Published Mar 30, 2009Hailing from Boston, MA, Marissa Nadler doesn't really fit in any genre. Though she's been labelled freak folk more often than not (as she's too experimental and wispy for straight-up folk), Nadler's latest effort Little Hells actually showcases her mastery of gorgeous, melancholy-soaked Americana that's sounds nothing like that genre. No matter what the label, Nadler's affecting vocals and light touch make all her songs minuscule journeys of the soul.
Why did you pick Little Hells for the title? Was it after the song?
Actually, I don't consider the song "Little Hells" to be the title track of the record. Naming a record can be incredibly difficult. Whether it be a record or a novel, it's always hard because you have to live with it for the rest of your life. I went through so many titles and Little Hells stuck because I googled it and the only thing that came up was a geographical phenomenon in South America where geysers of boiling water cause earthquakes and that sounded like an interesting parallel to the catalyst to write songs.
Do you think that's a theme to the album?
I do think that the record is linked, in a way, as a concept record, vaguely, as the protagonist in each song is a woman who may or may not be me and in each song she kind of quantum leaps through time and space. Like, in the opening track, "Heart Paper Lover," she's an old crone and then in "Mary Come Alive" she's a wife. So, there's this theme, kind of like that movie Sliding Doors, where one decision can change the outcome of your life and in each song there's a different outcome. Also, I was reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road just before I wrote the record and that's about the apocalypse and after reading that, I was thinking about the end of things.
An upbeat, light-hearted album, then?
Well, I don't want to pigeonhole myself, I mean, there's just as many moments on the record of beauty and colour and nature, in my own defence.
Since this a more fuller-sounding record, was that your intention before writing and recording the record?
Absolutely. Nobody likes to be pigeonholed and I really disliked being pigeonholed in the freak folk genre because it was just incredibly unfair. I didn't ask for that and I didn't want to have a career forever linked with some scene when I have every intention of having longevity as a songwriter. Part of my intention with the new record was to explore my sonic capabilities and also to dispel some of the myths about me. I mean, I'll always be able to play the guitar and write songs solo but, on your fourth record in it's time to take some risks, or nobody wants to hear the same record four times in a row.
In bringing the fuller sound, was it all you or how much did others play on the album?
They played a lot. I mean, I wrote all the songs, all the vocal harmonies, all the melodies, and played all the basic guitar and Farmer Dave [Scher] played the lap steel and the organ, I did a Wurlitzer on the first track, and I was lucky enough to get Simone Pace from Blonde Redhead to do the drums.
Did they have any input into the songs?
They had input as it was a very communal effort. It was a really magical recording process actually, we recorded at a studio called the Carriage House in Stanford, CT, and a lot of great records have been recorded there like the Pixies and Belly and stuff that I grew up listening too. Chris Coady, the producer, was not the sort of producer that forced me to do anything. I came into that record saying I want it to sound like Twin Peaks and Julee Cruise's Floating Into the Night meets Edward Scissorhands meets Dusty in Memphis meets Tammy Wynette [laughs]. I had tons and tons of reference points. I knew that I had grown a lot in terms of harmony, like my ability to vocally harmonize with myself and one of my biggest goals was to create harmonies that had their own musical part.
Compared to your earlier albums, did you enjoy the earlier solitary recording process?
The writing effort itself was still very solitary, as I worked on this record last winter when I was extremely depressed and it was probably the most solitary writing effort I ever did and I then sent the demos to Chris [Coady] and he really liked them and it went from there. I'm really enjoying playing with a band because I've definitely paid my dues. I mean, I've put four records out in five years or so, so I'm prolific but I feel like it's nice to have company now. My touring band is different from my recording band completely now, just because of people's situation, but it's so much fun to not worry about boring people because when you get up there with an acoustic guitar they immediately have pre-conceptions about you.
I read recently that you said you played your last solo gig ever?
I didn't really mean that. I mean I said it, but I'm sure I'll play lots of solo gigs. I just mean that they'll be a lot more band gigs.
In the future, will you expand upon working with others?
I have no idea. I mean, it's really where the creative muse strikes. Lately, I've been writing a lot on the five-string banjo. It really just depends how good my songs are a year from now. I've already written four or five brand new ones and they're definitely geared more to the conceptual vein that this record brought me into, which is moving away from cryptic coding because I felt, "what the hell, say what you mean, mean what you say."
You mentioned telling certain stories in each song, and I was wondering what came first for you, lyrics or music?
The music does, surprisingly. Usually I'll pick up a guitar impulsively and start picking at it and get a melody and the words will come out stream-of-consciousness and it happens simultaneously. I'll never write a poem and put that to music. It's always music, melody and then finalizing the lyrics and the structure.
Going back to the notion that songwriting happens like those "Little Hells," do your songs happen suddenly?
Yes. I'll go through periods where I don't write a song for six or seven months and then, lately, because of certain changes in my personal life, I've been writing tons of songs and I have no shortage of things to say or songs to write. It really just depends on what's happening in your life. If nothing's happening then there's nothing to write about, so why bother forcing it? So, usually I'll write a record very quickly or it'll all come at the same time. Little Hells was written in the same time period and for Songs III: Bird on the Water it was also the same period. I remember being holed up and I think that most of the better songs on the record were really perfected in hotel rooms on the road. I know they're not sterile, technically, but they feel sterile.
"Mistress" is my absolute favourite song on the album and I'm wondering if you could talk about the inspiration behind it?
I can't reveal that unfortunately, but let's just say, you know, you listen to the song and take what you want from it, I don't want to get too much into my personal life.
Actually, I was more interested in the musical side of it.
Oh, good, I though you were asking me if it was a true story or not. Musically, I was very excited about the Beach Boys and three-part harmonies on the chorus and how it takes on this Pink Floyd vibe, which people keep noticing. Part of the record was really going into some country roots. I mean, I didn't grow up in the southwest but I grew up listening to music that was inspired by old time Americana, so I was really tapping into stuff like that.
You mentioned you don't enjoy being pigeonholed, do you see efforts in the future as conscious reactions against certain conceptions you feel people have about you?
You never want to intentionally want to do anything just because you don't want to be pigeonholed. I'm going to make the art that I'm going to make regardless of what people think about it. I'm not going to never intentionally write a folk record again just because I don't want to be labelled as folk, you know. Because if that's what I want to do that's what I'll do artistically. I think the thing about my music is that it's an amalgam of many different genres, which is why it's hard to pinpoint, I mean, there's tinges of shoegaze, old time folk, Americana, 80s synth pop... I mean, I'm a child of the '80s and '90s, so naturally I was influenced by all sorts of stuff, so to call yourself Americana or folk is simply selling yourself short.