"I think sometimes there's a misconception, because my records have been sad that I've had a miserable decade," says Marissa Nadler. "And that would be untrue. I use songwriting as a balm, as a medicinal therapy for myself. So I don't write songs about the good stuff because I'm too busy enjoying them. I've always been attracted to melancholy. It's the aesthetic leaning towards the slow and the minor key, but I'm not, like, a miserable person."
Listeners would be forgiven for their assumptions, as Nadler's musical output is an exercise in unflinching melancholy. Her songs tend to cover every gradation of sadness — from the wistful to the downright devastating.
Since the early Aughts she's steadily built a gloomy body of work (which includes more than a dozen albums) that defies easy categorization: moving from indie folk to dream pop to experimental Americana to avant-garde black metal (not to mention the occasional Danzig cover) — which has earned her serious heavy-metal crossover appeal and accolades from tastemakers including one-man black-metal act Xasthur and indie songwriter Angel Olsen (with whom she's collaborated) to drone icons Earth and masked Satanic hitmakers Ghost (with whom she's toured).
Nadler's approach is to fixate on the thing causing her most pain, and her music asks us to do the same, until there's nothing but hope left at the end. It's why journalists often use words like "ghostly" and "ethereal" to describe her, as though she's untouchable, inscrutable, unreachable. In that way, they avoid what she really is, the same way they evade sadness. But in truth, Marissa Nadler is crushingly real, and her latest offering For My Crimes — a diatribe on toxic relationships — is her realest and most hopeful yet.
FIRST OFF, WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I grew up in suburban Boston, in a small town called Needham. It was … all right. I was always out of the box, I still am to this day. I was always a serious artist, even as a young teenager. I didn't go to parties or fun dates or anything, I was tryna work on my paintings. Most of that was just 'cause nobody was asking me.
WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE FROM THE METAL WORLD ARE DRAWN TO YOU?
It could be my early obsession with death, it could be my collaboration with Xasthur, I've worked with Randall Dunn … so there's a crossover. I'm happy that people who listen to metal and heavy music then listen to mine as a pretty break, or whatever. When I toured with the band Ghost, which took a few years off of my life, it got me over my stage fright once and for all. I really identified with the kids. Like, I don't think I wore any color for the first 15 years of my life.
TELL US THE STORY BEHIND THE ALBUM'S OPENING TITLE TRACK "FOR MY CRIMES"
I asked my husband to give me an assignment. He's a writer. And all he said was to write a song about death row. But then very immediately the song became all about my own guilt and the guilt of humanity. And I realized that it was just a very helpful writing exercise, but then I realized this is a universal theme. No one is 100 percent good … It's tough to talk about a personal record like this … I mean it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that there is some strife in my life.
There's absolutely this fear when writing confessionally. I almost flew back to California to fix a different song because of the lyrics. Like, "Oh god I cannot say that." And then I just said, "You know what, fuck it." You don't become a great artist by being fearful of anything. You have to be brave and let the art speak for itself.
ARE YOU FEELING HOPEFUL AT THE MOMENT?
Yeah, I actually am. I think this record is the last of my saddest records for a while. I'm hopeful. I try to live day by day, because I'm just lucky to have a roof over my head and getting to do what I love to do for a living, when there's so many people struggling in the world. I just try to keep perspective.
IT MUST BE TERRIFYING AT THE SAME TIME, THOUGH, RIGHT?
Yeah. I mean, it's tough to talk about what we're talking about. Anytime somebody starts over it feels like your wounds are being cut off. I knew that this record was gonna be a bitch to talk about, 'cause there hasn't really been any closure. Things are still kind of going on, and so it's a really interesting case of life and art imitating themselves.
I THINK THIS IS AN EMPOWERING ALBUM IN THAT YOU'RE MAKING SCARY BUT NECESSARY DECISIONS FOR YOURSELF.
I think that's an astute observation. I think there's a real personal growth documented in the record. I think it is a very feminist album.
HOW DO YOU FIND TOURING?
It really depends on the tour 'cause I've had some horrible experiences. Now as I have a more developed fan base it's less likely that I'll be playing to five people. It's no secret I've paid my dues. I've been touring dive bars for pretty much 15 years.
WHY DO YOU THINK IT TOOK SO LONG TO GET THAT FAN BASE?
I guess I wasn't doing myself any favors with my stage presence. I used to drink a lot. I don't drink at all anymore. I've been sober for six, almost seven years, and that's when I started writing my best stuff. Now I'm still the same kind of person, I just keep my head down and the most important thing to me is the art. I've never had dreams or delusions of grandeur, or wanting to be on the cover of magazines. I think I do it for the right, pure reason.
DOES THE PROCESS OF AGING SCARE YOU?
No, I mean I look young and I feel young so I guess it is weird. I think it's a mindset. There's no reason why 37 needs to mean anything less appealing for people listening to the music. I don't really get scared of it because I've been so in touch with mortality for so long. I used to be pretty obsessed with death. Like, I've always been acutely aware that we're just briefly inhabiting mortal vessels. So, I try and make decisions based on the heart for that reason.
WHAT'S THE NEXT THING?
I have a side project with Steve Brodsky from Mutoid Man. It's called Drone Flower, and it is an entire record of songs that are soundtrack-y and super spooky. That's coming out, and then I have a whole other record of songs that I wrote that will probably make their way out at some point.