The Rumpus Interview with Marissa Nadler

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Since 2004, Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler has released a steady output of thoughtful, acutely written folk songs highlighted by her dreamy vocals and distinct guitar stylings. In June she released Marissa Nadler, the first album on her brand-new independent Box of Cedar label. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, it’s a testament to the deep love fans have for her music. With such tracks as “Baby I Will Leave You In the Morning,” Marissa Nadler is guaranteed to make new fans as well. The new record is available from iTunes and http://www.marissanadler.com.

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Rumpus: It looks like things are exciting for you. You have your own imprint now, and you’re doing the Kickstarter thing. What’s that been like for you?

Nadler: Well, the Kickstarter thing is finally over. It was basically just a way for me to fund the recording of the record. It was a lot of work, actually, in terms of getting out all the things that I promised all the people.  It took me a couple months to get everything out.  The record label thing, releasing my own music has been something pretty exciting.

Rumpus: What made you decide to do that?

Nadler: Well, I stopped working with my last record label in a kind of unexpected fashion. It was a hurtful situation, so I basically just decided I didn’t want to go through this process again of searching for a new label. A lot of bands seem to be self-releasing records these days.

Rumpus: Do you think you’ll keep that up?

Nadler: Yeah, well, a lot of people have been ordering the record even though it’s not out yet [interview took place prior to release]. So I think I might continue this.  I might license the record in Europe just so that it’s more easily accessible. I don’t think I’ll ever sign to another label in the traditional sense.

Rumpus: Are you doing your own publicity now as well?

Nadler: I hired a publicist. Basically, I got a pretty good handle on what labels did after working with them for so long. They’re basically just banks–well, that’s not just it. Some record labels are really good people. But I just figured out what I needed to do to have my own one.  I think it’s been going pretty well.

Rumpus: Do you think that it’s harder for a female artist to be independent?

Nadler: I definitely do, actually. At least, in my experience, there’s still a lot of sexism in music.

Rumpus: How do you think that manifests?

Nadler: Little things, like even from going to the guitar shop if I need to buy guitar strings and having to constantly prove that I know what I’m talking about. This is not true for all people who work at the guitar stores. I don’t want to be reverse-sexist, but I feel like I have pressure to not only be talented but also sexually attractive unless you swing it the complete other direction. It just seems like a stigma that is there.

Rumpus: I remember you talking about Little Hells, and you were talking about the small things that we go through, and I felt like there was definitely a narrative arc behind it, but I wasn’t sure if you saw one on this record or not.

Nadler: There’s a much stronger narrative arc on this record than on that one. I think this one has more to do with revisitation and escapism. It’s more of a personal record, I think.  I got rid of all the ambiguity. It’s hard to explain the narrative arc, but it is there. A lot of it has to do with love and loss and heartbreak, which have always been strong themes for me.

Rumpus: I noticed in “Wind-Up Doll,” there’s a “box of cedar” reference. Do you consciously pick up threads like that from your earlier songs?

Nadler: On this record, I consciously have three sequel songs. “Wind-Up Doll” is a sequel to “Box of Cedar” and in the original song a war widow is waiting for her husband to come home. He does come home in a box of cedar. This song is the same woman years later, and she’s trying to fall in love again and keeps having these flashbacks. The “wind-up doll” is a reference to the depression commercials on television where they show a woman with the wind-up key in the back. Basically it’s the same character, but she’s trying to fall in love again and failing. I wanted to revisit these characters.

Rumpus: What are the other sequel songs?

Nadler: “Mr. John Lee, Rivisited,” is the fourth song on the record, and that’s a sequel to the song “Mr. John Lee,” and that’s a song on my second record.  In the original song, it was a murder ballad, and I had been in love with somebody, and it was a complicated situation, a love triangle. In the original song, I create this gothic murder ballad, but in this song, I reveal what really happened to the people who were involved in it and what ended up happening.  It’s been almost seven or eight years since the first song.  I used to take these real things that happened and create fantasies, and in some ways this is about taking the characters out of the fantasy. In this case, they’re not characters, they’re real people, and it’s a real situation that happened.

Rumpus: I was reading your great interview on the “Writers on Process” website and you were talking about the songwriting process for this album as almost being more manic.

Nadler: Well, the songwriting process for this record was very dedicated and very focused, although it’s not easy to focus and be dedicated all the time, especially in art. Because if you try to force it, it doesn’t happen. I remember moments when I felt more impulsive to write, like I’d wake up very early in the morning and have a song in my head, for instance.

Rumpus: I was also really curious about the song “Puppet Master” and what the role of the puppet master is in the song.

Nadler: It’s about a man having control over me and breaking free of that manipulative relationship. There is this one person that basically–pretty much every love song that I wrote, I wrote about him–so over the course of five records, and we had to finally cut the ties because it was an unhealthy relationship. A lot of this record has to do with cutting those ties. So that particular song says it pretty directly.

Rumpus: What about “In Your Lair, Bear?” That was the other one I was curious about.

Nadler: That song is about depression and hibernation. The record starts off and ends with this phrase ‘where did you go?’ I did that intentionally. It starts off in this dream.  Both the beginning and ending and of the record are the entering and leaving a dream-state in some ways. That particular song was pretty much about watching time slowly pass by, years pass by, kind of feeling trapped and things like that.

Rumpus: You also released an EP with this record. How did you decide which songs were going on the album and which ones were going on the EP?

Nadler: It was very hard, actually, because I went into the recording with 18 songs because it had been so long since I had recorded a record. I was pretty into the songs; I thought a lot of them were pretty strong. It was hard for me to cut them down and try to pick the best ones I guess.  It’s not that the EP has lesser songs, but if there’s more than one song that has more than one vibe or style, like there’s one song on the EP that is similar in style to “Alabaster Queen.”  Sometimes if I end up writing more than one song at the same time, they will sound similar. When things were too redundant, I would pick my favorite and put it on the record. The EP songs are pretty strong too, but they’re also kind of outtakes.

Rumpus: Switching subjects slightly, I saw that you were being interviewed at Toad in Cambridge about your worst nights on the road.  What did you talk about?

Nadler: Well, I had plenty to talk about! I’ve unfortunately had a really hard time with live performances. My whole career, I just seem to have this–I try so hard not to let my nerves get the better of me, but they seem to have a mind of their own. I talked about old record label dropping me from a label named after my own song, which is pretty outlandishly offensive. I tried to make it, funny, thought. It was kind of comedy night in away. We talked about a French man saying that he thought I would be more ethereal in person. Right to my face.  We just talked about things gone wrong while touring. I think it’s made me a lot tougher, which is good. I have a strong disposition and I work really hard, but I’m easily upset and easily depressed. And I think all these things, like a decade of running into things that knock you off your path just make you stronger.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, No Depression, Gigantic Sequins, and Yalobusha Review. More from this author →