wears the trousers magazine

marissa nadler: hells belle
July 31, 2009, 3:40 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , , ,

This interview originally appeared in the print edition of Wears The Trousers #7. Order a copy here.


words in edgeways with marissa nadler

Not long ago, as part of a tribute to Radiohead’s OK Computer, Marissa Nadler chose to cover the bittersweet ‘No Surprises’. It was just one line into the song when she sang “A heart that’s full up like a landfill”, and there it was, the image of a wraith-like maiden in a red scarlet gown stumbling and wading through endless piles of discarded items from the last few hundred years. Finding and collecting but rarely stopping for long, combing her internal landscape of leather shoes, flowing silk ribbons, leftover lovers and bones; habitually a melancholic, loner figure like the poet Anne Sexton in ‘Her Kind’: “I have found the warm caves in the woods, filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, innumerable goods; fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: whining, rearranging the disaligned. A woman like that is misunderstood, I have been Her Kind.”

This maiden is not quite so misunderstood it seems. With each new album Marissa gains more and more subscribers to her dark and delicate songcraft. With her latest album Little Hells, she reaffirms her astonishing ability to slide back and forth in time, her songs like silken wormholes to the past. Wears The Trousers caught up with our old friend just before she headed out on a lengthy world tour. “Ask me something funny,” she said…

* * *

You recently revealed a surprising fondness for 1960s muscle cars. Would you ever buy one?

I would really be into getting an El Camino! I have always thought they were the hottest cars. It would have to be cherry red. Part of growing up in suburbia makes me romanticise antiquity. Everything is plastic now. The shapes and curves of old cars are so beautiful. Nevertheless, I know they aren’t streamlined for gas mileage and aren’t good for the environment. All jokes aside, I did mean El Camino in the song ‘River Of Dirt’ to have a dual meaning, both the car and the “path”.

Still, you should absolutely get one. You could race Neko Case!

I would totally be down to race Neko Case. I have a feeling she might win. With that fiery red mane, she strikes me as quite the racer. I love Neko Case by the way. My favourite song of her is ‘Deep Red Bells’. She is a big inspiration to me.

Did you ever have any majorly embarrassing moments when learning to drive?

Well. I luckily have the best father ever. He made me learn stick shift, which isn’t common in the US, really. In Europe everyone drives them, but not in the US. I am glad he did. It’s so much more fun to accelerate in a manual car. I did have a lot of trouble getting a hold of the clutch at first.

I was really a goody two shoes with a bit of a rebellious side that started around the age of 16, 17. I wasn’t in the cool crowd, so I usually just stayed at home painting and learning grunge rock songs on the electric guitar. I didn’t really have that many places to drive to. The movie theatre?

I did have a huge crush on this guitar teacher that I took a couple lessons from in the town next to me. I drove there and was an hour early for every lesson. He had a mullet, which was rare at the time because we were out of the ‘80s. Very tight acid washed jeans. I was trying to learn the solo to the Yes song ‘Mood For A Day’, Black Sabbath riffs, and Santana’s ‘Samba Pa Ti’ back then. It was Daddy’s Junky music in a strip mall.

You’ve said that you’d like to fall in love again in 2009. What does a guy have to do to win your heart?

I am attracted to people who are my match, artistically and intellectually. Looks are not as important to me as the aforementioned qualities, but the spark definitely needs to be there. I have a trainwreck history with matters of the heart. I suppose the only good thing about that is that it might be good for my songwriting.

I really don’t want anyone who is a fan of my music because they are idealising me rather than seeing the true self in person. It’s like that Groucho Marx quote.

Say you found a guy that you didn’t get a trainwreck vibe from. What would be your ideal first date?

Driving to Mexico or California in my El Camino and never coming back.

You’re pretty shy around cameras. I think you should make a video like Kate Bush’s ‘The Sensual World’. Can you imagine? It’s like a low-budget ‘Earth Song’. Go on. You’re tempted, surely?

I am very shy around cameras in some ways, unless I have artistic control of the result. If I were to direct my own video, I would do it. But yes. I have aspirations to make films someday where I could combine my fine art, music, etc. I absolutely love Kate Bush. She is the craziest!

It struck me that Little Hells is the first time you’ve been so prominent on your album sleeve, but you’re still not looking into the lens.

I think I looked at too many old paintings growing up and have mastered the pose of the old paintings. Let’s call me “floor eyes” from now on. I am hardly ever looking into the camera.

Have you ever turned down a potentially lucrative ad deal to maintain artistic integrity? I’d be surprised if not a single car manufacturer or mobile phone network has come knocking at your door!

I have never been offered an ad deal actually. I would far prefer my music to be used by a filmmaker I really respect (David Lynch, Tim Burton, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Gus Van Sant, Harmony Korine, etc.) to a car or cellphone commercial. I would like to add art to art, but people have to understand that in order for artists to continue to make music they have to do things to be able to afford recording, and to afford touring. So, I never look down on that and don’t think of an artist poorly when I hear them on a TV show or commercial. It’s cool that independent artists are getting their music out there, in my opinion, as opposed to hearing the same mainstream chart-topping artists over and over again.

Obviously, there are certain things I would never do. I would never allow a song of mine to be used in a way that contrasted with my political or spiritual beliefs. And I would prefer not to embrace commercialism. However, if it helps to afford the ability to record my next album on tape in a great studio with great microphones, and to pay my band what they deserve, then it’s actually enabling artistic integrity. Or I could do it on GarageBand. There is reality and then there is idealism.

Bohemian idealism only goes so far when they are shutting your credit cards off and you’re getting evicted, you know? When you have to sell your guitars to eat, you can’t write songs anymore. Then you can’t make records. I don’t have a problem with Cat Power covering that David Bowie song on that Lincoln car ad. It was, to me, only funny when that beautiful Devendra Banhart song was used in a cheese commercial in the UK. But, you know, whatever! I didn’t have a problem with it. Good for him! Chan sounds good. I would rather hear that than some tin-headed teenybopper on the occasion I am watching car commercials. Which I do all the time.

Obviously, as I said, there are certain things I would never do, like the NRA, the GOP, the KKK, etc. (I could go on and on). That is what you call compromising your artistic integrity.

You’ve been working as a nanny the last few years. How was that?

Well, recently I had to stop the nanny job because I had to gear up to go on tour. I set them up with a really good friend of mine who is a better nanny, a better cook. They love him. I totally adore those kids.

Before I left, since this is Wears The Trousers I should say I took the girls down and showed them how to properly wrap guitar cords and we labelled them properly. I had their stepfather buy them an interface and some good condenser mics. They are both in bands. I still keep in touch with the family quite a bit. They are the best. Five kids, all artists and/or musicians.

Do you hope to have kids of your own?

Yes. I definitely want kids. I want to move away and have a couple of them and name them cruel New Agey names like Isis and River. Maybe I will be nice and name my son Bob.

You are obviously pretty happy with having Ballads Of Living & Dying reissued on vinyl. On a personal level, what advantages does vinyl have for you?

It’s the object. They are big and beautiful. You can hang them on your walls. MP3s sound like tin cans. It’s a shame an entire generation is growing up with them. One of the girls I nannied for got a record player. I got her Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (which I think is a highly underrated album) and a bunch of other records. It was like that scene from ‘Almost Famous’.

It strikes me that Little Hells has the lowest body count of your albums to date. Do you think the balance has swung back in favour of ballads of living rather than Songs III’s many ballads of dying?

Hilarious question. I think so. I have so much inspiration these days. I did just write a song called ‘Dead Wives Club’. But lately I have been writing tonnes of songs, and they are all about situations and about living people.

Speaking of ‘Dead Wives Club’, when did you learn to play the banjo?

I’ve been playing the banjo for about as long as I have played the guitar. I don’t claw hammer, I play it like a guitar. I aspire to really get excellent at it.

You’ve hinted at the new album having a narrative arc and I wondered whether you could elaborate a bit more on that?

I see the protagonist, which may or may not be me, in different phases of her life. She quantum leaps through time and space. In each song the situation has a different outcome. Similarly to that movie ‘Sliding Doors’, in each song one mistake or decision leads to the outcome. There is always an outcome in my songs. It is the same woman in each song, who was Mary, Mayflower May, etc. In ‘Heart Paper Lover’, she is an old crone. In ‘Mary Come Alive’ she is in her thirties, and that is a conversation between her and her husband. ‘Ghosts & Lovers’ takes place in the present tense. ‘Mistress’ occurs in the present tense. In ‘River Of Dirt’, the protagonist is older and looking back on the fantastic idealism of her youth versus the brutal reality that her life has become.

So is the Silvia in ‘The Whole Is Wide’ the same Silvia as on the last record?

I am not sure yet.

It’s a concept album then, sort of?

I thought about it as a loosely based concept album. I had just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I was thinking about the end of a lot of things. Flowers, both dead and alive, are one image that links almost every song together. The life cycle of the protagonist often mirrors the life cycle of the flowers in the songs.

You’ve mentioned going into the studio to record Little Hells with a bunch of “sonic references”. Care to elaborate?

‘Twin Peaks’, The Carter Family, The Beach Boys, Tammy Wynette, ‘Edward Scissorhands’, Dusty In Memphis, Pink Floyd, Elliott Smith…I could go on and on.

A lot of the songs seem to have a definite country influence, especially with Farmer Dave’s lapsteel.

Yes. I wanted to get back to my roots. Myles Baer, Dave Scher and I all added to the guitar songs. Myles used slide, volume pedals, e-bow. Dave plays lapsteel. I play acoustic and electric, mostly picking. Next record I will rip out some Sabbath riffs.

Amazing, do! I hear you wrote another 15 songs for Little Hells that didn’t make the final tracklist. Will we hear them anytime soon? Perhaps another CD-R like Ivy & The Clovers?

Maybe. We will see. I have so many new ones. Editing is really important. I think a lot of the parts of the songs that didn’t make the cut are going to appear in new songs as melodies.

Would you consider releasing a collection of alternative versions of the songs that did make the album, to offer insight into the process you went through?

I think I am going to put some of the demos online somehow.

You’ve already hinted to me about the elusive “metal version” of ‘Heart Paper Lover’ – can you provide more details? Did it take you back to your grunge days? It’s interesting to think of you being really into bands like The Frogs!

I just discovered The Frogs. They are hilarious. When you see my new band, you are going to be completely shocked. It’s a BAND!!! It’s so much fun to play with a band; I was getting very lonely on the road. The metal version of ‘Heart Paper Lover’…I have a feeling you may be hearing it soon. I will play a good part of the sets each night on tour solo, and am bringing the banjo too.

Did any of the other songs go through vastly different arrangements to what we hear on the finished album?

Yes. ‘Heart Paper Lover’ was recorded on the Wurlitzer on the last day of mixing. ‘Mary Come Alive’ changed enormously. ‘River Of Dirt’ changed quite a bit as well. The addition of Simone Pace’s drumming really transformed some of the songs into something new. That was very exciting.

‘Mary Come Alive’ is all kinds of awesome. Do you see yourself pursuing that sort of full, rhythmical, percussive sound more in future?

Thank you. It’s my favourite on the record because of how different it is from my other stuff. Yes. I think my music is going to keep evolving and changing. I have this great new drummer, Ben McConnell, who has played in lots of great bands. He is really creative and knows how to loop. I am starting to discover the wonders of beats.

It’s also a bit of a potential feminist pseudo-anthem. What do you think about that?

Yeah. I hear that. I think a lot of my songs are kind of post-feminist. I mean, in ‘Diamond Heart’ – “I had a man in every town and I thought of you each time I tore off my gown…But I look for you in the diamond trees, and the bars I’m always frequenting” – I am saying it’s okay to need and want a man. In ‘The Whole Is Wide’ – “Oh, what am I to do, without a man to see me through?” – I am not intentionally throwing the feminist movement back. In my opinion it’s okay to wear dresses and lipstick and write about wanting a man. Especially if you hold your own as a guitar player.

You laughed when we described ‘Rosary’ as “erotic” in our Little Hells preview. It’s really a very sad song. What’s the inspiration behind it?

I was sad as hell when I wrote that song. It’s about loneliness. The protagonist I described earlier is definitely an old crone in that song.

You told me before that you’ve always loved the circus. Did you try out a sort of carnival arrangement of any of the songs?

‘Loner’ sounds to me like one hell of a circus of the mind.

You’ve mentioned a couple of things to me that you might go back and change if you could do the record over. Do you always feel that way about a song or two on every album?

Always. That’s art though. I can’t take it back once it’s out there. I can’t fix it.

You said you had some nerves about how this album would be received but we critics seem to love it. Has this given you a confidence boost to carry on moving away from the simpler guitar-and-voice constructs of your earlier albums?

Yes. Totally.

Alan Pedder

Check out Marissa Nadler Week in the archives for more features and exclusive content.


‘Little Hells’

‘River Of Dirt’


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