Recess Interviews: Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler has churned out records with exceptional regularity for well over a decade. With Ama Divers opening, she will bring her dreamy "ghost folk" to the Pinhook July 9. Nadler spoke with former Recess editor Lauren Feilich about the need to create, the satisfying drone of talk radio and more.
The Chronicle: When did it first become clear that making music is something you really love and want to do with your life?
Marissa Nadler: When I was in high school, I was musical and later got more serious about it. I was more interested in fine arts. I was always an artistic person, it just depends on what medium.
TC: You’ve released an album nearly every year since you started out. Does it feel like something you consciously try to do, or is it sort of inevitable to be prolific like that?
MN: I think there’s something about my personality that feels a need to create constantly, so I think I’m just incapable of relaxing and doing nothing. I try to keep busy and keep a good work ethic. It’s also therapeutic to make records for me. It’s fun, which is good to like your work.
TC: A lot of those albums were self-released or released on smaller independent labels. How was it to do "July" with Sacred Bones?
MN: It’s been great. I actually have two record labels now: Sacred Bones for North America and Bella Union for Europe. They’re both really good labels. I’m at the stage in my career and my life where I can really appreciate the extra help and reach that these labels have. I released two before this one on my own, so I know how hard it is; it can be rewarding, but to have the help and all of a sudden meet all these other great bands was a big plus.
TC: How would you describe the evolution of your sound over the course of your career?
MN: I can definitely explain the evolution of my writing, which has grown from fiction to nonfiction. Although my early records were based in reality, there were liberties taken. Now I’ve started to, not to be cliché, write more of what I know—microscopic evaluations of my life instead of general vibes, more razor sharp and less ambiguous. Musically, my voice has gotten more mature and each record is a little different.
TC: I wanted to ask about those earlier more narrative songs. Where did you find inspiration for those?
MN: At the time I wrote my first record, I was in design school coming from a pretty liberal-thinking place. I guess I was listening to Nick Cave, you know, Murder Ballads… I always had a dark side, but I was really goth back then. It was a long time ago. I was in this world of being aesthetically turned on by the macabre.
TC: Your sound is often described as ethereal or, I think I read somewhere that someone called it ‘ghost folk.’ You’re coming to a small-ish venue like the Pinhook that lies between house show and seated auditorium…. Where do you think your music sounds best?
MN: Places I enjoy playing are dingy night clubs. I actually prefer standing venues even though I get booked in auditoriums because [my music is] maybe gentle, or delicate. I think the core of my music is broken and heavy and gets inside a dark, dank hole. I enjoy playing in clubs with graffiti-covered walls. When people are seated in a nice place, it’s a little awkward, but I’ve gotten over it.
TC: What are you listening to the most right now?
MN: This French singer, Catherine Ribeiro. She’s described as the French Nico. It’s late 60s, early 70s. If you could imagine, it’s like Nico singing in French with a really trippy backing band. It’s really beautiful. I’ve been getting into her and also listening to some standup comedians, who are also dark people inside. (laughs) I recently got satellite radio and have been obsessed with listening to standup because I drive all the time on tour.
TC: Do you listen to any public radio?
MN: Yes! I love NPR, I love the Moth Radio Hour. I like listening to people talking. It’s kind of studying for songwriting—little character studies, listening to people.
TC: There’s something great about listening to someone’s speaking voice for a long time, even if you start to zone out.
MN: There's a scientific phenomenon I read about, it gives you this head tingling sensation...
TC: Oh, right, ASMR?MN: Yes, exactly. There’s nothing more relaxing than listening to someone like Terry Gross.