A drum machine on a Marissa Nadler song? If you think “Mary Come Alive” is sacrilege, then please leave. There’s no room for naysayers where Boston’s overcast songwriter is headed.
Nadler has already produced a beautiful triptych of albums, starting with 2004’s Songs of Living and Dying and ending with 2007’s Songs III: Bird on the Water. Her mezzo-soprano is an inimitable wonder, lighting upon ears before vanishing like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven. With her fourth album, Little Hells, the meek singer-songwriter took some risks in the studio with renowned indie producer/mixer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Blonde Redhead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) by adding some electronic elements and more percussion. The results are entirely mesmeric.
Here, Nadler talks about the inspiration behind Little Hells, her thoughts on the portrayal of female musicians, and what most of her fans will find surprising if they met her.
You’ve mentioned before that when you played in the Boston area you were surprised by some of the turnouts. Is that still the case touring this new material?
I’m starting to get more recognized there, which is cool. I think the reason for that is because I didn’t really play many shows locally. I like Boston a lot, just because I’m from here.
On your blog you said Little Hells is a little more autobiographical. I tend to agree, based on listening to the title track and “Brittle, Crushed & Torn,” but what do you think?
Yeah, definitely. I wrote them in the first person. Though they are autobiographical they tap into more archetypal roles. Though “Little Hells” is the same title as the name of the record, I don’t think this album has a title track. Naming a record is very difficult and I put off naming it for a while. I was going to name the record all sorts of things but I went through all the song titles and liked that initially. Then I Googled it and liked it even more. It’s this term for these geological [phenomena] where geysers cause earthquakes. I think it had a nice parallel with my songwriting.
The album cover artwork and the lyrical themes on many songs reference a desire to get back to nature.
I take a lot of inspiration from nature. There’s a real escapist quality for the songs.
Were you always interested in nature growing up?
I don’t have this crazy bio or anything. I kind of grew up near a highway in the suburbs [Needham, Massachusetts], so escapism played a big part in the development of my imagination. I don’t want to put down where I came from but the environment was very homogenous to me. I didn’t fit in at all. I was really, really awkward so I developed this avenue for fantasy and make-believe that was probably a coping mechanism [laughs].
Did your painting start around the same time that you decided to play music?
I never thought I would have a career in music. If you asked me what I wanted to do when I was 16, I would have said a painter. I started playing guitar when I was 14. I’ve been enjoying painting my entire life. Basically every night of my entire youth was spent painting. I don’t want to romanticize it or anything, that’s just what I did. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for five years, all the while writing songs. Somewhere along the way I started writing more songs because it has such an immediate emotional release. If you listen to my music and look at my paintings there are definitely similar qualities to them.
What are some of the risks that you took with this album?
The addition of drums is a big one. I’ve wanted to do that for a while now. I knew after Songs III: Bird on the Water that I could do something other than a guitar record. I never really identified myself with as a folk singer. I just see myself as a songwriter. I wanted to see where I could go while retaining the integrity of the songs.
Out of the new songs “Mary Come Alive” is pretty different from your back catalog with that drum-machine beat.
It is and it isn’t. The lyrics are very similar to my older songs and sonically it’s like the things I like to listen to. That was a really fun track but it’s been a source of contention for some people. This guy from Rolling Stone said he hated it where other people say they love it. Some people feel abandoned.
It’s kind of funny how people box in artists and set up these rules once they think you’re a folk singer or whatever.
Yeah. The reason I used acoustic guitar in the first place was really because it was the only instrument that I had. Guitar came naturally to me but I didn’t really think of the assumptions people would make up when they see a girl with an acoustic guitar. It’s hard to be taken seriously. For some reason I don’t see this as much with male musicians but female musicians constantly get compared to one another. I guess that’s what music reviewers do, right?
Unfortunately that’s sometimes true. Much of music journalism has been sadly reduced to a RIYL buyer’s guide. When did you first meet Miles Baer? You’ve worked together many times before.
He was actually at my first show, an open mic in a bar. He recorded and produced my first recorded and then we dated. That’s about all I’m going to get into with that [Laughs.]
I wanted to ask you about the mixing of Little Hells. Chris Coady is known for being very particular with his mixes. Was that the case with this album?
We spent at least a day on each song for mixing. Chris is awesome, he’s really nice, and he had worked with bands that I like [Blonde Redhead, Trail of Dead]. We started talking on e-mail for a while and some of his favorite bands were my favorites, like Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush, Linda Perhac’s Parallelograms. I have nothing bad to say about him except he’s nocturnal. We stayed up and recorded each of the songs overnight, and I’m kind of a morning person. That may surprise some people [Laughs]. It was fun. We made this almost metal version of “Heart Paper Lover” that will probably see the light of day in Japan or something. It had all these electric guitars and this crazy beat.
Conrad Keely of Trail of Dead did the album artwork for Little Hells. Why did you pick him to artistically represent your new tracks?
I wanted this art nouveau vibe for the background of the cover. I thought about doing it myself but I thought it would be too stressful to be involved with every step. I had this clear vision of it being this gentle and natural-looking cover. The artwork went through a lot of changes and I liked how it came out really understated. Conrad’s really nice.
I wanted to go back to “Mary Come Alive.” It seems to be a conversation between a couple. What atmosphere did you want to create with that track?
You’re the first one to pick up on that — you must be a good listener. The songwriting on this record is different. For past albums I was really into third-person writing. It’s a conversation between a husband and a wife and I just wrote it one night thinking it would be an interesting way for a song to develop. A lot of people ask why I sing the woman’s voice in a lower register than the man’s. I wanted to have it a little improvisational in that respect. It’s sort of a groove, you know? I was very lucky to have Simone Pace as my drummer. He’s really good at what he does.
The lyrics of “River of Dirt” have been discussed at length over at Stereogum, but I was more interested in its sonics. Did you always plan for it to sound the way it turned out?
No, not at all. That’s why the recording process is so interesting. I basically demoed all these songs, plus 25 other songs on acoustic guitar. I did that with “River of Dirt” but I wanted it to have this traveling country song sound to it. I knew I wanted lap steel on the record. I had a drum-less mix and I close to using that mix but I thought, "What the hell, I’ll take a risk." I’m glad I didn’t chicken out.
Joana Linda’s music videos for “River of Dirt,” “Mexican Summer,” and “Bird on Your Grave” were great. Why haven’t you been in any of them?
Well, I’m actually talking with her about shooting a video in Portugal with her for “Mary Come Alive” and actually be in it. There’s really this push and pull inside of me. Half of me is this mousy girl that can’t even talk to her teachers because she’s so shy, yet I put myself in this really public place. That’s only because I have to do it to be successful. I feel really uncomfortable around cameras, so that’s why I’m usually looking down in any photos that are taken of me. It would be interesting to be in a video from the standpoint of being able to look back and see what I looked like when I was younger. I was sort of a late bloomer when I was younger and no matter how many compliments I just don’t believe it. That’s a good thing though. There are too many female singers that think they’re the bee’s knees. There are plenty of videos out there where the singer is shaking their tits all into the camera. I don’t think there’s a huge need for that.
Well, if there’s ever a Marissa Nadler music video that came out like that I would be very shocked.
Maybe that’s why I will do it. It’s funny to shake it up people’s expectations. No pun intended. I just don’t want to objectify myself. I saw Emmylou Harris recently and I think she has one of the most amazing voices in pop music but Patty Griffin was onstage too, going on and on about how she always forgets to plug her guitar cord in. I was gritting my teeth listening to that. Even if she was just implying that she was forgetful I hate to see the “helpless woman” stereotype perpetuated. When I go into guitar stores they try to sell me these DigiTech boxes of shit.
Emmylou Harris is quite the enigma in respect to how female musicians are portrayed to the public. Are there any other musicians that you hold in the same light?
I love Kate Bush because not only was she a real innovator but she also produced herself. I’m also a huge fan Joni Mitchell for the same reasons. She was a real innovative guitarist and used all sorts of open tunings. She was such a great songwriter. Patti Smith I love because she’s so badass and an icon of beauty even though she had a lack of conventional beauty. She’s not all done up like most singers and that makes her sexy because she’s such a hardcore artist.
Finally, listeners can and often entangle a musician’s persona with the individual. What would your fans be surprised by if they actually knew you?
That’s probably the best question I’ve been asked for this entire interview cycle for Little Hells. When you’re out on the road you have to be a lot tougher than people expect you to be. I remember back in the day I was in Belgium there was this French guy that came up to me and said, “I thought you would be more ethereal in person.” I was so offended. Did he expect me to have a reverb implant on my voice box or to be floating in a white gown with wings attached? I can see how people have these ideas though. I’m still friends with people that I knew in high school. I try not to make friends with people that were fans of my music first.
Photo Credit: Chris La Putt/Prefixmag.com