We’d never met, but I knew Marissa Nadler. Over the course of six albums I’ve been through little hells and thick, empty summers with her, I’d cried and sang along to the ballads about living, death and loss. Over a decade ago a critic wrote that Nadler has a voice you’d follow down to Hades, but that’s not quite right. The truth is, she has a voice that makes the trip through Hades bearable, points you back toward the exit, floats like a glowing ball above your head to guide you out of the darkness. In 2014, she released July, her first album for the independent Brooklyn-based label Sacred Bones, and her first foray into collaborating with storied metal producer Randall Dunn. Dunn is known for his work with Wolves Of The Throne Room, Earth and Sunn O))), so his collaboration with an ethereal (yes, I said it) folk singer was intriguing, to say the least. But Nadler has always had a darkness at her core, and if anything, Dunn has helped her coax more color out of that murk.
Strangers is Nadler’s seventh record, and it her surpasses her previous work the way a sunrise eclipses the night; both are necessary to create the contrast, but growth is a real thing, and worth acknowledging. About three years ago Nadler stopped drinking and began writing with a new kind of intensity. She stopped trying to run her own label and refocused on what she’s always cared about, the only thing she can’t not do–music. July was the first album to come out of this new phase and Strangers, out this Friday, is the second. The two albums feel of a piece, they possess the same strangely spectral balance of light and dark that has always earmarked Nadler’s music, but in more concentrated measures. The centerpiece of Strangers is a track called “Hungry Is The Ghost,” a song Nadler describes as one of her “depression anthems.” If there was a phrase that typifies her music, it’s that one–even when the topic is a struggle with the darkness of her own mind, she’s still writing in a way that uplifts, that sounds a rallying cry. Earlier this week Nadler and I spent some time in an as yet unfinished photography studio in Greenpoint talking about Strangers, sobriety, songwriting, and living with sadness.
The reception to your last two albums has been on a different level. You’ve been working with Sacred Bones and Randall Dunn, but do you also feel like you’ve changed as a musician?
I feel like my last two records are stronger. The one thing I will say about Randall Dunn is he really challenges me in the studio to try new things. He doesn’t just say ‘Yeah, sounds great’–which is what I need. I need to be pushed. So my musical approach changed, and my songwriting got better. Now I’m able to record myself at home and it makes my writing process better because I’m thinking about layers. Ninety percent of the instrumental melodies you hear I wrote. But I wrote them with a voice or a synth, and then a string section will play it, which is a new thing also. I treated songwriting for the last two records like a day job, and I think that’s what was different. Actually Angel Olsen, who is a friend of mine, told me to do that.
Right before I wrote July I was having major writer’s block. I saw her in Boston and told her that and she said ‘You’ve just got to write like a day job.’ I love her music and I think she’s crazy talented, so I thought, all right, I’m going to do that. For Strangers I literally wrote seventy songs and picked the ones that were the most different as opposed to the ones that were just the most beautiful. The record actually comes with eight more in a cassette. But I hope for me this is just the beginning. I feel like a lot of people think there’s like an expiration date for female musicians. And I’m like ‘No, my best work is ahead of me.’ For me, it’s just kind of beginning. It’s like finally here.
Do you want to talk a little bit about the decision to stop drinking? This was a little bit before July came out?
It was definitely just a situation where if I kept drinking my life would’ve been ruined. I wasn’t drinking during the daytime, it was just interfering with my ability to play concerts, because I couldn’t get onstage without it. I was making dangerous decisions–it doesn’t mix well with depression. I just blew so many opportunities, I could’ve probably been signed to some great labels very early in my career. I had a showcase back in like 2006 and the labels loved my music. I was so nervous, I just drank too much and I blew it. So a lot of my struggles were my own fault, it’s not like the world was against me. I take responsibility for fucking that shit up. Maybe the reason that my music got better was because I stopped drinking. A lot of these songwriters romanticize this drug-addled haze from which great art is born, like the Townes Van Zandt, Elliot Smith or Sparklehorse narrative. I think it was the opposite of me, it was actually getting in the way. As soon as I stopped drinking things got better, and maybe that has something to do with my career improving. Or my ability to see more clearly about my emotions without overdramatizing them.
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I want to talk specifically about the album title–July and Strangers–I like the simple one word title. Do you feel a thematic progression between the two?
The one word title was definitely intentional, because I liked how July sounded. I wanted to stick with that. I struggled with the naming of this record and the last one, but a lot of it was because there were these songs about friends of mine. “Janie In Love” is about a friend, and “Katie I Know” is about the loss of a friendship that really devastated me. It’s weird because the bio that came with the record made it seem like the songs weren’t as personal as they were, so I’ve been trying to set that record straight. I think a lot of the record deals with a major theme of feeling alienated from your surroundings. Like a deep existential loneliness, which sounds a little pretentious, but that’s the only way to describe it really. Being estranged from your former self, from your former friends, it’s definitely my saddest record, weirdly, because it’s sonically the brightest and the most full. But there’s several anthems that I have no other way to describe them except for depression anthems. Like “Hungry Is The Ghost.”
To me that feels like the centerpiece of the album.
Initially that was one of the ones that was the sure bet for the single. But when we went into the studio it got really long and slow, so it ended up being too long. But a hungry ghost is a trope from Buddhist mythology. It’s somebody that comes back reincarnated as a ghost, and he expression is often used to described addicts because you can’t get enough, whether it’s love, drug or sex addicts. I have an addictive personality and I am never satisfied with anything, no matter how good things are in my life. So the song is about relating very much to the idea of the hungry ghost, and how once it’s nighttime all these haunting needs come back. They’re drawn as these giant faces with these tiny mouths where they can only suck the smallest amount of what they need in through this tiny straw. I just fell in love with this image.
What I have always drawn me so much to your music is the light and the dark are so balanced. It’s an unsurpassed combination of those two things. Even when you say “depression anthem” — an anthem is something used to power through.
I suppose you’re right. “Hungry Is The Ghost” and “Nothing Feels The Same” are the two songs for me that are very simply about fulfillment and searching. Even though “Nothing Feels The Same” is set as me walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape, and nothing looks the same, I realized that it was really about was myself. When I went to record the album thinking I had written all these songs about the end of the world, and Randall, who knows me very well said ‘I don’t think these are about the end of the world, they’re about the end of your world–your anxiety and unhappiness. At first I got very mad at him for that realization! As far as the lightness, that might have more to do with my melodic approach. I grew up with Joni Mitchell who is so light even when she’s singing about the saddest things. I wish more people would talk about her as the goddess that she is, because she singlehandedly is the reason that I play in open tunings, that I take my guitar playing as seriously as my songwriting.
I want to go back to the loss of the friendship in “Katie I Know.” That’s something I’ve dealt with a lot too, and in my experience female friendships are often way deeper and more complicated than romantic relationship. It almost hurts more when you lose them, too.
Yeah, and they last longer. That’s why people, when people were asking me if this was a less personal record than July I was like no it’s actually more personal. Because in my last record I was romanticizing romance, and this is something I’ve never written about before–the breakup of a very long friendship–it’s just very literal. When you hit a certain age you do go through these cycles where your world gets so much smaller. I think the internet too has made our world a lot smaller. That whole thing with the friend kind of blindsided me. And then “Janie” is a weird song. Her name is just Janie for us, but every time she met a guy she’d be like ‘Oh my God, I’m so in love!’ And I’d watch her and feel like I was missing that manic excitement that I used to feel. It’s been very hard for me to talk about this record because I know damn well what the songs are about, but I have to try stay a little bit mysterious to make sure I don’t hurt anyone else. The thing is, even when things are going really well, I am still a little unsettled, I don’t know why. Everyone has an equal amount of unhappy and happiness, and no amount of artificiality can take away that human nature.
Exactly. I had this idea that once I reached a specific career goals I’d be happy, or once I fell in love I’ll be happy, or if I just had better friends I’d be happy. Then I’ll actually achieve those things… and I’ll still be just as unhappy.
You and I are very similar I think. Instead of focusing on the good stuff I’m like ‘God I wish this picture was better.’ It’s never enough. I know happiness needs to come from the inside first, no amount of external accomplishments will do it. A lot of people who go into public performing–even in public writing–our career choices are indicative of a deep-seated need for some kind of approval that we maybe didn’t get.
What I’ve come up with lately is that the sadness isn’t abnormal, and that it’s never going to leave. And that that’s okay. I look at people who are easily pleased, and I also don’t want to be that. I think my existence is way more interesting, despite the trauma and the pain I’ve been through. I’d rather be complicated and messy and difficult and fucked up. It teaches you things about life that other people don’t know.
I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I don’t think I’d push myself as hard as an artist if I was easily satisfied. So it’s a burden in a way, but I agree. It’s been super challenging to talk about this album. But being a sensitive person I wonder, how can anybody truly be satisfied in this world when all this horrible shit is happening every second, and you can’t even walk down the street without seeing someone else’s misery and misfortune. If you’re even remotely sensitive to it. That’s why it’s weird to me that anybody would write anything but sad songs! But people need music to cheer them up too.
I think people need music to sit with their sadness. This is personally what I’ve been trying to do–What if you sit with the sadness? What if your enemy is your friend? What if you just accept it and don’t moralize it. Okay, I’m sad. And that’s okay! Because I’m never okay with it, I wonder why I feel this way and think I need to be happy. But maybe I can just be sad and be comfortable there. That’s when I listen to your music.
I’m happy that one of the good things about my life right now is being able to see that the work I have spent years of my life actually has an emotional connection with people. That makes it worthwhile–all the tough years.
Strangers is out this Friday, 5/20 via Sacred Bones. Get it here or better yet, get it on vinyl here.
All photos by Ebru Yildiz.