After 10 years, five albums, one EP, and a handful of label drama, Marissa Nadler felt burnt out from music. For months, the Boston-based folk singer – who self-released her 2011 self-titled record and her 2012 companion EP The Sister – was grappling with whether to continue her music career when a tweet from Simon Raymonde, former bassist of Cocteau Twins and owner of European record label Bella Union, compelled her to stick around. “I was on Twitter one day,” Nadler says from her home in Boston, “and I saw that Simon had played a song of mine on his radio show. After seeing that on Twitter, someone made an introduction for me and it was all very easy.”
Along with an email from Sacred Bones Records, Nadler signed with both Bella Union and Sacred Bones for her sixth album, July, set for release today. And for someone who once swore off labels, signing with distributors that promoted her music, as opposed to doing it herself, was the change she needed. “The reason I decided to go back to labels after the self-releases,” explains Nadler, “was that I felt I needed help. I needed a team to help me a little. I think there’s lots of pros to being on labels. They really do push your music.” Recently, I spoke with Marissa Nadler over the phone about why she almost quit music altogether, her upcoming album, and her new job teaching fine arts.
Is teaching a new endeavor for you?
Right after The Sister EP came out, I went through some changes in my life where I wasn’t sure what was going to come next. I self-released that record and I was feeling really burnt out. It was kind of emotionally exhausting to be online all the time dealing with the business aspects of self-releasing. I thought I needed to get out my head, so I utilized my teaching degree and my fine art degree and got a part time job.
So teaching, more or less, was an alternative to music.
I just wasn’t sure on what level I wanted to continue pushing for a [music] career. I was exhausted and pretty much my own champion. I’m a shy person and I’m not a natural self-promoter, so it can be kind of awkward to just be on Twitter or Facebook and being the only person trying to push your own music.
Aside from Sacred Bones and Bella Union, did other labels show interest as well?
Over the years there’s been several labels that have written to me that I filed in a little folder in my inbox for a rainy day, and Caleb [Braeeten] from Sacred Bones was one of those people. When I made the decision to sign to Sacred Bones it was after I released a song on Soundcloud – a cover of the Fleetwood Mac song “Save Me a Place”- last December. It got such a positive response even though I did it just for fun. My self-esteem had been kind of low at that moment and I think my perception of how things were going was skewed. So when people continued to show interest in my music, I was like, “Wait a second, people are still interested. Now I just need a little help.”
Did signing to both labels raise your esteem?
Yeah! This is ten years since I’ve put my first record out, so to be signed to these two well-respected labels has been good for me, psychologically. Any artist will tell you that they go through phases of low self-esteem and confusion as to which direction they want to go in, especially in the independent music world. Often time, your financial rewards don’t match up with the critical esteem.
Do you feel you’ve struggled more than you’ve gained?
No, definitely not. The struggles are minor compared to the gains. It’s just that sometimes little negatives can set you back a bit. But overall, even when I was getting my teaching job, I never had the intention of stopping writing music or touring. It was just like, how much of my life will be dedicated to this? But then I had a realization that I’m 100% incapable of living any kind of life that doesn’t involve being an artist.
Turning to the new album, I feel like July is your most candid work yet. Is that fair to say?
Beginning with the self-titled album, the music became more confessional. When I first started writing songs over a decade ago, I was afraid to say what was on my mind. As I got older I guess I developed more gall in terms of saying what I really mean, and I think July has just been a continuation of that.
Is it difficult writing songs that are personal?
The hard part is making the decision to release it to the world. For instance, the first song on the record, “Drive,” is super personal. It’s about the ups and downs of a life of touring and what propels you to keep going. The hard part wasn’t writing it, it was like, “Oh my god, is this too personal to release to the world?” I felt really naked, but I think that’s a good sign.
I think great art demands a sense of exposure, even if it’s frightening.
The internet makes it where if you put something on Soundcloud late at night, the next day it could be all over the internet. You have to be careful because people will say the meanest shit. Most people say nice stuff, but I’ve come across the most horrible things on the internet. You just have to be tough. If you want to be an artist and you want to go for it with your music, you have to not give a shit about what other people think.
Horrible internet comments, I think, are more about being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole.
With the comment sections on some of these music blogs, you just have to take it with a grain of salt. There’s no virtue in being an asshole commentator on the internet. Luckily, I feel like I have a really supportive fan base at this point and I think people know the difference between an over-hyped artist and a lifer.
And your hard work shows on the new record. I was curious as to whether July deals with loss. Like the loss of relationships, music, etc.
Ryan, my boyfriend – he and I had broken up like two years ago on July Fourth – noticed that Side A of July deals with our breakup, and Side B deals with fleeting fancies, “other dudes,” as he puts it. I never noticed that before. But it turned out “Was it a Dream?” was about our breakup, and “Firecrackers” and “Dead City Emily” are about the relationship with him and how much the breakup sucked. And on Side B, “Holiday Inn,” “Desire” and “I’ve Got Your Name” are songs about other men that I met after him before we got back together.
Is Emily in “Dead City Emily” based on a real conversation, or is she a symbol for something else?
The song is kind of a set-up about me having a conversation with a friend , and it’s a fictional conversation; a device to write songs. So in “Dead City Emily,” I’m having a conversation with a friend named Emily and I’m describing to her how miserable my relationship had become at the time and how I was feeling bleak and empty and living in this dead city. And then the chorus is this contrast where it talks about having a realization about love. It’s kind of a contrast between light and dark.
I think the light and dark contrast is also created by the instrumentals and harmonies. Who was involved in your backing band during recording?
The harmonies were definitely the big thing that separates this record from all of my other records. I wrote all the harmonies before I went into the studio and all the background vocals are me, too. As for the backing band, it was produced by Randall Dunn [of Sunn O)))], and then Phil Wandscher plays the electric guitar, Eyvind Kang does the strings and Steve Moore plays the synthesizers.
Are any of these guys accompanying you on tour?
The tour that I have on the West Coast is a three piece with two other girls.
I think it’s great that you have an all-female band.
The last time I really toured with a band, there was just so much male energy that I think I was conscious of getting an all-female band just because I think power in numbers. They also had to be girls because of the vocals. It had to be female voices to recreate my harmonies, and I didn’t have to think about it.
How long did it take to both write and record July?
The writing process was longer than the recording process. I demoed these songs very extensively. On my laptop I had four or five versions of each song before I went into the studio. I’m not one of these people who play music every day. In fact, I’ll go through these depressions where I won’t play guitar at all for months and months, and then I’ll write a record. I kind of hold it in and bottle it up and then it comes out all at once.
Is this your usual method?
I’m the world’s greatest procrastinator. When I feel like I should be doing something creative, I’ll clean the entire apartment from top to bottom, anything to avoid sitting down and having to confront whatever I’m going to say in a song. It’s not all that enjoyable sometimes. I mean, it is enjoyable writing lyrics, but it does make me emotional to write about things that I don’t want to think about. Another thing I recently realized about myself is that I’m a lot more of a perfectionist than I thought I was. Some perfectionists are the greatest procrastinators, because say someone asks me to write a blurb about a video that I’ve done, I’ll spend hours on three sentences reading it over and over. It’s just hard for me to get little things done.