Marissa Nadler Premieres and Is ‘The Best You Ever Had’
On a recent summer afternoon, the gothic folk bard Marissa Nadler found herself discussing the finer points of the apocalypse inside of a Wawa somewhere in Virginia. She and her band were southbound, en route to North Carolina. You could feel the July heat crackling through the phone behind Nadler’s voice, a bit worn but holding on strong (thanks to Throat Coat tea and a daily regimen of vocal warm-up exercises).
Nadler, who’s been forging devastating, deliriously beautiful tunes for over 10 years, notes that this is the first time in a long time she’s toured with a full band, as opposed to performing solo. “Our last record, July, was really the pinnacle of a certain style of music and songwriting, and I wanted to challenge myself to break through the sound that I'd created for myself,” she says. “And you know, I wanted to also not stand up onstage alone and tour alone anymore.” It’s also her first time playing lead guitar and shredding onstage, something she says is a highlight of every night.
On her latest album, the dreary and ephemeral Strangers, Nadler circles the fleeting nature of life and its unexpected discontents, including the dissolution and rebuilding of friendships. “So many fair-weathered friends / problem is when the weather ends,” she croons on the swelling “Katie I Know.” While she’s adept at exploring harsh realities in her music, Nadler is also a dreamer, of sorts. Just not exactly when you’d expect. “I daydream a lot, though I wish I remembered my dreams,” she says. “But I think life is full of enough horrifying details.”
Today, Nadler is premiering the stunning track "The Best You Ever Had" with CLRVYNT. The song is a cut from her forthcoming Bury Your Name (out September 23 on Sacred Bones — preorder it here) a collection of Strangers-era songs originally limited to a cassette release. Check out the song, our conversation and tour dates below.
What headspace were you in while writing Strangers?
Well, when I first tried to start writing, I had really bad writer's block. Like, I had gotten home from all that touring from [2014's] July and was like, “What now?” It's so easy to write breakup songs or love songs. That's kind of second nature to me. It wouldn't have been sincere if I were to write one of those based on my personal life at the time, so it was just kind of looking for inspiration. The headspace was kind of … bleak. And lonely. But you're a writer. You know. It's a very isolating life.
Definitely. You have to balance maintaining a level of solitude that allows you to fully flesh out the ideas in your head, but you can't be alone all the time; otherwise you can start to lose it a little.
I was definitely losing it. I wasn't getting dressed [laughs], you know? I think writing … if you want be good at something, you have to put the time into it. But you run the risk of not having enough life to write about. It's kind of this catch-22. You have to live in order to have experience to write about, but ask anybody who's really good at what they do: They have to put that time in.
What kinds of things were you thinking about? I read that dissolving friendships were crucial to this album.
Yeah. [Sighs] I think at my age, or at a certain age, there is this mass exodus of people. I just felt my world get much, much smaller: People I thought were friends disappear, and the people who get in touch … even if you have a slight bit of success, everything changes. You know, it's actually quite lonely. Building friendships … yeah, that's one song. Generally, I feel like a lot of the songs on the record are some serious depression anthems. Not even. They're just solitary songs.
Speaking of solitary songs, the cover you do of Black Sabbath's "Solitude" on this album rips.
Thank you! I really like that one. It's my favorite cover I've ever done, by far, because I recorded it myself. It's the first time I played lead guitar on anything.
What drew you to that song?
Well, at home we were listening to that record a lot. And every time we listened to that song, I thought, “Ah, this is so pretty. I'd love to do a cover of it.” It was just a really natural fit. The melody is so pretty. Obviously, I tend to favor the downtempo songs, I think. It's kind of a ballad and very beautiful. We were listening to this instrumental yesterday called "Laguna Sunrise." So pretty.
Yes! My roommate and I were listening to that album the other night before going out, and when "Changes" came on, we were just completely silent for however long that song is. It's wonderful.
I really want to do that song. But you know, that Charles Bradley cover came out recently and people loved it … I would like to hear it from a female perspective, though. I kind of wanted to goth it up and slow it down even more and turn it into something different. That's one of the best songs.
Do you think about the apocalypse a lot? I noticed on this album, you envision several times how the world might end.
I do. I do. I think about the fleeting nature of life a lot. And in some ways, it is a coping mechanism: If you think that everything will go away in a second, things won't hurt as much. It's like, if you have the perspective that we are just these little ants on a giant orb, it makes your painful experiences easier to deal with. We're living in an environment where the political climate is really, really concerning. There's increased strife in many countries…it's really not hard to make the mental jump to something really disastrous happening. I'm not trying to be fatalistic or anything, but a lot of people probably think about that a lot. Doomsday has been a theme since the Bible. I mean, even from the very very beginning of people putting ink to paper, people were thinking about the world ending.
That's true. But the conversation seems more pressing now, based on depressing scientific facts and, like you said, the political climate.
Yeah. Cities are sinking into the water … I mean, we'll see. I don't necessarily think it's going to happen in our lifetime, but you never ... I hope it doesn't. I'm not one of those people who — what's the word — romanticizes anything horrible happening. I'm not into the stylization of pain. It's just reality.
I was interested in "Shadow Show Diane," the name you gave the woman through the window near your house. Did she notice you noticing her, and was she performing for you, you think?
No, no. [Laughs] Basically, I live in a triple-decker in Boston, and it was just really just my imagination taking off. She wasn't dancing for me or anything; it was just watching her shadows and kind of making up a story about her. There has been no interaction. Nobody who is in these songs has any idea that they're in my body of work. I keep changing names: Katie, Janie, Emily. They're always fake names for real people. I learned my lesson the hard way not to use real people's names in songs anymore.
Do you feel a little voyeuristic when you write about people you know, and being in that position of observation in addition to friendship?
No. I think pretty much [all] of the wonderful songs that I can think of are about people. They always say write about what you know. I feel like it's more sincere to be taking details from real life. It's easier to cut through the milquetoast mire of trite songwriting if you're using real details. I don't feel like the Diane Arbus of songwriting; it really is part fiction, if that makes sense. I always struggled with [Arbus] as a photographer. That's taking it to a way different level. With Strangers ... is it better to write about strangers or people that are in your life? Who knows. I don't think anybody that's in this record has any idea or even bothered to listen to the songs, so ...
How do you protect yourself when you make yourself so vulnerable in these songs? They're as much about you as they are about other people.
I don't do a very good job of protecting myself. But I am a firm believer in sincerity in art. I really … I'm not a fan of ... I'm not going to name any names, but I'm not a fan of talking down to audiences or acting like I'm better than anybody. I just try to put myself out in the truest and purest sense. And I think when people come up to me at shows and say, “Your music helped me through a really hard time,” it makes me realize that that purity is worth putting into the songs.
How does it feel listening to Strangers now?
I'm probably still too close to it. And I'm a true perfectionist, so it's really hard for me to listen to my records and not only hear the shit I could change. But I think that's a good thing. I'm trying to never be complacent, and I'm trying to make a record a year before I die. I want to get better and better. People like to put songwriters in a box and, you know, when you're able to break through that box and continue to evolve, that's the sign of life instead of a flash in the pan.
Tue/Oct-04 Cleveland, OH Grog Shop
* - w/ Ghost