Interview: Marissa Nadler Talks New Album For My Crimes

The singer-songwriter talks about her new album, her process, and more.

Interview: Marissa Nadler Talks New Album For My Crimes
Photo: Ebru Yildiz/Sacred Bones

Singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler’s music invites you in, but it also surrounds you. The feeling isn’t necessarily gentle; her songs are imposing and austere, even as they layer notes and sounds on top of each other. When Nadler sings about love, memory, loss, and death, you have no choice but to listen. Her songs seems to spring up fully formed, like geysers or mushrooms, full of both nuance and scorched-earth conviction.

Nadler’s eighth album, For My Crimes, which drops on September 28, is no exception. I spoke with Nadler about the new album, which features contributions from Sharon van Etten, Kristin Control, and Angel Olsen, about her process, and about the process behind the process.

One thing that really interests me is how, in your songs, there’s a real weight on each word in the lyrics. What’s your revision process as you’re writing?

I focus primarily, when I’m writing songs, on the melody first, and the way that words come out of my mouth and the way that they sound in a particular lyric, kind of like a balancing act between the sound of the word and the meaning of the word. So, my revision process sometimes starts with words and then I honor the melody, and if the song still makes enough sense, I do the lyrical revision after writing the songs, usually.

What’s the relationship between the notes themselves and the words you’re writing? How do you get from the sound to the word itself?

Generally, there’s the rhyme and meter of a stanza, like a poem almost, and then there’s the meaning of it. They all have to work, so sometimes hunting for the right words can be a hard process, to arrive at something that sounds beautiful and means something, because it’s important to me that the lyrics are strong and come through.

Would you say that there’s a different process for songs that are more narrative in nature as opposed to ones that are more meditative? Some of the songs focus on a word or a phrase, and others have stories to tell.

Generally, for some of the more narrative songs, I think the emphasis is on telling the story. For instance, “Said Goodbye to That Car,” the last song on my new record, is very much a narrative song. It was a story that kind of wrote itself, because it’s a true story. Luckily, I found words to tell the story that also flowed well. But it’s a process. To answer your question, sometimes on the more meditative songs, I might honor the sound of words over their meaning, and the picture that they paint rather than a cohesive narrative. “Blue Vapor,” for instance, is more of a meditative song, and it doesn’t have a linear narrative structure and it doesn’t tell a story—it’s more of a feeling. At the end of the song, there’s a repetition, where I say “blue vapor” almost 50 times, and it’s like a word carrying a trance, a meditative trance.

Do you think a lot about backstory? On your earlier albums, there were sometimes characters that would recur and seemed to have a very elaborate history, and I’m wondering if that’s something you think about currently, or if that’s something you’ve drifted away from.

Yeah, I changed very much as a writer, since my early records, and I agree with you that there were repeating characters and they were often stand-ins for real people, but I took some liberties and turned real life into myth, in a way. And in the new material, I would say [2014’s] July and [2016’s] For My Crimes especially, I’ve been doing a different type of songwriting entirely, a bit more personal. I’m still attracted to the same things in songs, like good melodies and hooks and catchy choruses, but I think the lyrical content may be more accessible and reachable to people, because of the direct writing approach.

Everyone changes as they work forward, but if you’re able to trace the shift there, what caused that movement?

I think that when you’re young, you don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from, so it’s not really that surprising to me that I was writing partially fictional songs. I started writing my first record when I was about 20. At that point, I didn’t really have a lot of life experience, so my brain had to do a lot of the traveling. I hadn’t been very many places, and every love affair felt like an epic, like the most important thing in the world. And then I think as I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier to write about real things, because it’s true what they say about writers and having to have experiences.

And when you’re writing an album, do you think of it as a self-contained work in which a certain set of songs are going to go with it, or is there a lot of elimination that takes place? Of the stuff that’s eliminated or taken out of the running, do you salvage that for other albums?

I definitely have a lot of extra songs from writing these past few years. For the most recent album, I basically have at least three times as many songs as ended up on the record. I selected those songs that I did based on a variety of variables, and mostly the number one thing is whether the song is good. That could mean many different things to different people, but I guess it’s a balance of melody and, well, it’s hard to put into words what makes a good song, but it’s important to me that it resonates with people. I do try to keep all the rest of the songs. On the last two records that I’ve done, all the leftovers have been released as well, digitally at least, so I have folders called “Fragments” and then subfolders of entire other records that may just be, for whatever reason, chosen. Sometimes you make mistakes. I think the best song off of July didn’t make the record. So it’s good to keep everything.

Do you feel you have a certain amount of autonomy in terms of the way that the albums are organized and put into the world? Or do you have a more negotiational relationship with the people you’re working with?

Well, on this record I worked with two brand new producers that I’d never worked with before, just to be in a different place and try something new for fun, and I shared the songs with them, and generally, all I’m really looking for is which songs resonate with people, because I’m obviously gonna put the ones I like the best on the album. The label doesn’t pick the songs. That’s the difference between being on an independent record label and a major label. I’m the final voice in that process. I did just try to see which songs really stuck out, because that’s about all you can ask for in a song.

What qualifies as sticking out? How do you make that choice?

Well, if it emotionally resonates with somebody, or if the melody is attractive or sticks to somebody. Basically, if there’s an entry point. I say this a lot, but I want to write songs that look people in the eye and I want them to mean something. So if I send this set of songs to maybe six people and all six people say they like the same song, well, then I know something. It’s like intel.

Do you always do that or is that something you’ve arrived at gradually?

I did it on the last three albums. I also kind of feel that the last three records are my strongest, so I think sometimes just having a complete outside ear can help, because distance is really important in the artistic process. If I’m making a painting, it’s so easy to ruin it by overdoing it and continuing to work on it. It loses its looseness, or the line quality that makes it beautiful. The same thing is true of a song. Sometimes the first take is the best one.

At what point do you feel like you’re finished with a song?

It’s easier, for whatever reason, for me to finish songs than any other thing. I tend to draw on traditional songwriting structures, in a way, in a lot of the material. I’m a pretty organic songwriter and was self-taught as a musician, so I just figure it out. If it feels done, it’s done. Sometimes it’s hard though. This particular record had a very cutthroat editing process where the songs got a lot shorter than the demos were, and that’s something I actively worked on. There’s something about some of the old great Beatles songs that are like two minutes and 20 seconds long. You don’t even realize how short they are because they’re so rich in melody and lyrically perfect. So I just try to learn from past records, because there’s always something that I wish I could change, on every record, and part of the artistic process is having the courage to let it into the world, even if it’s imperfect, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I have gradually trained myself not to be.

How does it feel to have that many outside elements, visitors, in your recording process? And was it empowering in any way?

I’ve known Sharon Van Etten, for instance, for a very long time, because we’ve both been touring forever. We’ve all been at it for a long time, and so I’ve maintained friendships with these women who I not only respect but have this mutual admiration for, because I think that they’re some of the best songwriters out there today. It was a really happy accident that everybody was in Los Angeles at the same time.

Do you find you learn anything about these other musicians by collaborating with them in this way that you wouldn’t know otherwise?

When Kristin sang “Blue Vapor” with me, her choice of harmony note was something that I would never have chosen, I think because of my background listening to old-time country and old music in general. I really go to the third or the fifth, and she came in on the fourth, I think, and it was so beautiful and completely transformed the ending of that song. It’s an example of how, when you choose your collaborators wisely, it’s because you trust them to come up with something that you wouldn’t. I can sing harmonies until the cows come home, but I wanted different types of harmonies, and Angel’s harmony on “For My Crimes” on the chorus was different than the one I had written, and I thought it was really beautiful. So you just learn people’s strengths, I guess.

A lot of the time when I’m listening to your songs, I feel like there’s a portent about them. I don’t necessarily mean ominous portent, it’s more of a weight on them, and I’m wondering, where is the pressure coming from?

Yeah, I guess I just…you know the expression “go hard”? I really just go for it in my songs. I guess I’m attracted to intense emotions. I’m an emotional artist type, and for whatever reason, I’ve always been drawn to the dark side of things. It’s just genetic or something. I always like the sad songs on every record. It’s an aesthetic inclination for me. It isn’t a life choice. I do mostly write my best material when I’m going through something in my life, because songwriting for me is almost a medicine, and I don’t want to perpetuate that myth of the tortured artist, because I actually don’t believe in that, and I believe very much in hard work and persevering. But I think it’s sometimes easier to write a good song when you have something to write about.

To what extent do you think that music can provide a balm for people? Some people expect entertainment and some people expect other things, but I’m wondering to what extent you think it can actually help people?

I think it’s one of the most important balms there is in this world, and even entertaining songs also serve as a balm. I think my interest and my overall view of music has changed since I’ve made record after record after record. I’ve come to really believe in the importance of the art. It’s my whole life’s purpose, really, and I believe that songwriting is one of the most important art forms there is. You go anywhere, and you see that music is just such a unifier. So I guess one of the things I was conscious of in writing this record was that the themes should be relatable. I don’t want to make exclusive art. I don’t want to intentionally write records that will cut people out. I would love as many people to feel something from these as possible. And maybe that’s a difference from my first record, where I was singing Pablo Neruda! You can write a sad, melancholy song and still have it cut through the bones of people without having a body count in it.

Max Winter

Max Winter's reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He is a frequent illustrator for The Rumpus and Cosmonauts Avenue.

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