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Exclusive: Marissa Nadler’s Haunting Little Hells

[Editor's note: This is the first interview from our friend Danielle Kourtesis, Music and Outreach Manager for Rooftop Films; look out for more music coverage from Danielle and the Rooftop gang when they head down to SXSW in March!]

Since releasing her first LP of home recordings in 2004, Marissa Nadler has consistently created aural landscapes we love getting lost in; thank a childhood spent hibernating from the harsh winters that plague Massachusetts. While her upcoming Kemado release Little Hells (which comes out March 3) is just as rich and moody as previous material (perhaps even more so), for her fourth studio album Nadler’s joined by a full band, giving her work added bite. After the jump, she describes how their backing power could affect her future sound, why it can suck to be a female in the music industry, and what crazy odd jobs she has taken here and there to pay the bills.

Flavorwire: Tell us about your new album. How is Little Hells different from your previous releases?

Marissa Nadler: Little Hells takes risks and steps out of my comfort zone, while remaining true to the integrity and spirit of my vision. I went into the recording with some sonic references, and a myriad of demos. I spent many months of that cold winter of last year writing the songs and recording them at home. I whittled down 25 to 10, hoping to have a short and sweet record this time. For me, the vocal harmonies were extremely important, and they had to have a “world” to live in. I demoed all the harmonies and wrote all the parts alone, and it was great to hear them well recorded when I went into the studio. The addition of drums and percussion on many of the tracks is also something a bit new, and something I had been wanting to do for a long time.

FW: From what we understand, there were a handful of artists who contributed to the album. Who did you work with and how did you approach these collaborations?

MN: A small handful. Three other musicians to be exact. Longtime collaborator Myles Baer played bass, electric guitar, theramin, wurlitzer, and acoustic guitar. I played acoustic guitar, electric guitar, wurlitzer, and the old voice box. Simone Pace played drums and percussion. Farmer Dave played lapsteel, organ, and piano. I was excited to collaborate and experiment. Chris Coady produced it and did some programming as well. Myles I have been working together a long time. Chris and I had begun to talk about him perhaps producing the record, and I really liked the artists who he had worked with, but it wasn’t until he began to rave about Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush, and Linda Perhaps, that I thought we had a lot in common. He likes Twin Peaks a lot and understood what I had in my head.

FW: This is your first time working with the backing of a full band. What were some of the challenges posed by this transition?

MN: Well, I don’t read music and never had any formal musical training. So, transposing the music was the biggest challenge. But, when we all started jamming, it just sounded right.

FW: Now that you’ve done both solo and collaborative work, do you prefer one over the other?

MN: No. I like them both for different reasons. It’s nice to have backup on tour to feel like you aren’t alone up on stage. I mean, the collaborative work is still solo in many ways. I do like the company after going at it alone for so many years.

FW: Will you continue working with a band?

MN: I have no idea what the future will bring, in terms of my future releases. Right now, I am not that interested in making more records that just have acoustic guitar and voice. I have a dream of learning how to record and produce myself extremely well, hole up in the middle of nowhere, and make records for the rest of my life. Perhaps that’s a bit overly romanticized, but I am not sure. It depends on how my life changes. Who knows.

FW: Can you give us a little insight into your songwriting process, particularly as pertains to your lyrics?

MN: My songs really do come from personal experiences. In the past, with songs like “Sylvia,” “Rachel,” “Mayflower May,” and “Mr. John Lee,” there was an assumption that I was writing make believe songs. They have always been a combination of reality and dreamlike fantasy. Sometimes I change the endings of how things happened in real life. This new record is a lot of reality, and a bleak one. I write stream of thought, and whatever comes out, I try to flow with. Some of my favorite songs I have written over the course of four records have come when I wasn’t trying, so I try not to force anything. The lyrics come sometimes out of nowhere, and I will sit down and write 12 songs in a week. Later, their meaning will make itself clear to me.

FW: You recently premiered a new video for “River of Dirt,” directed by Portuguese filmmaker Joanna Linda. You’ve never met Joanna, but this is the third video the two of you have collaborated on. How do you work with her given the distance?

MN: I really, really trust her. And that is not common. I took one look at her photographs and knew that we were kindred spirits artistically, and that she understood the same visual realm that I do. The video for “Bird on your Grave” was the first music video she ever did, I believe. It came out so beautifully. I was amazed and felt she capture the essence so well. I think she is a fantastic artist. She is never heavy handed and never trite. She gives vague hints at emotions and situations without ever really saying them. It leaves the viewer with the task of making sense of the videos, in terms of they relate to their own personal experiences.

FW: How did you first connect with Joanna?

MN: MySpace, believe it or not.  I had put out a bulletin asking if anyone wanted to make videos for any of my songs. That is a pretty dangerous thing to do because it puts you in a difficult situation if you end up not liking what someone delivers. Joana just sent me the “Bird on your Grave” video and I was completely blown away with its stark simplicity and its subtle elegance.  I really hope to work with Joanna for a long time. Maybe I will even be in the video. I could go to Portugal and work on a video with her in person.

FW: You’re the only female musician on the Kemado roster. Do you believe there are unique challenges to being a young female artist?

MN: I do. Kemado treats me really well so I don’t see it with them at all. But, with sound guys, venues, etc., I feel like I have to be extra tough in order to convince people I know what I want. If you are a strong woman with a clear view of what you want, you end up being labeled a diva or a bitch. A guy doing the same thing doesn’t get labeled that way. Sometimes, I feel like after hundreds and hundreds of shows, I am still that little girl at the Guitar Center who gets offered a pink guitar. It’s just a constant uphill battle. I am unapologetically feminine in my dress, and aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I want to sound like. So, I don’t go to the Guitar Center unless I have to, and prefer the mom and pop places.

FW: You went to RISD  where you studied Illustration and painting. How does your fine-arts background inform your music?

MN: They way the I see the world and string together lyrics has a lot to do with my fine-arts background. I write a lot about what I see, and try to do the same things with songs that I did with paintings. Nature, color, texture, are always there setting the scene in my songs. As I get older, I am really interested in combining my fine art with music in filmmaking projects.

FW: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

MN: I was really into Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, and Leadbelly. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd. Also, stuff like Black Sabbath, Frank Zappa, the Beatles — you know, a lot of old stuff. I did get into grunge, but my heart was always more into those songwriters that came before me. Jethro Tull was the first concert I went to because my parents were into them. They were into a lot of classic rock and prog rock so I was very familiar with Yes before I was even ten years old. That is what is so cool about having parents who grew up with all that amazing music happening.

FW: Are you a full-time musician? If not, what else are you up to?

MN: I am for the most part. I spend my time boxing LPs. I was a nanny for the last two years full time for a family with five kids, but stopped a couple months ago because of the touring coming up, so I set them up with my friend who is a great manny. He cooks better than I do and I visit them as much as I can. I am really close to the family — they are like a second one to me. He’s a better cleaner as well and more mellow. I feel like I have had every odd job in the book to keep the music afloat. Florist, librarian, baker, art teacher, origami teacher, traveling tutor, dishwasher, secretary, barista, temp worker… I could go on and on. I have spent the better part of the last seven years working all sorts of jobs. Although I did get a teaching degree in addition to studying painting, being able to travel means you have to be able to leave your job at any point — so it makes getting any kind of job that isn’t flexible hard.

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