While James Taylor, Aimee Mann and Joan Baez have become household names as singers who came out of Boston, Marissa Nadler is still considered a newbie in the town she calls home, even though she’s well-known in other parts of the country.
"Unfortunately, I haven't played much in Boston," said the 32-year-old singer-songwriter. "It's been a more difficult city for me to perform in. I don't know why. I feel like my music doesn't really fit in because it's not really folky or really, really heavy. It's somewhere in between."
Despite the initial lack of response she's gotten in Boston, she has seen a change in the way fans here have been responding to her dream pop sound, especially with the recent release of her latest album, “July,” and a special gig on Thursday at the Redstar Union in Kendall Square.
Here's an example of that sound, "Was It a Dream."
Nadler grew up in the suburbs outside of the city and started dabbling in music when she was 14 after watching her brother play the guitar. Like other self-taught musicians, she learned how to perform other people's songs before joining a number of "short-lived bands in high school." While she could have pursued music in college, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design and studied painting.
"That was its own experience and where I did my first record — at art school,” she said.
After releasing her first two albums, “Ballads of Living And Dying,” and “The Saga of Mayflower May” in 2004 and 2005 Nadler moved on to Kemado Records where she recorded two more projects – “Songs III: Bird on the Water” and “Little Hells” later in the decade. Unsatisfied with how things were going, she left and formed her own label, Box of Cedar Records. She released a self-titled album in 2011, and 2012's "The Sister" DIY-style, but realized going the independent route would only take her so far, despite having control of each project.
"I never vowed to never work with a label again," she explained. "I was just DIY for a little while, but I was spending so much time worrying about the other stuff that my creative energy wasn’t up. Now it’s really nice to have help again. I think there’ a limitation. … unless you’re Beyonce or Radiohead. It’s just a lot of work to get a record out there.”
So when she decided to work on her next studio LP, Nadler went back to the traditional way of things and signed with Sacred Bones Records in the U.S. and Bella Union in the U.K . to release “July.” Now in her early 30s and more experience in her back pocket including a stint as an art teacher in New York, Nadler moved back to Boston, Jamaica Plain to be exact, and has been enjoying the comfort and familiarity of being back home.
"I have to say I love Boston. I tried living in New York and tried living in other places, and I just came back and I'm happy. When I've been on tour for a while, I love coming back home. I mean, I get excited when I hear the accent when I go through customs or something and then I hear them talk and I think, 'Thank God, I'm home.' It's kind of comforting, and I just love really strong Boston accents," she said (without a trace of one). I really love living here."
“July” is a collection of 11 tracks that all carry the same minimalist, ambient musical thread with lyrics that are clearly written from Nadler's experiences.
“It’s the same Marissa that I’ve always been," she explained. "It’s the same person. It’s just each record is different from the one before just because you get older and you have new experiences.”
Inspired by nature, Nadler has been incorporating natural elements into her music since she started songwriting. “I grew up in the suburbs," she said. "I guess the landscape and the very distinct change in the seasons is how I write lyrics. I think a lot about time passing if that makes sense. I think the weather has a lot to do with what I write about."
Now she makes sure to be around as much of it as she can — even if it's in the middle of a city. "Living in Jamaica Plain, the places I go in the city are around there," she said. "I like to go to Jamaica Pond. That's my favorite place because it's nature in the middle of the city. I mean, I do all my writing in my apartment so I don't feel the need to leave or anything."
With a fresh outlook on finding a place in its music scene, Nadler is looking forward to playing at the Redstar Union Thursday, but it isn't any show. She will also be talking more about her album as part of the venue's "Behind the Album" series. It will not only be live streamed for fans who won't be able to make it, but they can tweet questions to #BEHINDTHEALBUM.
Even though Boston is home to her, she’s still nervous about playing locally. "What's strange is, you know when you go to your hometown and everyone you know is there?" she asked. "When I'm in New York or wherever, there's this sense of anonymity. I don't have to see my family in the crowd and all my friends in high school and get super awkward. But I'm really excited to play Redstar Union. That should be fun."
Emily Tan (@cessemi) is a New Jersey-based journalist and photographer who's contributed to TheBoomBox, Diffuser.fm, Village Voice, Idolator and more. You'll normally find her running to the next gig plugged into her iPod with a cup of coffee in one hand and camera in the other.