An Interview with Marissa Nadler
  • FRIDAY, AUGUST 17, 2007

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Masachusetts-based Marissa Nadler may not write the punk and hardcore songs that revitalized the DIY movement in the 80s, but the singer-songwriter has gone a similar route. For her first two albums, Ballads of Living and Dying and The Saga of Mayflower May, Nadler sent personalized copies to countless magazines and websites. Today, her
intimate, delicate songs, anchored by her haunted, otherworldly voice that belies the 26-year old’s age, are helping her reach a greater audience and preventing her from licking all her own stamps. Just don’t take a picture of her while she’s performing.

Your brother is a writer and your mother’s a painter. Do you think there’s a genetic link to creativity?

I believe so. After school, I got a master’s degree in art education and became an art teacher in Harlem for a year. There were 5-year old kids that were so superior in skill with drawing and painting. As much as other kids wanted to be good, they never could really equal or surpass those kids with natural talents. I do believe that anybody can get pretty good at something with enough practice, but there are certain gifts that are bestowed upon people.

You did fine arts before music, right?

Yeah. Early on, I had more of a talent for fine art. I didn’t get good at music for a long time just ‘cause I was too shy to sing. I never really thought that I would do anything else than have some kind of life in the arts.

How did you overcome your shyness?

I was just shy all-around. I was one of those people with really severe social anxiety. I think it’s funny that I chose a career where I actually have to talk to people. To this day, if I have to order coffee, my heart beats really fast and I’ll order the easiest thing to say just because I’m so painfully shy. It took me years and years to have confidence to get enough practice to finally find my voice. I started out thinking I wanted to sound like Courtney Love. I think that’s a common thread among angst-ridden teenagers.

Do you still get nervous when you’re on stage?

I sure do, but it’s gotten better. It’s certainly nowhere near as bad as it used to be. I wouldn’t be able to eat or sleep for days before I performed even if there were only five people coming to the show and they were all family and friends. I couldn’t detach myself and get any perspective. Now I think I have a better perspective and think of it as more of a job.

When you do interviews, do you still feel uncomfortable?

Well, it’s weird. I think within most artists, there’s this dichotomy between wanting to be a recluse and wanting to share your self at the same time. On the phone, it’s much easier for me than in person. I don’t like getting my picture taken. I’m very protective of that. I don’t like people videotaping or taking pictures [at shows].

You picked the wrong era to be alive.

[Laughs] I actually sometimes go online and if I see a picture I don’t like, I’ll write the person personally and tell them to take it down. I know that’s not very rock star or cool of me to do. I feel like being a musician doesn’t mean you want to be a model or an actress.

Especially since quiet music doesn’t really lend itself to numerous cell phones in the air.

It doesn’t and I feel incredibly uncomfortable about that.

Do you tell people not to film at shows?

It’s hard to do without sounding like a diva. It’s completely the opposite. A diva would want her face in the spotlight. I don’t mind getting my picture taken if I can look at them and pick the one I like and say, “OK, erase all of them. You can use this one.” I’m trying to just not care anymore and spend my time reading and writing instead of browsing the Internet. When you first get written up on the Internet, it’s definitely like, “Wow, this is so cool. I never thought anybody would like my music.” Then it’s such an unhealthy thing to do. I try really hard to stay away from everything now.

Does praise make your shyness any easier to handle?

It definitely helps but deep down, most artists are so tortured. I know I’m one of those people that no matter how many nice things I hear, I’ll never believe it. Of course, it’s nice to read that stuff, but I have a very deluded sense of self. It doesn’t sink in, but the bad ones do. Those are the ones I dwell on. If I got a bad review when I was starting out, I wouldn’t take my guitar out of the car for a month. I’d be so devastated.

How did you first get involved with singing?

I had this book with every Bob Dylan song that I would play and sing to. I really wasn’t a good singer. It didn’t click immediately for me, and then all of a sudden one day it did. Now I think I finally arrived at a vocal style I feel comfortable with. I went through stages where I wanted to be an opera singer and a country singer and now I’m finally myself.

When you perform, do you prefer a band or alone?

Well, I usually have one other musician with me if I’m lucky. I really can’t afford a band yet. It’s really a logistical thing. If you’re traveling with five people, you have to make a lot more than I do. My goal would be to get my music in a Tim Burton film so I can at least afford a band and realize the potential of my songs.

For your first two records, you sent the album yourself to numerous magazines. Where did this DIY ethic come from?

I just wanted people to hear it I guess. I was ambitious and I like doing projects with my hands. I enjoy making my own jewel cases and decorating envelopes and sending them to magazines I like. And I had a surprising amount of response from that. It was just a hobby of mine sending my music to people. I finally matured to the fact where I realize it’s okay if not everybody likes your music. It’s not personal. I just thought of it as another performance art piece.

Your website has a number of your paintings. When did you first get involved with fine arts?

I always, as far back as I can remember, was drawing. I started around three or four years old and was serious about it from age 12 on. I wanted to be a fashion designer and actually had a sewing machine and made all my own clothes. Then I got more into oil painting and wanted to be a master painting. That was kinda my high school ambition.

When did music become more of a focus? Did it replace fine art or supplement it?

I think it replaced it.

What caused that?

Art school. I started playing guitar around 16 but it was just a hobby. I never thought I had a good enough voice and didn’t really take it seriously. When you’re in art school, everyone’s really good and you want to distinguish yourself. There’s a lot of competition and that took a lot of the fun out of it. I was still having fun with the music ‘cause it was my own thing that I did in my spare time. Slowly, it just became apparent that I really liked to write songs and it replaced art for me pretty much.

Do you still paint now?

I’ve been trying to get back into it. It’s funny because what led me away from painting is what is happening with music now. It’s like, “Oh no, now it’s become a business and a career. I want a hobby.”

Are you afraid of the business end?

Oh, it’s horrible. It takes up quite a good deal of my time just making sure all my dates are correct. Finally, I have a team five years into my music career. I’ve been doing it myself for such a long time that now people want to help and it’s really hard to get over that control thing. I think the reason that I create such dreamy, soft relaxing music is it’s like my medicine. That’s when I truly feel relaxed, when I’m singing. It’s my way of soothing myself and others.

Do you put on your own album at home?

No. Absolutely not. I hate listening to myself. It makes me cringe. I don’t know anybody that wants to listen to themselves. There’s always a moment where you go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I said that.” There isn’t anything you can do. You have to have a Zen approach and don’t look back or forward. You have to accept the fact that once you release art into the world, it’s there forever.

Songs III: Bird on the Water is out now on Kemado Records. Nadler is in the middle of hopping across the U.S. Check out her website HERE or Myspace HERE for dates. - Jason Newman

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