Marissa Nadler walks slowly in her music videos. She looks melancholy, as though her mind is somewhere else. Her work is commonly described as dreamy, dark, even ominous. It’s hard to shake the feeling that when the song ends, she vanishes with it, evaporating like dew into the air.
The reality is entirely more ordinary and complex.
“There was a time when I really truly believed you had to suffer for your art,” Nadler says a few weeks before her June 26 show at the Sinclair in Cambridge. We’re talking over coffee at a café in Somerville, where she sits up very straight in a red-and-black striped scoop-neck T-shirt and cherry lipstick to match. “I really bought into that myth. And then I grew up and realized, alright, I’m not going to die at 27 of a heroin overdose to prove that I have indie credibility. I’m not going to purposefully f--k up my personal relationships. I just grew up. There was definitely a time where I was self-sabotaging my life in order to write songs. And then my brother was like, dude, that’s all bulls--t. You can live a normal life and be an artist. You can just put all that into the music.”
Nadler, who now resides in Roslindale (she is too much of an introvert for New York City, she says), plays her 12-string acoustic guitar in a gentle finger-picked style, sings in a pure, sensual soprano, and writes songs that seem to flicker in black-and-white. She resists the term “folksinger,” though. Her musical idols are Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. She feels more of a kinship with the introspective roar of shoegaze than balladry. Her muses are the characters made up in her head, lonely souls from a past life.
Nadler’s decade-long career contains nary a misstep. From her well-received debut, “Ballads of Living and Dying,” in which she mined the archetypal tragic story ballad in a series of hypnotic reveries, to her latest release, the poetically confessional “July,” she has garnered seemingly nothing but positive reviews and a devoted fanbase. So it’s a bit surprising when, reflecting on “July,” she says, “This new record definitely feels like a rebirth, career-wise.”
In between 2011’s raved-about self-titled album and 2014’s critically-adored “July,” Nadler released the eight-track-long “The Sister” on her own label, Box of Cedar Records. It received favorable, though not glowing reviews. (Pitchfork, usually unreservedly supportive, called it “the first minor album of her career.”) Nadler took the criticism very much to heart. Without label support or an overseas distributor, she worried that she might not be able to make a full-time living playing music. She even took a day job teaching fine art to high school students.
“I was just devastated by [that]. There’s just nothing worse than mediocrity,” she says. “And in some ways I would’ve rather been critically panned than had a lukewarm response. Because I’m just such a perfectionist.”
That perfectionistic streak goes a long way back. As a teenager, determined to get into the most selective art school possible, Nadler painted obsessively, holed up in her basement copying master paintings. Sometimes, for fun, she would play guitar and sing. She was accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design, completed her degree—and promptly embarked on a career in music.
“I think that when I was at art school, they teach you to kind of intellectualize your art-making process,” she explains. “Much like people that go to music school have an intellectual approach—not all of them, but there’s a more methodical approach to the creation process. So when I was painting I would get frustrated and I would tear it apart, like: ‘Oh, this is so derivative of this, this, this, and this.’ And music became a refuge because I didn’t have any high expectations for myself, the way that with art, I really wanted to be exceptional at.”
So it is something of an irony—albeit a predictable one—that songwriting, once a comfort, could provoke the same kind of artistic frustration that pushed Nadler towards music in the first place. In order to work past her self-doubt in the wake of “The Sister,” she adopted an intense writing regimen, determined not to let a song go unfinished, regardless of how good or bad she thought it was.
“There’s no muse,” she says firmly. “I think that myth of sitting around and waiting for some kind of artistic muse to inspire you is kind of bulls--t. At least I think so. This record’s success is all about work ethic. The work ethic to sit there and force myself to write ‘til I was going crazy. I used to think I believed in a muse, and that relationships could be muses. But I don’t think so anymore.”
In “July,” Nadler employs the same moody aesthetic and refined taste that she always has. A self-taught musician, she wisely relies on her mesmeric, fragile guitar work and the languid magnetism of her clear soprano, enveloped, as always, in reverb and intricate countermelody. Her songs are trancelike but slyly memorable; she has an exquisite ear for hooks that don’t sound like hooks. Lyrically, she straddles a careful line between the impressionistic and the particular, painting vivid vignettes that evoke feelings—loss, yearning, transcendence—more than they tell a concrete story.
“Lyrics are tough because if you’re too sentimental, you risk being trite, and if you’re not sentimental enough you risk stonewalling the audience into not feeling anything,” explains Nadler, who says melodies usually come more easily. “And there’s this really fine line between oversharing and not sharing enough. I think I’ve finally gotten—the early records were very veiled, so much metaphor and storytelling that I wasn’t really on the line so much.”
Since her debut, which contained tragic parables about invented characters, Nadler’s songs have edged ever-so-slightly towards the confessional.
She adds, “Although the music has a dark tinge I think it’s gotten more positive. There are songs that have light and dark in them. Nobody’s dying in my songs anymore. My earlier records, if I didn’t like somebody, I was just killing them. … Nobody is meeting their demise in this work anymore. It’s processing and moving into a positive space, I think. Like that song ‘Dead City Emily,’ even though it’s very ambient and it’s in D minor, and the lyrics actually refer to a period of time where I was coming apart, but the chorus is actually ‘Oh I saw the light.’ It’s a positive message.”
“Dead City Emily” is the sort of song that sticks in the heart, heavy. It begins with a memory: “I was coming apart those days/ I don’t give a damn about the way/ Colors on the trees/ Change from red to green/ It’s a dead city, Emily.” At the chorus, Nadler’s voice spirals upwards—“Oh I saw the light today/ Opened up the door”—but it’s hard not to catch a note of apprehension in her words. “Any other man would have run, run away/‘Em, we’re stuck inside the war/ Any other man would have run, run away/ Emily, he’s something more.”
Like all of Nadler’s best work, “Dead City Emily” is neither one thing nor the other. The love that she sings about is tough, inescapable. It carries with it both promise and pain. One of Nadler’s greatest talents has always been her ability to make ambivalence resonate. In those songs, even the murkiest, dreariest emotions are at once sharp, poignant, and true.
This article was originally published on June 23, 2014.