Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

In conversation with Marissa Nadler

02 February 2022, 15:00

Marissa Nadler returns with a companion EP to last year’s The Path Of The Clouds. She talks to Alan Pedder about a singing ghost ship and what’s left at the end of the world.

In the 18 years since her debut album Ballads Of Living & Dying, Marissa Nadler’s songs have racked up a body count worthy of a Tarantino movie.

In her most recent work, though, Nadler’s interest has shifted towards more nuanced tales told from ever more unusual angles. Partly inspired by rewatching old episodes of the long-running US TV show Unsolved Mysteries, last year’s The Path Of The Clouds was her boldest departure yet from the cobwebbed, shadowy dream folk of her earliest work, and a continuation of a remarkable run of albums beginning with 2014’s July.

Able to craft true beguiling beauty from even the most schlocky source material, Nadler has evolved into a storyteller fully in command of pacing, tone and payoff. Her meditations on fantastical escapes, together with converging themes from her own life, made The Path Of The Clouds her most narratively compelling work to date. It was her most sonically intriguing too, using well-chosen collaborators to access a bolder instrumental palette, all tied together by sophisticated production that was all the more impressive given that it was Nadler’s first time producing alone. With three additional songs from the same writing sessions plus two well-chosen covers, her new companion EP The Wrath Of The Clouds picks up where the path came to an end.

It’s the last day of January when I get Nadler on the phone from her studio in Nashville, and we both have “a case of the Mondays”. She’s recently recovered from a mild brush with Covid (“I was vaccinated and boosted so it wasn’t that bad”) but still sticking close to home for the time being. Professionally, Nadler and I go a long way back, and our conversation felt more like reconnecting with an old friend than a formal interview. We talked about a singing ghost ship, Swiftian shenanigans, and why the 1985 film Return To Oz could hold the key to what she does next.

BEST FIT: People are still calling you Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, but you’ve been based in Nashville for a while now, right?

MARISSA NADLER: Yes, I’ve been here for about two years. I moved here right at the start of the pandemic when nobody was really hanging out. I have some musician friends in Nashville, like Milky Burgess who plays on both The Path Of The Clouds and the new EP, but I have to admit I do feel more isolated than I want to be. Even now my life here is still pretty small. The pandemic is still raging in the US, with hundreds of people a day dying. So mostly I’ve been working on my art and my music like the lifer that I am. Lately I’ve been working on some new paintings, trying to take a little break from writing songs.

I saw you just launched a print shop for your paintings and photography.

I did! I’ve been selling original pieces for a long time on my website but I found myself creating for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to force it, you know? People have asked about prints in the past so this is kind of an experiment to see if people will actually buy prints. And I think it’s nice to open it up to people who maybe wanted to buy something before but couldn’t pay what an original piece of work should be worth.

There’s a beautiful print of the For My Crimes cover painting that I have my eye on. Seeing that reminded me of a conversation we had years ago when we talked about how you never looked into the camera for your album cover shots, if you were in them at all. Finally, with The Path Of The Clouds, you did.

I don’t know what was wrong with me all those years. I probably would have been a lot more successful if I just had my eyes open on any of the first ten record covers. Okay, I was just shy and insecure, but I finally came to a point where I felt inspired to just own my confidence, regardless of the canon of American beauty or whatever. Getting older can be a real stigma for women in the arts. I’m 40 now, but if anything I feel younger than I did maybe 10 years ago. I just hope I can have another 40 years at least of making art.

It can happen. I saw quite a few reviews saying that The Path Of The Clouds was your best work yet, which is really a fantastic achievement nearly two decades into your career.

Thank you, I am really proud of that record. You know, my main interest has always been great songwriting. The time I put into my craft isn’t necessarily from a place of wanting to, you know, be the best guitar player or whatever. Maybe for a time there was an element of that, but these days I enjoy getting lost in the writing and the vocals. And I enjoyed putting a producer hat on for this record for the first time. People seemed to like the production, so that’s been really encouraging. I’ve always looked up to people like Kate Bush and others who are known for producing their own work.

Of course, that kind of positive feedback can only dig so deeply into your soul. I was happy that some people who have not previously supported me in my career showed up and said, okay, this record is different and great. If anything, I hope that the recognition for The Path Of The Clouds opens up my body of work to a whole new group of people. I hope it can break through the evil Spotify algorithms and get on some more playlists or something, but who knows?

What do you make of the whole Spotify mess that’s going on right now?

I wish that I were in a position to remove my music, but I'm not. Anybody who is sort of struggling to survive in the indie music scene is just not going to be able to do that. But I think it's great that people like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are using their huge platform. And what Belly did, I respect that. I think it’s good that the conversation is getting a lot of attention, because it has been brutal for artists, especially during Covid. At times it was Bandcamp that single-handedly kept me surviving. They deserve a medal.

They absolutely do. Obviously, you have been in the music industry for a long time now and have seen a lot of change, particularly with streaming and social media becoming so huge. Have you had to develop a way of dealing with it and not letting it take over your life?

It is such a different time. When we started out – you and me both – social media didn’t really exist in the form that it does now. You really have to work it on so many different levels, all of the time, and it’s quite draining. Sometimes you see people saying really nasty things. I’m certainly no stranger to that, but we can’t win them all.

You know, I’ve spent so many years putting out stripped-down music and I read so many reviews that have said, oh gosh I just wish she’d shake it up and start writing happy songs. And on the other hand, when I release something that sounds a bit different – like The Path Of The Clouds – there’s always going to be people who say, oh I preferred her before. You have to make music for the right reasons or else you’ll just drive yourself crazy.

Agreed! Let’s talk about the songs on the new EP, The Wrath of The Clouds. These were originally written as part of the same writing sessions for the album. How finished were they when you picked them back up again?

They were almost finished. I went back into my folders and there were probably four or five other songs that were pretty developed, but these three really stuck out. To the point where I was like, why didn’t I put these on the record? Especially “Guns On The Sundeck”, which I find is one of my more interesting songs from a lyrical perspective because I’ve never written from the point of view of an inanimate object before. It’s something that I don’t think is very common. I used it as a device to explain time passing and to capture that haunting sense of history that something like a ship can evoke.

Where did the idea come from?

This song is another one that came from watching Unsolved Mysteries. I was watching an episode about the Queen Mary ghost ship and I started writing the song as sort of an exercise to try and get away from first-person confessional songwriting. It’s supposed to be a little tongue-in-cheek, because one of the lines in the song goes, “I need a break from the dead people.” I’ve been writing about dead people for 20 years plus! I don’t know how many people will really get that.

But yes, “Guns On The Sundeck” was my favourite of these tracks to resurrect. I didn’t even re-record the guitar part, so it isn’t really perfect. It sounds like there’s some fuzzy string going on and I hope people like that.

It’s great to get this insight because I know in the past you have sort of preferred not to explain the meanings of your songs.

It’s funny you say that, because since I watched the recent Beatles documentary, Get Back, I’ve felt really inspired and it’s actually made talking about songwriting a little easier for me. Watching Paul McCartney come in with these little melodic ditties and have this sort of gibberish glossolalia approach to songwriting, I felt a bit vindicated. Like, okay, I’m not the only one who doesn’t sit down with a concept. When I write a song I always start with the melody. The words are almost always the last thing that gets solidified, and the meaning of the song gets figured out even later than that.

What’s the story with “All The Eclipses”?

This song only narrowly didn’t make it on to The Path Of The Clouds. It was really tough to cut it but the record was just getting too long. I wanted it to fit on a single vinyl and have a very strong single record. I didn’t feel like I had quite enough strong songs to make a big double record, and I don’t think my labels were that eager to press one.

Pressing vinyl is a nightmare these days. You had some delays in Europe even with the single record.

Exactly. And if you're not somebody who is selling out stadiums, putting out a double vinyl is a little risky. It’s interesting because I don’t have a manager anymore, so when I need to cut songs I usually just email the guys at Bella Union and Sacred Bones and ask them which ones should go. And this time everybody had a different point of view, which is a really good sign that the songs weren’t just filler. There were no obvious stinkers.

So, yeah, it was a tough call. I was really excited about “All The Eclipses”. It ended up becoming a kind of rumination on nature and that stillness you feel when you are in a beautiful place and the world just seems to pause. I remember certain instances in my life that I drew from when I was writing it, and I really love the contrast between my voice and Amber Webber’s harmonies.

You and Amber have been friends for a long time, right? I remember you were touring with her old band Black Mountain some years back.

Yeah, I'm an Aries. I'm super loyal. I like to keep people around. Amber is the best. She and her twin sister [who was an original member of The Organ, and now performs as Ashley Shadow] are both great musicians, and both have great solo projects. That tour with Black Mountain was really fun. I actually do miss touring now, and I never thought I’d say that.

Back to the EP and the last of the new songs. What can you tell me about “Some Secret Existence”?

This song didn’t seem as consequential as the others at first, it was more of what I would call a ditty. But it has something weird about it, in what is clearly an autobiographical way – my obsession with disappearing.

When I went back to it I really liked the melody, so I buil it up a bit more. I added more harmonies, some bass, and stuff like that. So, I really like it now. It’s a bit more similar to some of my earlier work, with the finger picking pattern and so on. But lyrically it definitely benefits from the growth in my songwriting that I feel has been a process from July onward.

Yeah, you have really been on a roll since then.

I’ll do anything to dispel the myth that an artist’s first or second records are their best, because mine certainly weren’t. I look back very fondly on Ballads Of Living & Dying, but my second record, The Saga Of Mayflower May… legitimately, if I could afford to take it off the internet forever I would. It’s mostly just the weird vocal affectation that I was using at the time. I mean, I am not alone in that. I think a lot of singers go through these phases, and that record was just the height of mine. I love the song “Yellow Lights” and a few others, but otherwise I am over it.

Have you thought about maybe re-recording some of the songs?

Like, pull a Taylor Swift?

It could be interesting for a 20th anniversary or something. I like it when artists reinterpret their own material. For me, it doesn’t negate the older versions – they still exist – it can only add to them.

I have thought about re-recording the second and third records. And the fourth one, too, to be honest. I mean, I love Songs III: Bird On The Water, but it’s just the vibrato that I had at the time… I think my singing style is a lot more natural now. I think it’s a process of just growing up and feeling more comfortable as a vocalist. All the vibrato and reverb, I could drop some of that. So maybe I should do a re-recording of the songs I like best from that time.

I think it’s a great idea. When the time is right for you. On the subject of future projects, I read that you are keen to do some writing for film.

Yes. I have had some syncs and some songs used in TV and movies, but I would absolutely love the chance to score a film, or even part of one. If any directors are out there…

Have you thought about taking a film that already exists and creating your own new score for it? It’s an interest concept that can work brilliantly.

I didn’t even know people did that. That’s a very cool idea. You just got me really inspired!

Also, given that in recent years you have surrounded yourself with more women collaborators than before I was wondering if you’d considered taking that further and forming a band or some other kind of project with some of these talented friends.

I’m definitely at the point where I’m all about working with other women. Actually I had this idea… Have you ever seen Return To Oz?

Only about a hundred times. It’s one of my favourite movies. So creepy. The asylum scenes, the Wheelers!

The Wheelers are the scariest. And when everything turns to stone. That movie really has a lot to do with how weird I am. It deserves so much more awareness. Maybe that’s the movie I should make a live score to! That would be a pretty cool Bandcamp Friday release. [She reaches for a piece of paper] I’m taking notes!

Anyway, I had this idea to have an all-female supergroup called Mombi, after Princess Mombi in the movie. I thought it was such a good idea because she takes her head off and puts on the heads of other women. Imagine that with, you know, Emma Ruth Rundle, Chelsea Wolfe, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten and a bunch of others. How cool would that be?

I’m here for that, 100%.

Unfortunately I realised that there’s already at least one Mombi band. I was so sad about that because I was getting pretty serious about it. So if you can think of a good way to incorporate Mombi into a band name, let me know.

I’m gonna think about it. Getting back to the new EP, let’s talk about the two covers that you’ve done. People who have been following your career for a long time will probably recall that you’ve recorded Sammi Smith’s “Saunders Ferry Lane” before, on one of your many self-released compilations. How did you approach this new version differently?

A writer friend introduced me to Sammi Smith, in 2005 I think. I had never heard of her before, but I fell in love with her voice and especially this song. On the acoustic version I tried years ago the rhythm just wasn’t right. I didn’t have the right-hand capability to create that sway in the groove. I was a little bit embarrassed by that version, to be honest with you. It’s got its charm, of course, but I wanted to try it again. That’s weird for me because it’s the first time I’ve ever gone back and re-covered something.

In Nashville there are so many really great studios. Like, you could throw a ball and hit a studio here. And everybody can play everything, and it’s not all country. One of the people I met here is this guy Joshua Grange who plays guitar with k.d. lang and has a really nice home studio, so Milky Burgess and I recorded these two covers there with him. It was just a really fun way to cap off this incredibly isolating writing period of two and a half years.

I think you do get a sense of that fun in the cover of “Seabird” by The Alessi Brothers. It’s a different kind of singing for you. You sound relaxed, like you’re really enjoying it.

Thank you. I heard that song for the first time in the movie Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s the last song in the movie and it’s such an earworm. I loved it so much and wanted to do a version of it. It’s faster and poppier than anything I’ve ever sung before, but it also has something maudlin about it. It’s happy but it’s sad. It was kind of a funny way for me to end this crazy delving that I’ve been doing into all these stories of loss. I imagined a bird flying over the remnants of all the earth’s sad people. I do wonder what’s really going to be left behind, in the case of some great apocalypse.

Did you know that “Seabird” is also a favourite song of Angel Olsen’s?

I didn’t know until I was googling to make sure the song hadn’t been covered a million times before, and Angel’s name came up. We are friends, as you know, so I texted her and sent her the version we’d done and she thought it was cool.

It’s no secret why that song is so beloved. I love the whole vibe of the Alessi Brothers. I love the way they sing with a bit of a lisp. You know, I’m definitely more of a heavy rock girl but I do have a soft spot for this kind of soft rock. I wasn’t sure that I could sing it myself, but now I know that I can it would be fun to try a bit more crazy stuff.

Why not?

Exactly. Many of my favourite artists continue to evolve in their work. For me, I have a real inner drive to make art. It’s just what I do at this point, and it does make me happy when it comes out the right way.

Makes up for all those days when you’re banging your head against the wall.

So many days! I’m not going to lie, it’s a struggle. But when people like the music it really drives me to keep going. I’m starting to get that familiar itch to write songs again, but I have to remember to live a little first.

The Wrath Of The Clouds is released on 4 February via Bella Union
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