As delicate and melancholic as her music is, Marissa Nadler has always brought something quite unique into her songwriting throughout the years. Strangers is her eighth album and we witness a deeper and more tenacious effort. Marissa shared her thoughts about what pushes her as a musician and what Strangers is all about.
It’s been 12 years since you released your wonderful debut album, Ballads Of Living And Dying. What goes into crafting your sound, even as it is evolving, after all these years?
I’ve always had a really big interest in creating atmosphere in my music, but also maintain my interest over the course of seven albums. I just really try to highlight the best songs that I can and it’s kind of simple in that way that I’m just really interested in turning my personal life or my muses and inspirations into songs. That’s the way to kind of transpassing the day to day.
What keeps you pushing your creativity and music skills?
I’m just one of those people that if I’m not making something I don’t really feel good… It’s just part of me to be creating every day, either art or music. I think it’s just how my life works.
On a daily basis, what artists or bands are on your record player?
I love Grouper, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Chelsea Wolfe… But then also I listen mostly to old music to be honest, like those are some modern contemporaries that I really love, but I’m mostly drawn to instrumental music like The Dirty Three and just some old songwriters.
Before we talk about your new album, I want to mention two collaborations that you were involved with. First one is on J.R. Robinson’s Wrekmeister Harmonies excellent record, which you sing on the title track “Night of Your Ascension.” How did this collaboration come to be?
We worked with some of the same people here and so we actually share a bunch of people. I just asked to do it and I saw that Mary Lattimore was playing on the record as well. She’s a harpist and a friend of mine. She was one of the musicians that I knew and I said “Sure, I’ll give a try.” I really like to do collaborations that are slightly outside of my comfort zone. I’ve been doing it for a few years and it’s fun for me to work without words, because that’s just kind of layer vocals and harmonies, but it’s really relaxing and meditated to do that kind of work. That band is actually going to be opening for me and also being my backing band. [laughs] It’s going to be interesting.
The second collaboration is on Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt’s new solo album, Fever Dream, which you provided vocals for the track “New Year of Grace” and is such a beautiful song. How did you two get in touch for this collab?
Ben just basically wrote me a direct message on Twitter and then the guy that runs the record label, Simon Raymonde from Bella Union, he was just like “Do it!” and I really trust Simon. He said “You should check this project out. If you can make it happen when you’re in London, you should do it.” I really liked the song and it was kind of a natural fit for me. Ben was really nice, he picked me up in my hotel in his car. It was like a few hours, but he’s really a nice guy. It’s a really delicate song.
Strangers feels a much darker and immersive album and it feels like you explore deeper the dark side of things, but with a glimpse of light in it. What was your mindset going for this album?
I was definitely trying to make something different than the album before [2014’s July] because I was really proud of July and it kind of felt like it closed a chapter on this type of songwriting for me that was more about revolving around a heartbreak or a breakup or romance. I tried to challenge myself to bring in my talent in terms of what are my songs about, but also sonically to include more rhythm sections. This is kind of the first record where I wrote with a band in mind thinking like “I’m going to put drums on this song.” It was kind of tortuous to try sometimes to write when you haven’t listened to any records in some ways because it’s like I had 50 songs that I put in a folder that weren’t good enough. I feel good about it, I’m proud of myself just for pushing down some walls.
“I tried to challenge myself to bring in my talent in terms of what are my songs about, but also sonically to include more rhythm sections.”
You said that while writing this album you had a band in mind and you worked with a group of Seattle musicians including bassist Jonas Haskins, Eyvind Kang, Jay Kardong and Steve Moore, which worked with on your album July as well. How was it like this time around? Did they have any input on the writing?
No input on the writing. I wrote most of the instrumental line. It was mostly like a demo in the form of a synthesiser or something like that. I wrote a lot of the melodies and it’s something kind of new for me because I used to just think about words, the vocal melody and the guitar, and since I started to record myself more at home, I’m able to kind of create kind of layers and then when I go to real studio I know what I want, but the musicians that Randall Dunn works with in Seattle are so wonderful. That’s part of the reason that I go all the way there and I live in Boston, because here I’m kind of a loner and he has a way of collecting really nice and wonderful people that are great listeners and don’t play too much. It’s kind of subtle.
Was it stressful for you to write every part of the record by yourself?
It was fun! Just to clarify, there are definitely some parts of the record that were improvised in the studio for sure, like guitar parts and there’s a lot of parts that came together in the studio, but I think the most stressful thing was mostly the writing of the songs. In some ways I think it was mostly just the people really liked July and it put me back on the map in some ways after kind of a period of a lonely career, so I felt a little pressure on making something better. It isn’t always easy because you can’t just force creativity, but also you kind of can in some ways because I believe in the power of the hard work. [laughs]
On the title-track “Strangers” you sing: “I am a stranger now… I am alone now/Bring in the dark”. What can you tell me more about this song and its meaning?
At first I kind of started to write a lot of songs that have these apocalyptic themes to them and it just comes out of nowhere, well, not really nowhere… There’s a lot of fucked up shit going on in the world and I watch the news. I think once I stopped writing about heartbreak, I kind of realized “Oh gosh, there’s a lot of stuff outside of that.” The record is not really a concept record because I feel that every song can stand on its own, but there are these themes that are tied together and the idea was that I was having a dream about the end of the world. Songs like “Nothing Feels The Same” I’m kind of waking up in this dream world, looking around and nothing is there, or “Divers Of The Dust” or “Strangers”… A lot of the songs they kind of plan to this feeling of the calm after the end of the world and then “Waking” is this really short song on the second side of the record where you’re kind of waking up from the dream. When I was about to get married, Randall actually said to me that he thought that the songs were having like a double meaning where I was really more writing about my own world [laughs] and I was like “Whatever, I don’t know about that…” I got a little mad at him, but I think there’s a little truth to that, just about this drastic change in my life, I guess.
Does being married inspired you in any way on your music?
Not really. [laughs] I mean, it’s really the same as it always was. I hate to say it only because it’s a so long relationship… It’s nice to have that, although it doesn’t feel different just because it’s not an overnight kind of thing.
Like you said, there’s definitely a lot of fucked up shit going on in the world, so that was a big influence on you for this record.
Yeah, I guess you just don’t have to look very far outside of the daily news headlines for inspiration. The world has always been a tumultuous place I think. There’s always unsettling things, it’s kind of interesting to think about and what we take for granted and the stability.
“I feel that every song can stand on its own, but there are these themes that are tied together and the idea was that I was having a dream about the end of the world.”
You directed and animated a haunting video for the song “All the Colors of the Dark”. What was the concept behind this video and how was the process to make it happen?
It was really fun. I’ve been wanting to get into film work for a long time. I went to art school for painting and drawing, I’ve always been a visual artist and I’ve never really kind of combined the two in a public setting. I put a lot of pressure on myself to kind of make sure this wasn’t like a shit video. The process was very long and laborious because the cremation takes a long time to make the move, like each 15 seconds which takes like 100 pictures. It’s like you move a tiny thing a you take a picture, but it was fun. It really was and I taught myself on how to use cremation to do it. I would love to make more and I kind of feel like I could get better at it. It kind of clicked for me like “Oh, I wish I was doing this all along.” [laughs]
Your photography work has always fascinated me and how it easily connects with your music. Is there any other song off this record that you want to do something similar?
Yeah! I want to make a few more, I’m working on a video right now for one of the songs, but in terms of the animation I would like to animate “Divers Of The Dust” and “Waking” mostly because they’re both really short songs and you have to kind of pick the short songs when you’re working in animation because it takes forever. I kind of want to do like an underwater thing for “Divers Of The Dust”, but I’m about to leave on tour. I’m just gonna think of ways that I could bring when I’m bored like backstage, maybe I should bring some clay and tripod with me to start making stuff while I’m on the road. The thing is you just have to kind of control the setting in the background, but it could be kind of cool.
You worked once again with Randall Dunn (Black Mountain, Earth, Sunn O))), Wolves In The Throne Room) in Seattle. You two first teamed up on July and the result was amazing. How was it like to work with him at this stage of relationship that you both share with each other?
The first record it was the first time and I would say that with this record was even better working with him, just because I knew him more and it was more trusting. It’s kind of hard to give your babies to someone. I mean, the songs were so personal to me and so private that it can be difficult sometimes to kind of open them up for collaborations, but I just think we have a very similar aesthetic. He’s really a master at a lot of atmosphere. It works well, I like working with him and he’s a sweetheart actually. [laughs] We became huge friends now and I think we would probably do a more recording this summer, I have to write more songs first. [laughs]
Do you still prefer recording music more than playing it live?
I don’t know exactly… I would have to answer to that question in about a month [laughs] It’s been a while since I performed live and now I’m about to start an epically long series of tour. And yes, I love recording, and if I had my choice, it would probably be at home making horror movie soundtracks for a living, but at the same time there’s something really special about performing. You can see people really connecting with your artwork and you can see that live. It’s a very special feeling. The only thing that I don’t like is just dealing with my own nerves for the first few songs, but once I’m warmed up I’m fine. Now that I’m older, I think I’m better at self-techniques, self-talk and self-care where I can tell myself “Look at these people. They want to see you.” This is battering kind of self-esteem issues that even no matter how many years have passed, it’s always like “Can I do this? Am I going implode on stage?” although I think I’m mostly better, I had some incidents, of course. [laughs]
If you could do a soundtrack for any movie, what movie it would be?
Oh, I don’t know which movie, but I would definitely be interested in it. As I get older, I don’t want to be on tour all year around and I think my music would go really well in movies. I think it would be kind of fun. Maybe in a next phase in a few years to get really good at recording and try to make some ambient music.
As technology arises and social media take over our culture, what feels more important to you in the nowadays music industry?
It’s a lot of pressure to keep up with constant content, because the Internet moves so fast that you can have news one day and the next day is all forgotten about. In some ways, I kind of feel like the Internet is much bigger than it used to be, so if someone writes something nasty about you, nobody is really going to see unless they’re looking for it. I think it’s a lot of pressure in some ways for a female musician to kind of crank out the content. But, I also love Instagram I have to say, just because I’m a visual person and so for me it’s like a little art gallery. I don’t really like Twitter because I don’t have no idea what to say, but I think some of the social media are fun to connect people from all over the world and it kind of breaks the barriers from the fan base and the artist, which is very cool.