Words by Andrew Lampela
No matter her approach, from the traditional acoustic folk of Songs III: Bird On The Water through the sweepingly majestic rock of Strangers, a Marissa Nadler album is undeniably her own. She is that rare artist that infuses whatever genre she takes on with a sound and approach that is unmistakably Marissa Nadler. Melancholia is no stranger in the world of folk music, but Nadler has created her own niche full of rich character studies and gothic stylings over the last fifteen or so years.
With her latest album, For My Crimes, she reigns in the lush rock tendencies of the last few albums and focuses on the soft, minor key confessional. Beautifully sparse arrangements accompany some of her most personal lyrics yet, touching on themes that are at once both intimately personal and universally experienced with a true eye for detail, giving these songs a somber hopefulness. For My Crimes is a true songwriters album, and as always, Marissa Nadler makes heartbreak sound intoxicatingly wonderful.
Off Shelf: I’ve come to not have any real expectations, as all of your albums are different, but coming off of Strangers, this one is incredibly sparse. The musicians you do have all provide some seriously haunting accompaniment. I was wondering why you dialed it back?
Marissa Nadler: Strangers had some really great players on it. It was a record that was about something different, something apocalyptic and dream-like. It wasn’t as realist an album as July. This one is more realist. I felt like after making a record with so much production, I wanted to shake it up a little bit and cut to the bone of the songwriting.
OS: You do these character studies incredibly well. This album feels bare and raw, very up front emotionally. Was it difficult to do that? To put these songs out there?
MN: It wasn’t tough to write them, but I think it’s tough to release them, if that makes sense. Having to do the interview process about these songs has been tough, just because I’m a very private person and it is hard to talk about this kind of songwriting in a way that maintains that element of mystery or privacy or whatever you want to call it. I really felt the strengths of some of my strongest material has been of a confessional vein, and I just wanted to make a different kind of record. I realized I hadn’t really made a stripped down record in a while.
OS: There’s only one song, “Blue Vapor,” that really cuts loose, which is awesome. It’s a very compact record. With the background behind you, it feels like these songs cut loose in a different way. There are some really weird parts on here.
MN: A lot of it is me, actually, which is something new. All the electric guitars are me. Janel Leppin did an incredible job on the strings. She did that remotely after I finished the songs. The record does feel personal, so I was a little scared as far as releasing it. It’s hard to put this personal material out there, but that’s the kind of songs that really resonate with people, so I think it’s worth the risk.
OS: You mentioned that Strangers had some great players, but wow, you’ve surrounded yourself with an incredible list of talent for this one! I mean, Mary Lattimore and Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen…
MN: I’m a very lucky girl in that I can count all of the musicians on this record as friends. I think a lot of it has to do with all of us going back a ways together. Sharon and I met literally at the start of both of our careers, we did a tour together. Angel I met around ten years ago, and the same with Mary. We’ve known each other for so long, and they all happened to be in L.A. at the same time. Justin Raisen is more of a go-getter that way, socially, he convinced me to ask them to sing harmonies. I’m just really shy, and I know they like the music and we’re friends, but I needed that little extra push, and people were excited to play. The coolest thing about it is each woman that sang, did something different that what I would have sung. That’s the power of collaborating with people you respect enough to try something different.
OS: Did you write specifically for these collaborations?
MN: No, I wrote not knowing what the songs would become at all. I had a very extensive demoing process. The demos have harmonies and instrumentation, but they’re different. So when I got into the studio it was something I wanted to try, because on my last few records, I sing all of the harmonies.
OS: That’s got to be both very exciting and slightly terrifying.
MN: Luckily, everyone knocked it out of the park, because it would be awkward to have someone you really respect do something I didn’t like. Thankfully, I did not have that happen. I seemed like a pretty magical process, people singing and it being awesome and everyone being excited.
OS: Two of my favorite songs are “Gene Clark” and “Interlocking,” because they deal with things that all of us have felt at one time or another. Was it difficult to put this stuff out there? I imagine it has to be terrifying to put a song like Interlocking out there into the world.
MN: It is. When I think about what my favorite songs are, who my favorite musicians are, like Elliott Smith, the stuff that really resonates is the stuff that is hard to put out there. If there’s no risk, and you’re just playing it safe, then… “Interlocking” is a funny song, there are parts of the lyrics that I’m being tongue in cheek, a little Morrissey like, and I mention that because sometimes I don’t think my sense of humor really comes across. At the same time, a song like “Gene Clark,” the idea in the song, is something that everybody can relate to.
OS: The line in Interlocking that gets me is the “I’ve been tethered to this town” line, because I think a lot of us as people that kind of happens to. Things happen and then there you are, kind of stuck there. It’s a universal feeling that you nailed very beautifully.
MN: Thank you. It is difficult to write this kind of personal song. I will say that I do take liberties and they’re not entirely autobiographical. You run the risk…the pen wields power, and you have to respect the people in your life when you’re writing about your own life.
OS: You mentioned your sense of humor being dry, but I think it really comes through in “All Out Of Catastrophes”. That’s a really funny song to me, even though it sounds so serious.
MN: It is supposed to be over-the-top a little, that’s my take on noir. I like the fact that…I can imagine that happening in a desert town.
OS: The other song, and I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but “Say Goodbye To That Car” is a very different type of song for you.
MN: That’s my favorite song on the record. I’m really excited for people to hear that one, it is very different for me. I think people can relate to that one as well. Especially in America, where everyone drives, your car is kind of like your best friend, it’s your big brother, it sees all of your moments, so when a car dies it’s like an era ends. It felt very apt to end the record with that song after all the personal stuff.
OS: Probably my favorite song on the record, maybe for weird reasons, is “Dream Dream Big In The Sky” because it really puts me in mind of all those early Everly Brothers songs, where there is a little bit of positive going on but it’s such a bummer, there’s an undercurrent of bummer.
MN: Oh wow, I’m glad you picked up on that. It is the one, lyrically, overly hopeful lullaby on the record. It’s still a little sinister, because it seems everything I do has a little bit of that sinister edge.
OS: I think most of your records have that sort of noir-ish, and I don’t mean this badly, but your music definitely has a morose feel. I was wondering what drew you to that, and where that comes from?
MN: I think I was just born that way. I was always an emotional child, and I’ve always been aesthetically attracted to the sad songs. When I would get my paycheck from the coffee shop in high school and spend it on a record, when it meant that you had to like the record because you bought it, I would always find the one ballad on it. I always thought to myself why don’t people just make whole records of these sad songs? I’d always get annoyed at the radio hit with big drums and guitars. My brother once accused me of not liking anything with a beat. I guess it’s just the aesthetic that I like the delicate stuff, the minor melodies. That part might be genetic. I have Eastern European lineage and grew up singing things like Hebrew folk songs, which are all in the minor key.
OS: That’s one thing I’ve noticed, particularly with your cover albums, where there are songs that I didn’t expect, that didn’t have that sort of melancholia initially, but they sound great when put through your filter.
MN: I love doing covers. When I have a dry spell, it’s a good way to stay busy and it improves my musicianship. I’ve gotten a lot better at recording over the years because of all the covers.
OS: This is also the first album with your own artwork on the cover, which is very awesome.
MN: Thank you, I was totally obsessing about it. It was hard for me to put a painting on the cover. It’s like my first love. I was first a painter, it’s what I went to school for, but I guess I was scared. I’ve always been very OCD, and I wanted to present the very best. Being a perfectionist is a brutal predilection for an artist because it creates paralysis, so I’ve been working on getting rid of my perfectionist streak and putting my artwork on the cover was a feat of personal bravery for me. I’m starting to care a little less about what people think.
OS: That’s a little strange, having put this many records of personal songs out now but your timid about your paintings. Why one over the other?
MN: I know! I think it’s because my first dream was to become a painter. Ever since I can remember I had a pen in my hand, or a paint brush. I went to the Rhode Island School Of Design, and I think at some point, the pressure I put on myself in school became too much. I started to turn to music because I was not trained in it so there was no expectation to be good at it. It created a freedom and became my fun outlet. Then as the years have progressed and music has become my job, I’ve turned back to watercolors and painting to relax and it’s like ‘why haven’t I been doing this all along?’ This year, I’ve been teaching painting lessons and worked as an art teacher at a therapeutic high school for special needs high school students. I hadn’t really been doing a lot of my own work, though. I had a birthday and it was just, ‘you call yourself a painter but what do you have to show for it?’ and I got mad at myself. I just made like fifty paintings in two weeks. I know I sound a little crazy, but whatever.
OS: As artists, you have to be a little crazy, right?
MN: Oh yeah, I certainly fit the bill, I just have a really intense work ethic. I’m just acutely aware of our short time on this Earth and I try to do as much as I can. I often feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the stuff I want to make.
OS: One last question. I was reading a book called All The Light We Cannot See while getting ready for this interview and listening to your album. One of the things the book deals with is memory, how radio broadcasts affect different people’s memories and it really affected my view of this album in that it sounds like a record that is of this moment, but it also wouldn’t be out of place fifty, sixty, seventy years ago either. Can you trace your inspirations back to any one thing?
MN: I’ve always been drawn to great songwriters, to beautiful melodies. Those aren’t things that age out. The good thing about this record having minimal production is that it can be timeless. One of problems with following trends in music is that the production will date it, so when your using analog instruments and organs and acoustic guitars and not a lot of electronics, it can give it this timelessness. When I was a kid, I was really listening to a lot Nina Simone, and Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, a lot of jazz vocalists, and I was brought up on classic rock and prog through my parents. You don’t hear a lot of that, and the only real connection through to all of that is the songs. I’m interested as a musician in writing songs, good ones. I’m not really a performer, I mean I’ll do it, I’m more of a behind the scenes songwriter. My main goal is to write the best songs that I can.
OS: The one song that strikes me as truly timeless here is “For My Crimes” and it could easily be a 1950s Johnny Cash murder ballad.
MN: That song came together from a writing assignment. It’s a long story, but initially it was written from the perspective of someone on death row. The minute I pressed stop on the recorder I started to think about how widely applicable the themes of crimes and forgiveness, both literal and figurative ones, I got very excited about it. I like to make music that people can relate to.