June 14, 2011
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Marissa Nadler is a singer-songwriter whose self-titled album, her fourth, is released today. Stream and/or buy the album at Bandcamp.
Stuart Nadler is an author, his short story collection The Book of Life will be published on September 1st.
Author Stuart Nadler interviews singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler :
Stuart: I think we're the first brother and sister interview they've had yet on Largehearted Boy. So I'm going to start with a question that only I would know to ask you. So, let's start at the beginning. Growing up, you had this killer poster of Zeppelin on your bedroom wall. I think it was a classic Robert Plant rock-god pose. Listening to your new record, I couldn't help but think that you and Robert Plant both share a love of the mythological. For Plant it was mostly stuff he borrowed from Tolkien. But for you, most of the mythology is your own, and on the new album, you've brought back so many of the characters you created on your previous records. What was the idea behind that?
Marissa: Yes, I did have a major Robert Plant crush and that was one badass poster. If I could Quantum Leap back to 1970, disguise myself as a young Joni Mitchell (the rumored muse behind "Going To California"), steal a backstage pass, and seduce him, afterwards we would have a lot of fun talking about unicorns and dark forests.
Getting back to your more serious question, my mythology is indeed my own. The interesting thing, though, is that approximately half of the "invented" female characters in my songs are archetypes of the different women I see myself as. For instance, when I was particularly depressed, I wrote the song "Sylvia." She was my Ophelia-esque alter-ego. I would never do such a thing, but art is a therapeutic vessel for me and many others.
To dispel a bit of the myth, many of the "characters", like Mr. John Lee and Marie that appear on the new record as well as past records are truly real people whose names are disguised for privacy and syllabic flow. When I first wrote Mr. John Lee (off of The Saga of Mayflower May), I was writing a traditional murder ballad, but with very specific people in mind. The song was written after a bad breakup and was definitely and bitterly written about real people. On this record, in the song "Mr. John Lee Revisited," I check in on these people, see how their lives have changed, forgive them and myself, and do it all in a realistic time and place. For instance, take the lyric "The sheriff he never had to come, to wade through the water, swamps, and some strange mystery, to find Marie." In that song, I unravel the myth word for word.
The general idea with bringing back the characters was to reveal them as real people. I’ll just forget about "Daisy, Where Did You Go?" being written in the point of view of a reincarnated Violet Hilton to make my point. :-) As I’ve said in previous interviews, this is my most honest and sincere record. I wanted to bring back these "characters" and write naturalistic songs about them. As I’m turning 30, and experiencing my Saturn return, I felt it was a good time to look back on my life and check in on my old friends, both real and imaginary.
Stuart: This record is, in the real sense of the word, an independent record, built entirely from the ground-up, and completely fan-funded. Because you knew you had all your fans in your corner, did that give you a greater sense of confidence and freedom going into the studio?
Marissa: I spent so long writing this record that I did have a lot of anxiety about recording it. I was and will always be eternally grateful for my fans funding this record, and all the blogs that got behind the Kickstarter campaign to spread the word. It feels great not to be tied down by a record label and to finally be able to call the shots on my own. Art is such an incredibly personal thing, and it majorly sucks when you have people telling you how to make it. One of my major fears with a fan funded record, however, was disappointing those fans. I know some people want an artist to stay the same. As an artist, I had no intention of making the same record over and over again. I just wanted to make a great record. I feel really good about it. I just hope that the fans who funded it like it too. Nevertheless, a true fan embraces the evolution of an artist, and I think these Kickstarter backers are definitely true fans.
Stuart: When we were growing up, the records we both loved the most were, at their core, brutally honest records: Blood on the Tracks, Blue, After The Gold Rush. So, it's exciting to hear you say that this is your most honest record to date. Listening to it, I get that feeling. Even the production feels, if it's possible, most honest. I've always believed that in fiction writing, honesty is the most important, most crucial element to good work. If it's not honest, the reader will know it, and the work will suffer. But honesty isn't the same thing as fidelity: most readers understand that what they're reading is made up. If they don't, they should. So, what part do you think honesty plays in your work, or in songwriting in general? I guess this is sort of the Almost Famous question: do you have to be in love to write a love song? Does it matter at all? Can Joni Mitchell write "The Last Time I Saw Richard" if she never really knew a guy named Richard? Or is it important simply that the right emotions come through in the final product?
Marissa: Agreed. Marissa Nadler is the most honest record for me so far. I don't think the others were dishonest, however. This particular record is just not disguising certain situations and people. (Names, yes; of course.) I believe that it is easier to write a love song if you are in love. I think it’s also easier to write a heartbreak song if you’ve had your heart torn to shreds on multiple occasions by numerous bastards. I have to write from experience. I don’t think you have to live a certain way to be able to write convincingly well, but is sure as hell helps! And no, I don't think that Joni Mitchell could have written "The Last Time I Saw Richard" if those lurid details that pull my heart out of my chest every time I hear that song weren't true. But, hey, I don't know her, so who knows? Maybe she made the whole thing up? We all create our own versions of the truth, myself included.
So, I guess I believe you have to be in love to write a good love song filled with all those Woody Allen Annie Hall "Lobster Scene 1" moments that make people so hard to forget.
For a long time I believed you had to be a miserable wretch in order to make good art. All my heroes died young. The proof pointed in the direction that the more miserable you were, the better your art was. Now, I don’t believe that. I think art can be the vessel for your unhappiness, if you’re someone who suffers from depression. But you don't have to live your art for it to be real.
Stuart: Quantum Leap was a totally underrated show. I’m glad you referenced it. I’m just waiting for the re-make. So, here's my serious Quantum Leap question. As amazing it is to think about, you've been doing this now - writing and recording and performing - for almost ten years. If you could Quantum Leap back to the person making that first record - Ballads of Living and Dying - what advice would you give her?
Marissa: I wholeheartedly agree that Quantum Leap was an underrated television show. I think it was brilliant. You know, If I could Quantum Leap back in time to when I made Ballads of Living and Dying, I wouldn't do anything differently about the actual record. There’s a great freedom in writing a record that you think nobody is ever going to hear. The fear of rejection is completely removed from the creative process, which is an invaluable gift. You only get it once. At the time, I was free to write about anything. I never believed I would be a career musician. Myles Baer did a great job with it, and that record will always hold very dear to my heart. Ed Hardy from Eclipse Records was amazing for me then, and I’ll never regret working with him.
The advice I’d give has more to do with the career choices I took afterwards. I think in some masochistic way, I broke up with my boyfriend at the time for some kind of painful muse to carry with me in my suitcase when I moved to New York City after graduate school. I still regret it. I know regret is a silly thing. Times were different then, and I had this Bleeker Street-folk-bar-discovery-fantasy that the internet has now made obsolete. These days, I don't think you need a record label. Back then, I think you did. The internet has really revolutionized the independent arts.
That big "cherry in the old-fashioned" advice I would give is to cherish your first work, because you don't have to worry about critics tearing it apart.
Stuart: It seems to me that your work is this sort of unique hybrid of memoir and fiction. You do what the best fiction writers do, which is to create characters with real desires and weaknesses and combine them with this grab-bag of mythology and religious allegory and history and maybe some American folklore. And then there's the part of your work that's closer to something a memoirist would do: it might be a little thinly veiled, you might be changing up some names, but in the end, it's just you and your guitar. But this record seems like a transition to me. It seems like you're bringing back some of the characters you invented so that perhaps you can put them away for good. Are you moving away from fiction? Am I off base?
Marissa: Well, that is awfully sweet of you to say. I'm flattered because I’ve always had major insecurities about pretty much everything! To answer your question, this record is definitely about putting a lot of these people that you mention, whether fictional characters or thinly veiled people in my life, to bed. I’m not sure what my next record will be like in terms of the writing style, but I do feel more drawn towards the gritty details in everyday life as I get a bit older. Nevertheless, even when I sing the truth for some reason it sounds fictional. Maybe it’s the imagery that I use and the colors in my songs, as well as my choice of "stage-names" for people. If you have to make up a name, it may as well have some jazz to you it, you know?
Stuart: You just put out the first single from the new record, "Baby I Will Leave You In the Morning." The song modulates to a different key every few bars. And strangely, the key change serves as the chorus for the song. How'd you go about writing that? Did the key changes come about early in the process? Or was that something that happened in the studio?
Marissa: My songwriting process has always been to write all of the elements at the same time, meaning I write the lyrics, melody, and guitar all at once. It happens as an explosion. Later, I really work on the lyrics more formally, as well as the structure. But melody and basic concept usually stay exactly the same.
I wrote "Baby I Will Leave You In The Morning" at home along with a couple glasses of wine, in one sitting, by myself. Key changes and all. I never changed a single lyric. Absolutely nothing changed about that song except that we took my guitar playing out and replaced it with Carter Tanton's playing. He’s a better rhythm guitar player. I’m very confident with my fingerpicking abilities, but at this point I just wanted the song to sound the best it could. As a lefty playing right hand guitar, I’ve always had trouble getting a good strum down. Carter can play a mean rhythm guitar (through a bunch of My Bloody Valentine effects) so we just swapped that out. The Dr. Dre high pitched synth was my idea. The song ended up being Brian McTear's (producer) favorite, as well as my own, and it was the one that I worked on the least. I agonized over some of the other songs, but this one came full born.
To start, I wasn't even going to put it on the record because I came into the studio with 18 songs and this was #19. I played it for Brian McTear, key changes and all, and he really liked it. I said, "you don't think it needs a chorus?" and he agreed that the key changes served the purpose of a traditional chorus. It was a very exciting break away from traditional song structure for me. As you know, I’m not a trained musician at all, so I was literally just doing it by ear and hearing the key changes, which was really fun to write. It was good bar-chord practice for me when I finally get that flying V.
Stuart: Let's talk about performing. You've talked a lot about how nervous you used to get before you performed. Has it gotten much better?
Marissa: Well, the stage fright has gotten a bit better but it isn't gone yet. I still have the jitters, and the bigger the show, the worse they are. I’m trying meditation instead of medication, and soon I’m going to try cognitive behavior therapy and things like that. Once I’m up on stage, after the first two or three songs, I’m completely fine. It’s just the pre-game show, the waiting around, and all the time that builds up in your head. What really is just playing some songs for some people morphs into a demon sucking your confidence out of your body like a hungry ghost.
Before my lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design the other day, I almost fainted I was so nervous. It was horrible. Then, as soon as I was on the podium, talking about "self mythology" of all things, I started to breath and it got better. Then, when it was time to play, I was fine. It’s totally mind over matter. I just have to find the strength to believe people want to hear the music. I think fear of rejection and a lack of confidence is at the root of my stage fright.
Stuart: By and large, you've made your living from music your whole adult life, which is amazing. But do you ever have trouble enjoying just listening to music, or going to a show? I would imagine - because it's your life, and your livelihood, that it's tough? Am I right?
Marissa: Well, yeah, I suppose so. As you know, it’s not quite a luxurious living but I have nothing to complain about. I would rather make music with integrity and be proud of it, and not make a lot of money off of it, than the other way around. I think a lot about mortality and I want to make sure I leave behind some beauty when I die.
But yes, of course I get sick of going to shows. My boyfriend and I call it "Obligatory Rock." Both of us are musicians, and both of us always have friends playing shows or rolling into town on tour every night. I want to be there to support them and for the most part love the music but I can't go out every night. It’s a vicious cycle of guilt. I don't like crowded places and it's hard not to drink too much when you go see people at shows and have to wait till they are all packed up to go home. So, I’m just now learning how to say, "no, I have to stay in and work." Which is true!
I never tire of music itself, but I generally gravitate towards older music and the classics and greats. I guess I don't listen to contemporary music at all. It isn't that I don't think it’s good, but I don't want to be influenced by my peers, consciously or subconsciously.
Stuart: I know you spent a lot of time, and a considerable amount of energy sequencing the record - deciding what songs go where and when. Maybe this is a question that musicians get asked a lot, but how do you cope with a music-buying public who've been conditioned to expect singles, or who might only download a song or two off the record? I suppose this might eventually happen in the publishing industry - where readers might be able to buy just one story out of a story collection. (It seems sad that somebody might only buy, say, "Cathedral," out of Raymond Carver's Cathedral.) Is all of that as discouraging as it seems like it would be? It seems to me like you might have the terrific sort of fans who might actually want, and want to listen to, a whole record. Am I right?
Marissa: I do believe I’ve got terrific fans who will listen to a whole record. A growing number of people are also getting into listening to vinyl and appreciating the "object" of a record the way people used to do. I think this movement is a direct reponse to today’s plasticity. Consider it two fronts on a battlefield. Even cassette tapes are making a comeback. (I think for nostalgic reasons only, as far as I can tell.) The concept of the "album" is hopefully making a comeback. I made this record as an album, and not as a series of singles. Marissa Nadler is a collection of connected songs and I sequenced them for sonic flow as well as what made sense. For instance, the record starts and ends with the same phrase.
My hope is that people who like an mp3 spread that mp3 around. Some people will listen to singles, and some will listen to albums. This record is an "album" and I hope people notice. If they don't, it’s cool with me because I make art for myself first and foremost.
Stuart: Last night we were talking about how important it is to have people around you to give you honest feedback. You say you had nineteen songs when you went into the studio to record this record. What's the process like in deciding what gets recorded, or what gets onto the final album, or what gets left unrecorded? I don't show anything to anyone unless I'm positive I'm basically finished with it. Do you have a certain core bunch of people you trust to play your demos to?
Marissa: The process is agonizing. You know, I had Carter Tanton who is the main contributor to the instrumentation on the record a lot of the time, just hanging out at my apartment, practicing the songs for live shows. He was pretty key in getting me to take these songs up a notch or two in terms of throwing in a bridge or two. So yeah, I do have a core of people I trust, but even then, if they don't write back immediately, it can be difficult because I take it personally. So, generally, I just have to trust myself. Brian McTear was also extremely supportive of the fact that I had so many songs. Most producers would be like, "you need to cut this down to 12." Instead, on the first day in the studio, we tracked around 15 of the guitar/vocal tracks live and that was that. Brian McTear is awesome, and he realized these songs were my "babies" and that I was really sensitive about throwing them away. So, we made an EP and a record. The EP has less instrumentation on it but the songs on there are in no way lesser works for me.
The most important thing is to just have faith in yourself. I know when I’ve been working hard or slacking. The guilt of not working 24 hours a day follows me around all the time. That may be messed up psychologically but it’s a good impetus for me to get things done. I know when a song is finished and I know when something sucks. At least these days. It took me a long time to get there in terms of self-confidence, but I'm almost there now.
Stuart: Usually, you're really heavily involved in creating all different elements to your records - the packaging and album art, the cd cases, even the envelopes you use to send the music to people. Why didn't you do the cover art this time?
Marissa: Well, because my boyfriend and bandleader of the band Hallelujah the Hills, Ryan Walsh, also happens to be an incredible fine artist. My paintings have always been softer and more painterly. I wanted a strong, bold, confident cover to match the work inside this time. With my fine artwork, I can never stop fussing and obsessing. I had time constraints to keep in mind with my release date and I knew If I did the artwork the record would never come out. I trusted Ryan completely to do a wonderful job, like he does with everything, and he did.
Also, I am so overwhelmed with the handmade CDs on ETSY right now that I knew I had to outsource to the most talented graphic designer I know.
Stuart: This was fun! What's next? Huge tour? A Quantum Leap concept album? You seem like you've always got another project in the works. Anything worth teasing?
Marissa: Well, definitely a Quantum Leap concept album. That’s a fantastic idea. I imagine I’ll be on tour for this record throughout the year. Dates are already coming in. Now that I can finally do whatever I want in terms of record releasing, I want to home-record a covers record volume two on classical guitar and sell that through ETSY. I’ve always loved nylon strings, and I think it would match the innate delicacy of my music. So, I’m accepting recommendations for cover songs.
Stuart Nadler links:
Marissa Nadler links and free & legal mp3s:
Marissa Nadler: "The Sun Always Reminds Me of You" [mp3] from Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler: "Diamond Heart" [mp3] from Songs III: Bird on the Water
Marissa Nadler: "Under an Old Umbrella" [mp3] from The Saga of Mayflower May
also at Largehearted Boy:
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)