For those of you that remain unfamiliar with Marissa Nadler, the Massachusetts-based folk-singer songwriter has been generating plenty of buzz the last several years for her starkly beautiful yet dark and haunting records. The tales she tells and the melodies she weaves are intricate and intimate, anchored down by a voice that soothes while simultaneously demanding your attention. She just released her fifth record last month, a self-titled effort that was made in the most independent fashion possible, free from the wheelings and dealings of traditional record label culture. In many ways it is also her best – continuing to push her songwriting to new emotional heights that bring you in closer than ever before. It is just one of several things she’s accomplished over the last couple years, but ultimately it all comes back to an undeniable passion for music and the art of creative self-expression. I had the chance to sit down and talk with Marissa for a short while before her set at Schubas last Thursday night. Here is the transcript of our conversation.
Give me a brief outline of the last couple years and how you’ve developed into your own fully independent artist.
Basically I just wanted to stop working with labels, and decided to put my own record out. So I went about doing anything I could to make that happen.
And Kickstarter was the way that you chose to do that.
Yeah, I heard about that through some friends and gave it a try and it was really successful, so I was able to fund the recording of the record and then decided to manufacture it and put it out myself. I don’t want to go over all the last couple years, I mean it’s pretty common knowledge at this point. I stopped working with my label, and it was not an amicable split at all. I sort of had to do it, it wasn’t like I wanted to do it. I think it’s a great thing for artists, but I also don’t want it to be connected with my art at all, if that makes any sense. It’s a great tool for artists, especially in America where the government doesn’t have any funding for artists.
Is there anything that you miss about being signed to a record label that’s not your own?
There’s a lot of things a label can do that I can’t do and I’ve kind of learned that. I’ve been driving myself around from town to town and am really exhausted. Labels give you a sense of security and family. In some ways I do miss that. They pay for a lot of stuff. They’re good, it’s just that you can’t mistake the fact that they’re really not your friends. They make it so you think that you have this great support system and this family, but then when it ends it’s just nothing. I do miss having a support system, because I do everything myself, and it’s pretty hard work I’ve found. Doing all the driving, and I have booking agents and stuff like that, but it’s exhausting. I’m a little worn out right now, especially since I drove 10 or 11 hours yesterday. There’s so many things, like for instance my record has gotten a lot of press in the United States, but I couldn’t afford a publicist in Europe, so even though Europe used to be my best place, now I don’t even think that’s it’s really known that it’s out yet over there. There’s just a lack of money to make that happen.
Outside of all the driving around and the lack of a support system, what are some of the biggest challenges you have found going it alone?
Basically just that my reach is not that far. There’s only so much I can do. You have to pay for everything. It was really a sad day when I realized that a review in a magazine meant that somebody paid for it to be there. Like I used to think that everything with Rolling Stone is because they just have really good taste in music or whatever. Then I remember being really disappointed when I found out that even in indie music it really is like even indie labels, it’s like you have PR and there’s hype. My reach is not that far because I’m not willing to pander to the hype. I’m not willing to adhere to a style that’s popular. I just do my own thing. So I struggle to tap into an effective way to…the hardest thing is just not being able to do everything myself. Like I have my limitations. I want the music to be the most important thing. I don’t want to be in front of a computer all day crunching numbers, but that’s what running your own business entails. That’s something I may not want to do forever. I’d rather just write songs, but I didn’t feel like going through the process of sending my record again and again to labels after having seven or eight years of touring. I felt like I paid my dues and never didn’t really get like a lucky break and didn’t feel like having to prove myself. So I was just like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do it on my own.” People that like my music like it, and it may not be huge but I just didn’t want to send it to every indie label to have it rejected.
So now you’ve got your own label, Box of Cedar. Is there anything you plan to do with it other than release your own music?
Maybe. It depends on how well my record sells and if I have any funds to put towards other people’s music that I like. Yeah, I might in the future release other records if I can afford it.
Have you had anybody approach you asking to be signed?
People have, actually. I feel like I’ve done a good enough job at making it look like a real label because I’m getting asking if I’ll put their records out. So, maybe.
Let’s talk a little bit about the new record. You chose to self-title it. What was the reasoning behind that?
I just felt that I had always wanted to self-title a record and I really like this record a lot. I felt like it was a really strong collection of songs. The thought process was not, “This is the definitive Marissa, and all other records are not.” I still like all my other records and I’m happy with the continuation of my body of work. I just felt like self-titling it because I hadn’t yet.
In many ways I think that the new album is a little more honest and a little more personal than your past records. At the same time, a lot of the same character that have been on your earlier records re-appear here, and instead of them being in more fictional situations, now they seem more reality-based. I’m curious as to how you’ve tried to reconcile the difference between the previous ways we’ve gotten to know these characters and how they’re represented here.
The old songs were never fictional, it’s just that I used to make up names for people that were in them and have situations take place in other settings. I just decided to not do that anymore. I felt like writing more in the first person. All my music has always been very personal, and I think it’s a misunderstanding from the way that the press has been recycling information, because I know that’s in my press release. I that my records have always been really personal and really honest, it’s just that there was the difference between using third person vs. first person or using fake names instead of real names. The emphasis behind the songs has always been really honest.
Do you feel that it’s tougher to write a song about a much more personal experience in your own life versus something that happened to somebody else that you know?
I think it’s easier to write songs about real life or in first person. I don’t know if it’s easier or not, I just write songs when I feel like I need to write some I guess. It’s hard to explain it into words.
I’m curious as to how much work you put into sequencing your records. There’s something about how the new album flows – the songs very much seem to compliment one another.
I did put a lot of time into sequencing. You have to. I had 18 songs, and five or so ended up on the upcoming EP. It’s just a matter of listening to the songs you have and trying to choose the best ones. You don’t want songs that sound the same-ish to be next to each other, you don’t want anything too different…it’s kind of a guessing game.
Any idea when the EP is going to be out?
A couple months probably.
Tell me a little bit about some of the more collaborative work that you’ve done. I know you recently recorded a couple songs with the band Cloud Seeding.
Yeah, he’s [Kevin Serra aka Cloud Seeding] a friend of mine and he asked me to sing on that project and…I did. I like to do collaborations because it gives me a chance to sing some different styles of music and stuff like that.
Do you find the creative process to be a little different considering that you normally write and compose your own songs? In collaborating with another artist there’s this whole other dynamic you’re entering into.
Well yeah, but usually like with Cloud Seeding I wrote the melody and the lyrics for it. I usually will not sing other people’s melodies or lyrics. I don’t see the point in doing that. I’ll collaborate with somebody, like with Xasthur, the black metal record I did, I got to sing what I wanted, so it made it a lot better for me.
If there’s one thing you want people to know about your new record…
[Lightheartedly] Just to listen to the fucking record! I really think regardless of how it was made, I don’t think when a person puts a record out on a label that they talk about the label constantly. If you want to know what the songs are about and the lyrics are about, you should listen to the record. Cause it’s really hard to describe what the influences behind an entire record are. I keep getting that question and it’s just like, listen to the songs because it’s really obvious. I don’t mean to say that in a bitchy way at all, but there’s nothing really I have to say about any of the music other than what you can listen to. If I wanted to be a writer, I would be, but I write songs so you can listen to them and then know what I mean. I don’t know how to explain when they’re obviously about love and loss and sadness and anxiety and whatever, but if people want to know that all they have to do is press play.
Have you ever thought about trying to write an exceptionally upbeat or happy record, or is that just not in your nature?
No, that is not true to my nature. Not at all. I think aesthetically I’m drawn to melancholy.
Thanks to Marissa Nadler for the interview. If you haven’t already, please buy her new record. It is very good. A sample mp3 for your taste testing pleasure: