Nine Songs: Marissa Nadler
For such a brilliant songwriter, Marissa Nadler is surprisingly hard on herself.
Whilst critics and fans alike espouse her talent, Nadler says that at times she can’t listen to the songwriters that have inspired her without feeling downright inadequate. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, they’re all here, blessing us with wonderful songs that have set the standards for one of our most illustrious songwriters, even if she doesn’t always give herself the credit she deserves.
Nadler’s contemporaries feel rather differently however. A glittering cast of artists, including Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, Kristin Kontrol and Patty Schemel, have all contributed to her eighth record, For My Crimes, on which she continues to refine her impeccable art of storytelling through music.
The pivotal songs in Nadler’s life set the bar high, which may go some way to explain her moments of self-doubt; taking in classics of the song writing canon from Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” to Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” Nadler’s explains her love of words and a desire to tell a story makes lyric writing the hardest part of the song writing puzzle. “I come up with melodies easily, but I will be changing lyrics around constantly, because they can either be too revealing or not revealing enough - you want to look people in the eyes.”
As with the songs she loves, Nadler’s narration of the matters of the heart and the self is one of the many things that makes music so magical. Despite her admirable humillity, Nadler has plenty in common with her heroes.
“This is one of those songs that you recognise automatically, I had heard the song and the melody before but didn't have a name to go along with it. I’m really into instrumental music, because when I’m trying to work I can’t have words interfering. Betsy Brye does a vocal version of this song that I would like to try live, maybe on this upcoming tour.
“I got into Santo & Johnny kind of late. When I was touring Strangers, my slide guitar player, Milky, introduced me to them. The reason I liked this song ‘Sleepwalk’, and everything they did, is the timelessness of the beautiful melodies - you put it on and you’re immediately transported to somewhere else.”
“’Crying’ is one of the best songs of all time. The most interesting thing about it is the structure, as it doesn’t repeat. It’s very unique - the melody is insane and the vocal performance is insane. I wouldn’t touch a Roy Orbison song as an adult because… ‘Why?!’ I think it’s one of those recordings that if you put it in a time capsule aliens would find it and think ‘Wow! Humans were amazing.’
“It’s kind of upbeat and not that sad and downtempo. Roy often expressed really sad things in that Beach Boys type of way, over deceptively uplifting melodies. I feel like I’ve always known this song.”
“This is one of my favourite songs about heartbreak, but I hate the name of this song and the name of the band! The melody is so pretty too, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies more than anything else and in ‘Hot Burrito #1’ they make me cry every time. Oh my god and the lyrics, ‘You may be sweet and nice but that won’t keep you warm at night…’
“I wouldn’t necessarily listen to it all the time though, it’s so American and it makes me think of road trips and deserts. Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose and his friends took his body to the desert and burned it.”
“Unlike the last two songs, which are all about melody, Leonard Cohen is always about the lyrics as well. I like the implication of this unhealthy relationship that he’s singing about. I read this line in a Joan Didion book recently about a relationship where she wrote ‘he was my shark and my lifeboat at the same time.’
“This song is really beautiful, it’s sad with an upbeat rhythm. So many goodbye songs are sad but what I’ve always loved about this song is its tempo, major key and maudlin melody, it all goes to a form of acceptance through a deceptively cheerful delivery. What’s haunting about this song is the news that Leonard and Marianne had stayed friends and stayed in touch, long after their romance ended. Loss is a part of life and this song has reached so many people through that bold acceptance and determination to live on and “laugh and cry and laugh about it all again.”
“He stayed in touch with Marianne until their death and there was this letter that came out in The Guardian which he sent to her and it was beautiful. So often it’s hard to talk about lyrics other than just repeating a single lyric and going ‘Oh that’s exactly what I was trying to say.’
" Loss is a part of life and this song has reached so many people through that bold acceptance and determination to live on and “laugh and cry and laugh about it all again.”
“Leonard Cohen was a huge influence on me. I actually discovered him through Nirvana when I was sixteen or seventeen as he was mentioned in a lyric of theirs. After hearing Nirvana mention him, I went to the store and got a cassette, I remember putting it on and falling immediately in love with him and I instantly understood why they name-dropped him.
“Once you fall in love with a writer like that I’m like ‘God, I’m fucking shit.’ I’m hard on myself, I try to find the right words, because if you’ve got to use words they’ve got to be important. Lyrics are the hardest part of song writing for me, I come up with melodies easily, but I will be changing lyrics around constantly because they can either be too revealing or not revealing enough - you want to look people in the eyes. It’s the thing I agonise about the most.”
“This is one of the most emotionally bare Bob Dylan songs, as he recounts the love of his life, memories of raising young children and pleading for the return of his “mystical wife.” Bob went through story songs, protest songs, free association poetry and the surrealism of his youth and by the time we get to Blood on the Tracks and Desire we find a new sense of honesty and his lyrical prowess is met by an open heart.
“This song has always broken my heart in the best possible way. He’s going through a divorce in real life and he’s pleading for her to come back to him. He’s one of those people that you don’t know much about, he was married a bunch of times and he was rumoured to have lots of kids. This was a period where he was particularly honest and it made me admire him even more.
“I come from a family of writers - my brother is a fiction writer - but I’ve never been satisfied with my writing, I just really want to do my best and maybe I’m complex about my lyrics as my brother Stuart is such an incredible writer. Stuart really inspired me, one of my earliest memories was him taking the covers of Yes records and asking me to write fan fiction about the covers. He’s tough and he was very honest about my guitar playing in my sophomore year of college which made me play and play.
“I covered this song, but it was nowhere near as good as I wanted it to be, so I’m probably going to take it off the internet and start again. It’s the lyrics with this, every chorus is different and has a different line. Unlike somebody trying to find lyrics to fill up a song, I feel that he had an open portal of poetry spewing out of him. He presents this view of raising children as a beautiful memory - God knows what it was really like, he was probably on tour all of the time, sleeping with his back-up singers. In this song it’s idyllic though, he sings ‘I can still see them playin' with their pails in the sand, they run to the water their buckets to fill, I can still see the shells fallin' out of their hands.’ It’s just beautiful.”
“I could have named a zillion Joni Mitchell songs. She’s been a huge inspiration for me as an artist and as a woman. She was a constant chameleon who was never content to be pigeonholed into a certain genre. From the age of sixteen she’s just been a great friend to me, you can track her life, from idealism to jaded cynicism.
“In this song she’s looking back on a relationship, it’s the scene of what happens after the break up, whereas usually people write songs about the break up or falling in love. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ is one of my favourite songs on Blue, it’s the lyrics again and the bare bones delivery. Blue is many people’s favourite Joni Mitchell album but it’s a tie for me, it could also be Hejira, Ladies of the Canyon or Court and Spark.
“She consistently transformed, regardless of commercial success; she chose the path of the artist, not the money seeker and took confessional song writing to another level."
“People wanted to make Joni out to be beautiful, they wanted to make her into someone she really wasn’t. She consistently transformed, regardless of commercial success; she chose the path of the artist, not the money seeker and took confessional song writing to another level. This song really sets the bar high for me in terms of confessional songwriting. “Richard got married to a figure skater and he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator. He drinks at home most nights with the TV on and all the house lights left up bright.”
“When I was a teenager I was really into heavy, punky, angsty music and I had pink hair. I think that’s why I fit in better with the metal community rather than the indie community. Courtney Love was my hero, my mum was sick of hearing her scream and she bought me Blue and Tapestry by Carole King, and they were really great song writing records. At first I didn’t like Joni’s voice at all - I was full of rage - but there was a moment where I got it. Luckily my parents were very cool, my first concert was Jethro Tull and Procol Harum, so I wasn’t reluctant to accept their music suggestions!”
“I’ve always loved Pink Floyd, they’re pretty much one of my biggest influences, if you put Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd in a blender you’d probably get my music.
“They’ve got this really dreamy astral vibe, they’re not really a song band, you just put them on and it’s like a religious experience. I’m not one of those people who think they sucked after Syd Barrett left either. My love of reverb came from them.”
“Patti Smith has the best Instagram I’ve ever seen, it’s like taking to the medium to a new level and she does that with all of the work she does. That record Horses is on many people’s favourite albums of all times list, it’s full of the whole range of human emotions. She was refreshingly not a pin up girl, she was just messy and that to me was so hot, you know, her free spiritedness and power.
“This song has an incredible build from a slow and steady delivery to this abrasive ending - all the other songs I’ve chosen are kind of downers but I do like to rock out, I guess I just like pretty songs better. I was at art school when I discovered Patti Smith, I had a pretty cool roommate and I think she introduced me, I fell in love with her right away. She’s not aged out of anything.”
“With this particular song, “I Found a Reason” it’s a sweet nothing - I like these types of Lou Reed’s songs better than ‘Heroine’ or whatever. It’s a real old fashioned '50s throwback with the beat and Lou Reed had different influences than a lot of his contemporaries.
“I actually found out that Lou Reed used to play my music on his radio show before he died. The guy who made it with him wrote to me to ask if he could use my song in a movie and mentioned that Lou played my stuff all the time because he could tell that I kept trying. I guess Lou did that too.”