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The Art of Being a Homebody: An Interview with Marissa Nadler

on May 18, 2016, 12:00pm

Ever since her debut album dropped in 2004, Marissa Nadler has been painted as a gothic folk artist who, above all else, is dainty — the type of girl found in a Dior perfume ad or writing poems in a rose garden. To some extent, that’s fair. The singer-songwriter long ago mastered the art of heartbreak songs and delivers them with a quiet, sleepy pop structure and vocals that invoke pain-imbued beauty. Nadler’s press photos see her donning gorgeous dresses with her black, curly hair tumbling over one shoulder, often with trimmed flowers scattered around her, a media presentation that seems designed to push the dainty image. But when she opens the door to her home, that preconceived identity quickly dissipates.

It’s raining in Boston for the fourth day in a row, but it creates a beautiful air in Nadler’s neighborhood. She lives in Jamaica Plain, the artsy neighborhood of Boston, on the second floor of a towering teal apartment. When she hears the doorbell ring, she doesn’t buzz me up, but rather comes down to the front door to let me in herself. She’s talking fast, clearly frazzled, and invites me upstairs, apologizing because she’s “behind” on her schedule. She flew back from a tour with Black Mountain last night and slept in by mistake, causing her to miss the premiere of the latest single off her forthcoming album, Strangers.

“I like to write the post myself, that way people know I care about what I’m making, because I do,” she explains as she throws a kettle on the stove. “Coffee? Tea? I’m so sorry.” She covers her face with her hands and sighs. In her kitchen, pristine pots and pans hang from hooks on one wall, a few candles sit in the center of the dining room table, and an assortment of tea sits stacked in a basket that she pulls out of the pantry. Nadler’s home is full of tidy comforts – dozens of plants brighten the living room and hand-sewn pillows, some with nudes, sit on the couch in a specified placement — but none of it suggests she’s particularly enamored with flowers and lace. In fact, it’s the home of someone far more down to earth, and as she pulls a black sweatshirt over her head and pushes her palm on the knob of a red coffee press, Nadler calls to mind a late-20s roommate more than anything else.

“A lot of my pictures before had me in dresses and in the woods, but the thing is, that’s not really me … at all,” she says. “Let’s put it this way: The world ethereal is not my friend. It’s my foe.”

As she rasps her fingers against the mug of coffee, Nadler talks about wearing jeans onstage now and trying to only wear lipstick, if that. It’s a change that seems trivial but represents something greater: a confidence that both she and her music can and should be taken more seriously. “I feel like I’ve now earned my badass mode where I don’t have to dress up anymore,” she says. “Do you think every male musician is spending two hours in front of the mirror perfecting his makeup? No, he’s eating. Every time I go on tour, I lose weight because I don’t have the time to, and there’s all these expectations.” Her husband’s tortoiseshell cat, Twyla, enters the kitchen several times to meow. She’s persistent about attention, but Nadler blames it on “tortitude,” an attribute that’s exactly what it sounds like — and something she’s adapting into her own life in a far more understated way.

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It seems strange that a musician who’s been around for over a decade would wait this long to change her image, to crawl out from under the guise of an identity that’s never quite felt representative. She blames part of it on naivety and the other part on a prolonged sadness. “I think it’s because my life these past two years hasn’t been too vivid,” she says, pulling her fingers through her hair and twirling them. “Writing is so isolating.” In the safety of her own home, Nadler is miles away from how the media shapes her, but she’s also stuck in her own mind. After marrying a fellow Boston musician and moving in together, she’s begun to see some light return to the picture.

Sonically, charting Nadler’s growth is easy. Her early days took inspiration from others she hung around with. A friendship with Josephine Foster resulted in a newfound desire to be an opera singer. Nadler sung Pablo Neruda songs and her own in an eccentric falsetto, an affectation that’s finally disappeared over the years. Then came the lyrical pressures of her brother, a local Boston novelist who releases poignant fiction books on the regular. “I have an insecurity complex because of it,” she admits, a bit shyly. It’s hard not to when your sibling teaches at Bennington, Boston University, and others, waking up at 5 a.m. to write when you sleep in later than your husband. But now, those are things of the past.

As we enter her bedroom, Nadler looks happier than ever. The whitewashed room is tidy and welcoming, complete with an old armoire in the corner, with open doors to her craftily cluttered studio. There’s a palpable confidence bursting from Nadler in the wake of completing Strangers, and being surrounded by the bits and pieces that created the album automatically perks her up. “The pop music world has always been married to fashion, but there’s a big difference between signing up to become a performer and a musician,” she says. For her, being a musician is about creating something worth connecting to, and this philosophy extends all the way to her music videos and artwork. The album’s cover is a photograph of her holding a black sheet across her body, an expression of confidence instead of a shield.

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“Some jerk wrote to me the other day saying, ‘Is it true that an artist’s first three records are their best?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,’” she recalls with anger. “Blue is Joni Mitchell’s fourth album. Blood on the Tracks is Bob Dylan’s 15th album. With female musicians especially, there’s this aging out, but that’s been broken by people like Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, and Neko Case. They give me power that I can make my best work not just in my 20s, but in my 30s.”

Strangers makes a great case for Nadler’s musical reinvention. There’s the forwardness of her new, white electric guitar and how that shifts predetermined perceptions of her work (“There’s so much stigma you have to fight against when you stand up there in a dress with an acoustic guitar”), but there’s the fullness of rhythm and overlapping melodies, too. “Katie I Know” began like a Nick Drake song and transformed into something with a much sturdier rhythm section. “It was beautiful and delicate, but I’ve done a lot of those records,” Nadler says. “I didn’t want to make that type of record again.”

The conscious push away from her past work mirrors her life changes. With marriage comes a healed heart, and with a brighter apartment comes shapely songwriting. Strangers by no means lacks Nadler’s signature gothic shadows; it just views them with sharper eyes. “If you’re not trying to out-do yourself with each record, there’s a problem,” she explains. “July was an easy record to write because it’s so human to write about a hurting heart, and when my record wasn’t in shambles, I panicked.” This time, inspiration came from a markedly different place: advice from friend and fellow musician Angel Olsen. “A few years ago, I told her I was having trouble writing, and she told me really seriously, ‘You just gotta do it like a day job.’” Nadler took those words to heart. She began waking up each day and writing a song, ignoring when it didn’t feel right, to avoid making the same record 10 times in a row — even if that’s what some people want.

Nadler’s apartment boasts handmade objects left and right, but it lacks the wall of framed friends and family most residences have. Strangers more than makes up for this. Though still personable, it loses the hard, autobiographical feel of past records by narrating the lives of others, most of whom are people from Nadler’s life. On “Janine in Love”, she watches a close friend fall in love repeatedly and lives vicariously through her, each time with excitement. “Katie I Know” details the death of a friendship. “All the Colors of the Dark” recalls the time she drove to her ex’s house in Attleboro, MA, to finally see where he got married, sitting behind the car trying to muster up the courage to approach the door.

“’Shadow Show Diane’ is literally me staring into people’s windows, which is so weird,” she laughs. “When Stephen O’Malley [of Sunn O)))] told me it was creepy and voyeuristic, it honestly was a huge compliment. This woman is always naked, always has men over, and isn’t modest in the least.” There’s a fine line between sentimentality and cheese, and Nadler works hard to avoid the latter by keeping cryptic banalities out of the equation. These aren’t strangers, but people she knows well enough to mourn change in, further appreciating her own life in the process. In fact, Strangers is more personal than July — it’s just not first-person in the strictest sense.

The studio is where Nadler’s personality finds its true form. Art supplies drape across every inch of the floor. The outer rim of the room has fabric scraps stacked in a pile, paintbrushes dipped in water cups, balls of clay in plastic bags, a tower of journals next to a giant ruler, a sewing machine stopped mid-stitch on another countertop. The inner circle is a tangle of cables, mounted guitars, recently cleaned synths, and mounted microphones. Nadler is a visual artist more than anything else; it’s what she went to college for. When home between tours, she teaches art lessons to students throughout the city, ranging from painting to sculpting and most anything in between.

While most artists obsess over the do-it-yourself ethos, Nadler obsesses over the creative component of DIY. It took her weeks straight — not once leaving the house — to create the claymation video for “All the Colors of the Dark”. Apart from walking around the perimeter of Jamaica Pond nearby, she stays indoors. “I’m the ultimate hermit,” she admits with a shrug, taking in the bursts of color in the studio. Normally a recluse attitude keeps musicians shrouded in gloom and mystique, but Nadler’s solitude isn’t a mental state clung to for angst’s sake. It’s a natural way of living for someone so full of fantastical visions that they feel the need to capture each one for others to see – and she’s talented enough to create them via music and art.

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While I pack my belongings to leave, Nadler quietly takes out some art supplies to prep for her next music video, “Janine in Love”, which she’s also creating herself. She wants it to be dark and creepy. As she describes the concept, the kettle goes off, and she immediately shushes it, as if partly afraid of its screech. She mentions that Chelsea Wolfe is playing Boston soon and kindly extends an invite.

Marissa Nadler isn’t the type of musician to chase after gothic music with a flower in her hair. She’s a homebody looking to appreciate darkness without a bed of flowers behind her to glam it up. Music like hers stems from a combination of self-inflicted anxiety and a full-on art binge, creating an excitement to interact with the world while being hyper-aware of it from the inside of her home.

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