Marissa Nadler’s Many Different Shades of Black
Marissa Nadler's lonesome new album 'Stranger' has suddenly found the enigmatic singer in a new kind of spotlight.
All photos by Seher Sikander
Sitting across from me in a honky-tonk, hands folded, frozen coffee unsipped, dark folk muse Marissa Nadler is talking about country music. The musician, artist, and Massachusetts native is in town to promote her latest album, Strangers, a gothic doom-pop dreamscape that’s netted her so much attention that Nadler seems slightly shell-shocked by it all.
I’d originally planned to take her to a bookstore, but we ended up at a dive bar around the corner instead, and it worked just fine. Nadler doesn’t drink anymore; she survived what she describes as a pretty serious drinking problem that crept up on her after spending years on the road. “When you go through that many years of touring, you need something at the end of the night, so I was hitting it really hard for awhile,” she tells me. “I'm depressive, so it's not a good combo!”
Despite that caveat, she still feels most comfortable in a bar’s dark corners, even when it turns out the iced coffee is spiked and she gets an accidental mouthful of cold whiskey (I still feel guilty about that mix-up). With that kind of personal history, it’ no wonder she loves country so much—even though it’s a fairly new discovery for the Boston native.
“I didn't have that growing up because I'm from Massachusetts and nobody in Massachusetts listens to country music,” she tells me. “My best friend is a music writer, and he introduced me to it, so I discovered it in my thirties—30 years old, and all of a sudden my music completely changed! I started to sing differently because I heard Tammy Wynette. I realized how imperfection is a glorious thing, so I finally started to sing with a lot less reverb, and more upfront. I want people to feel the way I feel when I listen to Tammy Wynette.”
We were the only people there—save for a sleepy-eyed man in camo propping up the bar and an affable bartender who busied herself washing glasses beneath a velvet Willie Nelson portrait—and the album we’re here to talk about is perfectly suited to a half-empty bar. After all the beers have been drunk and fights have been fought, when the party’s over and even George Jones is sounding too upbeat, an album as dark and quiet as Strangers seems purpose-built to settle comfortably into that still, sad silence. Its muted, elegantly disintegrating chords are an invitation to commiserate, and Nadler’s honey-sweetened wisp of a voice beckons you close, to make sure you catch every breathy syllable. Though she confides that she wishes she could emulate Bonnie Raitt’s rasp—”Maybe I quit drinking too early”—it’s Nadler’s own wavering, ghostly pipes that give her music its unearthly lightness, and its darkness, too.
Strangers was originally envisioned as a concept album about the end of the world before transmogrifying into its final form, so heavy themes of apocalypse and surrealist endings remain embedded within its fabric. On “Waking,” for example, Nadler channels The Wizard of Oz to tap Dorothy’s dreams of Kansas.
“That scene where Dorothy wakes up—'and you were there, and you were there’—and she's unclear of whether it was a dream or reality, that has always haunted me, this feeling of whether it was real or not. I think she kind of represents the searcher, and I feel like if anything the themes [on Strangers] are about wandering and still searching. “Waking” was originally going to be the last song on the album, and it’s about zeroing on that moment in time [when you’re] waking up, unsure if the world had ended.”
Against such a gloomy backdrop, her affinity for steel guitar and mournful ballads makes even more sense. After all, the best country songs are about heartbreak, and so are many of Nadler’s, as her desolate previous album, July, made clear. Her newest effort may be a different kind of personal than that to which her listeners are accustomed, but it’s still about as sad as any weepy Patsy Cline ballad. It’s a lonesome kind of record, and Nadler makes no bones about that.
“It sounds so pretentious to say out loud, but [the album is] about existential loneliness, which is more personal in some ways than writing about romance. It's this idea of finding yourself unhealed,” she tells me. “I think there's this preconception that if you're married, somehow you're happy, or all your loneliness goes away, so people don't reach out as much. My world got so small, and that's kind of the record: What do you do when what you thought was gonna solve all your problems... didn't? Loneliness is a much deeper thing than just who you’re with. People keep asking me what the record's about, and I'm like, dude, it's really hard to put a quick label on a lifetime.”
Nadler is no stranger to the perils of misjudgement thanks to her penchant for flowing gowns, and the dreamy folk melodies she often reaches for to tell her tales. Her recent shift to denim onstage was a conscious choice, one that carries almost as much weight as her decision to buck folk tradition and embrace the more visceral power of her electric guitar.
“I had to get tougher. Nobody is gonna fuck with me anymore,” she tells me, eyes flashing. “Mentally, the wall is up. People don't really talk through my quiet sets anymore because I've finally earned it, but there were so many years of that. It shouldn’t be a bad thing if you’re in a white dress, but that’s part of the reason I'm mostly wearing jeans and playing electric now. It feels very sexually powerful in a way that an acoustic never did. I can feel the distortion pedal, and it's much easier to play than an acoustic, too—everyone's like, ‘Oh, what a pussy with that acoustic guitar,' but acoustic is much harder to play!”
Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and translucently pale, she’s possessed of a certain waifish grace that belies her steel backbone; even when she’s nervous, Nadler radiates a quiet kind of strength. That’s something she’s developed over years of toil and travel, a hard-won resilience that used to come much less easily for the woman who tells me she felt like a “monster” growing up. “My suburb was all white, and I, being vaguely ethnic, stood out like a sore thumb. Everybody [else] was Irish Catholic with little ski jump noses and blue eyes.”
“I still have a very lonely life, to be honest with you,” she continues. “Because to be able to be working on stop motion animation [for the video for "All the Colors of the Dark"] or writing all these records over the years, it’s very isolating. I live in Boston, and people ask me, ‘Dude, what’s the music scene like in Boston?’ and I have no idea; I don't have a lot of friends there. To really crack out the work, there's no time for fun.”
Nadler’s story rings with echoes of another one of Massachusetts’ favored daughters, Emily Dickinson. The parallel line between them has been drawn before, and it’s no wonder: That image of the shy, brilliant artist locked away in her room, scribbling away, always pushing herself, never quite finding the peace she desires but refusing to stop seeking it is too poetic in its own right to resist. The surreal lines of poetry that make up Nadler’s “lyrical, painterly little vignettes of feelings”—her hungry ghosts, her night breakers, her columbine and clover—are invitingly cryptic in the manner of Dickinson’s most compelling works, and the poet’s long-ago observation that “home is so far from home” is a sentiment that must feel familiar to a soul as solitary as Nadler’s.
Dickinson knew a thing or two about loneliness, too, locked away as she was in her ivory tower, and Nadler also spent years laboring in near obscurity. Happily, six albums in, the rest of the world finally seems to have caught on. She recorded her first (and still unreleased) album, Autumn Rose, in 2002, and has spent the ensuing decade and change honing her craft and settling into herself as a musician, an artist, and a person. Her work has always earned attention, from her collaboration with black metal artist Xasthur to the releases on her own Box of Cedar Records, but it was after she decided to sign with Sacred Bones and Bella Union for the release of her critically acclaimed last album, July, that her star rapidly shot upwards. Strangers continues that momentum, ramping it up further. Plucked out of the bars and small venues to which she’d become accustomed, she’s now headlining the Bowery Ballroom, gracing magazine covers, and generally beginning to experience the kind of success that would have probably mortified Dickinson.
“It's been crazy. I've been doing this for so long that it feels very surreal all of a sudden,” she says. Recent Spin and Wire cover stories and the rush of press coverage around Strangers seems to have almost caught her off-guard, and while she’s enjoying the accolades, the spotlight isn’t all fun and games. The increased demands on her can wear thin, especially for someone as self-described socially anxious as Nadler.
“I'm finally at a point where I've come to peace and I'm not dreading reviews. I know well enough at this point that press doesn't equate to being able to pay rent, and it's funny when you start to have a little bit more success, what comes out of the woodwork. My inbox has been amusing lately with [messages] like, ‘Hey, are you still engaged?’ Fun stuff for my self-esteem,” she chuckles. “I think I needed it, because there's all this pressure for musicians to look hot, which I find a real pain in the ass. I'm really struggling with that now; I’ll do radio sessions, and they take pictures, so not only do I need to bring three guitars and an amp down the stairs, but also a whole wardrobe! I'm really sick of it. I want to start wearing masks or something. I like beautiful clothing, but I'd rather focus on writing a song than working on a fashion shoot.”
Instead, she tells me excitedly about how she’s been working on her pedal board and practicing solos for her upcoming summer tour, on which she’ll be accompanied by Wrekmeister Harmonies and Muscle and Marrow. Since Nadler does not have a permanent backing band, she’ll be joining forces with her tourmates to pull off a Big Business/Melvins-style live collaboration.
“They’ll each play their own sets, and we've already practiced together, so Kira [Clark, vocalist for Muscle and Marrow] is going to do the harmonies with me,” she explains. “Kira’s super cool, and we’re very similar. I really firmly believe that female musicians should unite and not be in competition with each other, so I've been making a lot of efforts to reach out to my contemporaries and not feel threatened by them. I'm certainly more country and roots at my core, and I don't have this industrial edge, so there's this Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen group, and then the heavy chicks, and then I find myself somewhere in between. I think there's room for all sorts of beautiful, strong music made by women.”
At that very moment, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” comes on, and both of our eyes light up. “She's amazing,” Nadler says excitedly. “I didn't even realize when I was a kid how amazing she was because of how she was presented to us, with the big boobs and everything. I had no idea until I was much older that she'd written thousands of songs and is a great picker.”
Nadler’s ability to effortlessly weave a narrative that somehow brings together Dolly Parton, Sharon Van Ettan, and David Bowie is an attestation of the curiously unique nature of her appeal. Strangers is an important album not because of the label it’s on or the reviews it gets; it’s important because of how it resonates with people. We can hear ourselves in those lonely, nebulous chords, and it feels—at least a little bit—like home.
With this album, Nadler has created a room of her own. She’s at a point where she doesn’t necessarily need to worry about her work being overlooked or forgotten, and yet, she refuses to rest on those hard-won laurels. Marissa Nadler will not stop for death, even if she’s left alone with only herself and immortality for company.
“I’ve worked a lot of shitty day jobs in my life, but this is so much more fun, just to be able to be traveling the world and having these adventures, I'd rather be doing art,” she tells me. “I want to leave behind some kind of body of work before I die. When David Bowie died, it had a very profound effect on me. He was constantly reinventing himself until the very end—the last work that he did was making an art piece out of his own death.”
“I was so inspired by that, and just want to be like that. If you’re going to call yourself an artist, you better keep doing it for your whole fucking life, and keep reinventing yourself.”
'Strangers' is out now on Sacred Bones and Bella Union. Catch Marissa Nadler on tour with Wrekmeister Harmonies and Muscle and Marrow this summer:
July 5 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
July 6 Boise, ID @ Neurolux
July 8 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
July 9 Denver, CO @ Lost Lake Lounge
July 10 Omaha, NE @ Reverb
July 11 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
July 12 Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
July 13 Detroit, MI @ El Club
July 14 Toronto, ON @ The Drake
July 15 Montreal, QC @ La Salla Rossa
July 16 Hudson, NY @ Half Moon
July 19 Boston, MA @ Great Scott
July 20 Providence, RI @ Aurora
July 21 New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
July 22 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brendas
July 24 Washington, DC @ DC9
July 25 Raleigh, NC @ Cats Cradle Back Room
July 26 Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
July 27 New Orleans, LA @ Gasa Gasa
July 29 Austin, TX @ The Sidewinder
July 30 Denton, TX @ Rubber Gloves
August 1 Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
August 2 San Diego, CA @ Casbah
August 3 Los Angeles, CA @ Echo
August 4 San Francisco CA @ The Chapel
August 5 Big Sur, CA @ Henry Miller Library
August 7 Vancouver, BC @ The Cobalt
August 8 Seattle, WA @ Barbosa
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.