“Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel things so deeply,” Marissa Nadler confides, soft-spoken yet assured, “but it does make it easier to write from a place of feeling.”
It’s a telling revelation, suggestive not only of uncommon honesty and candor but, as well, of insecurities that often accompany such insight. For the 32-year-old singer/songwriter, who is currently recording her next full-length studio album, the qualities that largely inform her aesthetic are also those which reveal her at her most vulnerable.
Consider her most recent works, Marissa Nadler and The Sister, released in 2011 and 2012, respectively, on Nadler’s own Box of Cedar Records. Containing some of her most inspired and affecting songwriting to date, these companion works—“They were recorded in the same studio,” she notes. “Some songs were recorded in the same session.”—illustrate Nadler broadening the scope of her craft and refining signature distinctions that have underscored her music now for nearly a decade.
Nadler, a native of Massachusetts and alumnus of Rhode Island School of Design, was already a seasoned visual artist in multiple disciplines when her debut, Ballads of Living and Dying, was released in 2004. Evoking folk’s acoustic properties (though not necessarily its most traditional or rigid song structures), the album was enriched by the nimble flow of epic poetry with the sort of narrative sweep found in short fiction. Such isn’t to suggest that Nadler’s subjects are contrived, however. As well she insists, “Pretty much everything is very autobiographical stories about people I know.”
In composing the songs for Marissa Nadler and The Sister, Nadler sought new ways of making her music accessible to as many listeners as possible. For instance, she says, “I kind of only recently have discovered the art of the bridge, of things that happen just once in a song to have this really memorable moment. I don’t think I really understood what a bridge was before because I didn’t go to music school. I was a self-taught singer and guitar player. So I just kind of called a song done when it was done.”
As her skills have improved so too has her confidence. “I know some more about music now,” Nadler explains, “and realize how effective a key change or a bridge can be to give a song a little bit more momentum and a narrative arc. I definitely feel that these songs have more of a build, [in] trying to keep people compelled throughout the song.
“I want my music to affect a lot of people,” she continues, adding that her songwriting during this particular period was often inspired by artists whose music had resonated with her in a similarly universal way. “I’d been listening to a lot of records, like Tammy Wynette records and old-school country. I like the mixes on those records where the vocal is really up front.”
Manifested for the most part on the eponymous album, a song like “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You,” for instance, with its steel guitar lending an air of bittersweet nostalgia, wouldn’t sound out of place in some roadhouse honky-tonk pouring out of a Wurlitzer otherwise stocked with George Jones and Loretta Lynn laments. Likewise, “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning” conjures an air of earthy, flesh-and-blood eroticism not unlike what Bobbie Gentry was producing in her prime—or even of Kris Kristofferson’s most intimately informed classics.
While the same vocal lucidity is preserved on The Sister, the album is sparser and more ruminative by comparison. In fact except for a few select embellishments—the snare shots that punctuate “Constantine,” the swirling ebb-and-flow effects that surface throughout “In a Little Town”—Nadler sings with scarcely more than her own acoustic guitar as accompaniment.
Regardless of their musical context the songs on both albums evoke a visceral sense of immediacy, of a moment, as if borne out of a burst of inspiration. Nadler infers as much, describing her songwriting process as one that seems prone to distraction. “I won’t write for a couple months,” she explains, “and then I’ll write all the songs in one sitting. I generally wait until I have a lot of emotions built up about something. Then I sit and write a whole collection of songs all at the same time.”
The emotional transparency of her storytelling makes Nadler all the more susceptible to scrutiny, though, especially when she steps before a live audience. “It’s really painful for me to get up in front of crowds,” she concedes, adding that embarking on a full-fledged tour never ceases to be a nerve-wracking experience. “It takes me four or five shows for me to get into the zone where I’m not just petrified or nervous and sick all day, because I’m worried I’m going to fail.”
Nonetheless, she acknowledges, “Something’s still compelling me to keep doing it. I think it’s the desire to be sharing something with somebody else, or connecting with people.”
Even still, whatever sense of empathy or solace her songs offer listeners, they provide to her as well—perhaps even more so. “I’ve always been really sensitive,” Nadler concludes, “and I think art is the way I cope.”
—All photographs by Courtney Brooke Hall
For more information on Marissa Nadler, please visit the artist’s official website and follow her updates on Facebook and Twitter.