a lot of reverb, I use effects on my guitar, it’s not like a purist sound. I mean there’s a little bit of both in my music, there’s definitely folk and there’s definitely black metal. I think that association has only helped to broaden my fan base in to dark music, because a lot of people who are just in to folk, my music is too dark for them and there’s no upbeat songs on the record – so I think it’s a good thing.
So with your sort of dark image, and the place your music occupies, are there any upbeat influences that might surprise someone?
My influences are all over the place, I just happen to write kind of down tempo music, I don’t have a major rhythm section in my music
Maybe something upbeat you’ve enjoyed recently?
(laughs) Well the music I’ve been listening to recently would not surprise anybody, I’ve been listening to Locrian, because they’ve asked me to do a collaboration, I’ve been listening to The Dirty Three a lot, I don’t listen to a ton of contemporary pop I have to admit – I like country music a lot, which I think people will be able to hear in my music, not new country, old country.
Sure, I can definitely hear Townes van Zandt in your music
Yeah, I love him, he’s one of my favorite songwriters. I’m really glad that posthumously he’s getting the recognition that he deserved during his lifetime.
It’s cool to hear artists like you carrying that torch. You seem to also carry Leonard Cohen influences?
Oh yeah, I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan.
What’s your favorite Leonard Cohen song?
Oh god, there’s so many, my favorite if I had to, is “It Seems So Long Ago Nancy.” I love “So Long, Marianne,” I could name a million good Leonard Cohen songs, just his lyrics. I do think it’s harder and harder these days to find good lyrics. I think a lot of shit happens, but of course it’s hard to compare people to Leonard Cohen, he was the poet laureate of Canada, he’s like a folk/rock hero. You can’t compare modern day songwriters to him, it like comparing them to Bob Dylan or something
Yeah it’s a little unfair.
I love Bob Dylan too, I think it’s pretty hard to find a contemporary songwriter that wouldn’t list him as an influence.
Are there any lesser known singer-songwriters right now, that you’d like to recommend?
There’s this one singer-songwriter in Providence, Rhode Island that is really amazing, but she’s not on a big label or anything. Her name is Allysen Callery and the album that I really like is called Winter Island, it’s really pretty.
I bought your most recent album July, online. I’m sort of transitioning to personally buying all my music digitally. Do you have any thoughts on digital v. cd v. vinyl?
You’re definitely asking the wrong person there, I’m someone that has like 5 albums on iTunes, I like my music physical, I love vinyl I really do, because it forces you to listen to the whole album as opposed to tracks, also the sound quality is so much better, even if you have an mp3 with a high bitrate – but I understand in terms of having less stuff in your apartment.
And I think that’s it right there – I do have a few records, but most of it’s digital and I really do appreciate the organization of digital – so that’s for yourself – do you have a preference in how people listen to you music?
No I would never be that kind of person who says, “You have to listen to me on vinyl!” I’m just happy if people listen to me at all. I just like the objects, I have a background as a visual artist, so I like looking at records, looking at hot pictures of rockstar guys, I’m a very visual person.
You still do some painting and drawing?
I’m trying to get back in to it seriously, but I’m so crazy busy with touring, it’s really unexpected how well July is doing. I like the record, I’m really proud of it, but now that it’s doing really well -I’m kind of like, “Wow.” And it’s kind of nice because now I can appreciate, I’ve had records in the past do well, but now that I’ve been around the block a few times I can really savor it.