No Imperfect Muse

An Interview With Marissa Nadler

Photo by Elbru Yildiz

There’s long been this trope of describing women as “forces of nature” in art. One might read the cliché as compliment, a description of someone so elementally in tune that her actions and behaviors reverberate with the profound resonance, and consequence, of a hurricane.

Though this deification can often be complimentary, or written with intent to flatter, it’s still a reductive descriptor, clouding the fact that no woman is a passive object. Similarly, it’s high time for gendered culture reporters to remember that art made by women is crafted with the same attention, the same mindfulness, the same personal agency as work made by men.

This mindfulness  is particularly appropriate when considering the vast, prolific work of Boston-based artist Marissa Nadler. As a multi-hyphenate, Nadler’s many talents—singer-songwriter, painter and animator, to name just a few—are seldom considered in the same breath. There is no good reason why her body of work should not be considered in its totality, along with the conscious, writerly intentions of the moods she composes.

It makes sense that most know Nadler primarily as a recording artist, as she has released eight fantastic studio albums of transportive and arresting music, most often described as gothic folk or chamber pop. But a consideration of Nadler’s multi-disciplinary leanings lets us know that, for all the images of spectral energy and morose, haunted rooms she conjured, Nadler writes songs that are furiously alive. By this same consideration, it’s worth remembering that any time Nadler portrays “the singer” (read: not necessarily her) as going through to motions or possessed by energies outside of their control, we’re seeing the exact images in our heads that she wants us to.

I caught up with Nadler over email to discuss how these writerly and painterly instincts shaped her fantastic eighth LP, For My Crimes, a decidedly less-produced album than Nadler’s last few that puts her voice at the forefront.

Featuring a collection of powerful independent female musicians throughout the record, one might be tempted to consider the album’s themes as a comment on the gumption required to allow oneself to be vulnerable through art. This is not an entirely accurate reading, though, as Nadler intentionally blends fact and fiction, narrative and stream of consciousness, writing from a perspective that she never intended to come across wholly as her own.

 

 

How is songwriting like painting, and how is painting like songwriting?

I experience colors as melodies and melodies as shapes and journeys.  Synesthesia plays a powerful role in the connectivity of different mediums for me. In songs, we attempt to turn emotions and stories into structured compositions, varying pattern and shape. Songwriting is really very visual and rhythmic. Some of the best paintings have lyrical compositions that practically dance off of the picture plane. I think in any artistic medium, regardless of the delivery method, we as humans are just trying to express the incomprehensible, the microcosms and macrocosms of our experiences on earth.

 

We’re both fans of Leonard Cohen, and your songwriting has been mentioned in the same breath as his before.  I keep thinking of his deification, his “muse” tendency to elevate women to this sacred but unrealistic place of reverence, while listening to Crimes.

Maybe it’s because you kind of do the opposite with these songs. Beyond just making yourself vulnerable, you also write more directly about yourself than ever before. When did you become conscious of that in the process of making this record, and why was that important to you?

That’s a very astute observation. Of course I love Leonard Cohen- he’s a personal artistic hero of mine. I’d like point out that Nancy is a bit of an imperfect muse, with a “45 beside her bed an open telephone.” But, even then, while there’s a romanticization of tragedy, she’s still such an enticing character. Many artists over time have romanticized tragedy, perhaps as a coping mechanism. Everyone experiences loss and death and sorrow in their lives, and sometimes painting a beautiful picture of an ugly memory can make it more bearable.

I guess I’m just going to say that although the songs are somewhat based on my own life, I think people are assuming too much is true here. I’m a painter, and an artist, and a fan of classic songwriting. I love lines like, “Jimmy’s in Georgia and he took my summer away.” I like the hyperbole and the universality and melodrama in a pop way. Sometimes a line has to be over the top to cut through.

I took some of the minutiae of my life, but I also took great liberties, both when searching for the rhyme and meter as well as with the way a word or a name comes off of the tongue.  For instance, people assume that “For My Crimes” is about me- which I’ve never said. The narration is in first person, and I’m the songwriter. I actually wrote that song in the point of view of a man. But, I think perhaps the bio for this album led people to assume that these were “confessional” because they were intimate. There’s a difference. I’m not trying to distance myself from the personal content of the album but definitely would say that there’s a lot of fantasy here.

 

The production of the record is a lot more spare, too. There’s less instrumentation pulling the ears away from your words. Was that deliberate?

Well, people complained about Strangers having too much instrumentation. Some people really like my spaced-out stuff and some people really like my stripped down stuff and lo-fi home recordings. I obviously like both- and I think there’s a tendency for people to assume that because I’ve made a stripped down album this time that’s the direction I’m moving in.

 

 

A music career, an art career, a creative path- they do not have to be exclusively linear paths. I felt like making a stripped down album for a number of reasons- mainly because truly I have not really done one this stripped down before. It seems the songs called for this type of minimal production.

 

What was your thinking in asking Kristin Kontrol, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen to sing with you on this record?

I love them all. Things just kind of worked out and I wanted to have some voices besides my own on this album. My last album was predominantly men – and well, it was a conscious decision to make sure I played most of the instruments, and to vary the sound by having different background vocalists on the harmonies.

I’m lucky to know so many incredibly powerful female artists and in addition to Kristin, Sharon and Angel- Patty Schemel and Janel Leppin and Eva Gardner and Mary Lattimore.

 

Much of the record also seems to be about the crystallization of memory. Hindsight considered, do any of the scenes or memories you describe play out differently listening back to them again?

Some of the scenes are made up. Some are half real. Some are real real. And they all play out at the same time. I have a lot going on in my head at all times. It takes me a long time to get to sleep at night.  I think in many ways the three albums July, Strangers, and For My Crimes (despite the newest one having a different sound and different producers) is a bit of a trilogy, stylistically.  All three together definitely encapsulate a very clearly marked period of my life.

I think that period has ended like a dream in some ways. Coming down to connectivity with the body. Spend enough time in California and you’re packing crystals in your pockets and visiting geodesic domes for sound baths.

 

Without sharing more than you’re comfortable, there’s also an implication of narrative or background story embedded in how the record unfolds. Was that deliberate, too? And if so, can you share anything about your approach to that as a writer?

It’s really hard when real life and art collide. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. I will say this is not an entirely nonfiction album. People are wrong to make that assumption–but what can I do–go back and ask for corrections for all these record reviews? Songwriters are storytellers; at the end of the day, And I’m surrounded by writers in my life.

In a song, I’m going to pick a word that sound better, flows better, for the melody. That is not the same for all song writers. I happen to still love a catchy chorus and a good melody- not just a story. If a melody doesn’t grab me, I have no interest in hearing the lyrics.

So, although there’s a stripped down sound, it doesn’t mean these are journal entry songs. I’m into the hooks, and these strange stories that exist in some netherworld between fantasy and reality. I won’t sacrifice melody to be hyper specific. I guess it’s a bit of a game of tug and war–between lyrics and melodies and sounds and rhythms–and each song has a different winner.

 

For My Crimes was released 9/28 on Sacred Bones/Bella Union

Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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