It isn’t easy to stand out in the crowded field of singer-songwriters, especially these days. But on the strength of literate lyrics and haunting vocals, Marissa Nadler has steadily been carving out a little niche in the neo-folk scene over the course of three albums — the most recent of which, Songs III: Bird on the Water, was released earlier this year. But if death and the macabre are common themes for the twenty-five-year old balladeer, she’s certainly not ready to be pigeonholed. And even though her somber music and lyrics may lead you to believe otherwise, Nadler is calm as clouds in person, full of smiles and positive energy. She spoke with us about her new album, her musical background and her fondness of Cat Power.
Do you remember the first music that you got into? Or the first music you bought?
Well, the first music was purchased for me. I had an old-fashioned boom box, and I had two cassette tapes: One was the Beatles’ Abby Road, and one was Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection. But that was when I was a kid. I grew up on classic rock, but the first stuff I independently got was Nina Simone. I was really into the jazz singers and stuff like that.
That’s pretty impressive that the first thing you bought was a Nina Simone album.
Well, it wasn’t the first, but it was the first stuff I was really, really into. I remember I had this job at a coffee shop and I had three cassette tapes: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan. I was into that stuff because I had an older brother who was into Phish and all that jam-band stuff. So it was a rebellion against him to discover more interesting stuff, I guess.
What was the first instrument you picked up?
The guitar, because my older brother was in all these bands and I was an artist — drew a lot. I played the guitar and had a short-lived rock band in high school. But mostly I played mostly acoustic and electric guitar.
What kind of band was it?
I was really into, you know, Bikini Kill, L7, Sleater-Kinney.
Riot grrrl kind of stuff, huh?
Yeah, because I grew up in suburbia and that’s what you’re into when you grow up in suburbia and you don’t fit in. I really identified with those women at the time, so that’s the kind of band I was in, but I wasn’t very good.
When did you first start singing?
I was like fifteen years old — ten years ago, basically. I’m twenty-five now, so I was about fourteen or fifteen.
Do you ever think about being in a rock band again?
I definitely want to. It’s just really difficult to orchestrate playing with other musicians. It’s easier to be a solo artist because you only have to count on yourself.
When did you decide to devote yourself to music?
When I was at RISD I became disillusioned with the fine-art world and at the same time really got into music. When I started to intellectualize the fine-art-making premise, I started to become something I didn’t like. Music was something I was never trained at. It was something fun. When I was eighteen it became my life’s calling, I guess — something I wanted to do and dedicate everything to.
How did you link up with Greg Weeks from the Espers?
I did it through Orion, who plays the cello and sings with me. I was on tour with Joesphine Foster and Nick Castro a couple years ago and we went down to Philadelphia to play a show. That’s where I met Greg and we became friends. You know, it’s a small world. I was into the band, he asked to record, and that’s how it basically happened.
How much influence do you think he had on this album?
I’ve wanted to add more instrumentation for a long time, but I haven’t had the musicians at my disposal to do it. The good thing about him is that we’re on the same conceptual par I think. We’re both into reverb and stuff.
The album isn’t technically out yet, right?
No, it’s not. It got leaked on the Internet like months ago. It’s going to be out on Peacefrog in Europe and on Kemado in New York in May or April. It’s a metal label.
How do you feel about your record leaking and people getting it for free?
It’s kind of cool. I don’t expect to make any money for a long time anyway at this. It’s just kind of cool that people want to download it. For me it’s flattering.
I won’t feel guilty then.
No, I think it’s sweet. It makes me feel like, “Wow. Somebody illegally leaked that. That’s cool.”
You said there’s more instrumentation with this album. Is this a better representation of your taste in music?
I think it’s getting toward it. I don’t think I’ve made my Joni Mitchell Blue yet, but I’m getting there, closer to what I think is like the quintessential Marissa sound. I’ve always been really into spacey music like Pink Floyd and Spiritualized and Opal and Slowdive. I like all that stuff, I just happened to pick up the acoustic guitar. So I think my music comes more from that than any folk background. I know it might not sound like it.
Do you think this album might shatter this image of you as a gothic/medieval balladeer?
Well, I don’t really want an image. I think it’s important for artists to change. If I made the same record three times in a row that wouldn’t be very interesting for me or for anyone listening to it. I think a true fan of my music would want to see the growth and see different ways of using my voice. I’ve made those records, but my taste has changed. I’m still young. I guess I get into different things. I’m more into country now. Not country country, but country like Hank Williams.
I know you’re asked this a lot, but the theme of death comes up a lot in your music. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. I just think I’m depressed, maybe. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s just a taste. It’s my aesthetic. It’s always been geared toward the melancholy in artwork. I’d be more likely to put a Giocometti sculpture in my house than an Andy Warhol. I’m not into happy things. I don’t know why. It’s just a taste thing. Art is all about taste.
Do you have to be depressed to write your songs?
Yeah, I think so. It’s a coping mechanism. I write when I need to get something out.
Let’s say you’re really happy for a period of time. Can you not write music then?
I’d say yeah. I can’t really remember. Not that I’m never really happy. I’m a really reflective, introverted type of person sometimes.
So, it’s kind of more something you’re into in a weird way.
It’s just a taste thing. I’m really not that morbid. If you really listen to my songs, there’s happiness and sadness. I’m not this devil-worshipping type.
Well, you seem like a pretty cheerful person to me.
I am cheerful. I have a light personality. To be perfectly honest, some of my songs are tongue in cheek, but nobody knows that except my close friends who know that I think it’s funny that I wrote a song called “Box of Cedar” about a man coming home in a coffin. The stuff is very real and heartfelt, but at the same time I can laugh at how out-there it is conceptually.
You also seem to do a lot of cover songs.
Well, that’s just recently, just because I have these records coming out: one official record and one miscellaneous record — it’s more underground. I’m not recording as much, so it’s fun to record and make music. It’s fun to do cover song.
Do you listen to Cat Power at all?
Oh, yeah, I love Cat Power.
Have you seen her perform live?
No. Well, actually I did see her live at the Arthurfest. We played together but that was a while ago. She was so soft I could hardly hear her, but I love her. I think she’s incredible.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Earth a lot and this band called Om. I listen to NPR a lot. In terms of singer-songwriters, I always go back to my standbys: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Patsy Cline, Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell. I like all the classics.