Marissa Nadler in Los Angeles
© Cara Robbins
Music

Marissa Nadler Knows Exactly Who She is

The singer-songwriter talks "For My Crimes," opening for Ghost and her love of painting in this cover story.
By Laura Studarus
Published on
Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler
She took the stage in heavy, gothic-style dresses every night—her armor against a crowd she worried wouldn’t accept her. Marissa Nadler laughs about it now, perched on a couch in her friend’s sunny home in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood. But two years ago, touring as an opener for Swedish hard rock band Ghost was one of the scariest things she had ever done.
“I was absolutely terrified of the first concert, shaking, taking beta blockers,” she recalls. “People would look at the press shots and feel like I didn’t fit the bill. So, I got a lot of Internet slander and crazy stuff from their legions of fans. It was fairly scary. But after that tour I was tough in a way I’ve never been tough before. I feel like I can play now and it did help to remember that if you show up and put the energy out, most people want you to succeed. 75% of the crowd wants to see people do well.”
That tour was the continuation of a challenge the musician had presented to herself a few years earlier—to fearlessly share more of herself. Thanks to the timing of her 2004 debut album, “Ballads of Living and Dying,” Nadler had been wedged in with the freak-folk movement, a collection of artists (including Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart) that she never felt creatively linked to. At first she embraced her position as a modern troubadour, her soothing soprano and delicate guitar picking hinting at a love of English balladeers and Johnny Cash in equal parts. But the disconnect with who she was as a person and the fairytales she was weaving on stage every night began to rub. “One guy did say straight to my face once in France that he thought I would be much more ethereal in person,” she says, still mildly horrified at the memory.
But how do you convince an audience trained to expect a saint to expect someone with very human emotions?
“The early stuff was a different type of writing,” Nadler says. “I think I turned from a fiction writer to a non-fiction writer. I had songs call ‘The Undertaker’ it was about an undertaker. Little stories. But I wanted to write songs that would appeal to more people. I dropped a little bit of my obsession with the darkness. I’m still dark, but in a different way…I’m all aboard for Team Happiness. I don’t want to be one of those musicians who romanticizes melancholy or sadness.”
In person, Nadler is an open book, likely to tell you not only her interests but the emotion driving each one. An innate desire to be liked. (Relatable.) Spiritual matters. (“It’s way more fun to believe in something than not to believe in anything.”) A love of Blue Apron home delivery services. (“I’m the type of person who will go into a supermarket and walk out holding nothing,” she laughs. “I just have anxiety sometimes.”) And even that her mother, who as a big supporter, has a Google alert set with daughter’s name, which Nadler has fruitlessly asked her to delete. (“Even though I’ve asked her a million times! Sometimes there’s stuff you just don’t want her to know.”)
It’s that level of personal connection that Nadler wanted to bring into her eighth album, “For My Crimes.” Produced by Nadler, Justin Raisen, and Lawrence Rothman, the record is laced with Nadler’s signature minor-key melodies, and gentle lilting vocals. But even though Nadler had been faithfully writing songs since 2016, shortly before decamping to Laurel Canyon to record, her producers asked her to write a few more. (“You don’t have enough songs here!” she says, mimicking Raisen’s authoritarian tone.) Panicked, she leaned in to the process after her husband gave her an assignment—to write a song about a prisoner on death row. And although her goal was to get personal, she found an unexpected universal thread in the fictional narrative that what would be come “For My Crimes”’ title track.
“The minute I started to write the song, it quickly became about something very different,” she says. “It became about human guilt and redemption and forgiveness. I saw very quickly how those themes could be applicable to a lot of different people. So, I was excited for that assignment. One of my main interests in songwriting is to be very inclusionary. I believe music is one of the great connectors between people.”
While “For My Crimes” might be Nadler’s most personal album, it’s also her most collaborative—a first for the artist. Sharon Van Etten’s gentle backing vocals embellish breakup ballad “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore.” Angel Olsen appears on haunting chorus of “For My Crimes.” And Kristin Kontrol put her unique spin on the harmonies of “Blue Vapor” (which Nadler praises for picking a key she would have never thought to explore). For Nadler, who had never worked with so many women, it was important not only to gather friends she loved, but collaborators she knew she could trust. Though she admits it took her a while to get to a place where she could be both open to new ideas, while still retaining her role as a leader.
Marissa Nadler in Los Angeles
Marissa Nadler in Los Angeles
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a group person,” she divulges. “It took a while before I was collaborating enough to say I don’t like this. Learning to say no as an artist is one of the most important things I’ve learned. I hate conflict so I’m generally like ‘Sure, okay.’ That’s never going to serve an artist well. In my later years, I’ve grown some fangs. I think it’s served my art well.”
She pauses to consider the statement, and how it plays in a male dominated world.
“No, that sounds terrible! I think women are trained early how to not be like that.”
If Nadler sounds happy, that’s because she is—something she credits to the fact that at 37, she’s no longer clinging to the idea that her life has to have a single narrative. At the encouragement of her label, she’s letting people into more areas of her life. The doubt, the confusion, even practical things, like side-hustles. She’s been giving private art lessons for the last few years few years, and her eyes light up when she recounts learning that her favorite art student, a 95-year-old woman, wanted to paint her late husband.) After ten years, away from the brush, she even chose to return to visual arts herself. The cover of For My Crimes is one of Nadler’s newly-completed abstract landscapes. She knows life as an artist in any artist is improvable—and that she’ll always have people asking if she’s “made it” because she isn’t playing stadiums. (At this she rolls her eyes.) But Nadler is rightfully proud of what she’s accomplished.
“You’re told all through childhood, ‘Do not go to art school.’” She says, smiling with hard-earned satisfaction. “Or ‘You’re not going to be a musician; you’re never going to make it.’ It’s [dark] like one of my songs. But it’s worth it.”
Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler
The Three Best Pieces of Advice that Marissa Nadler Ever Got (and Actually Took)
Be here now.
“It’s a basic concept of Buddhism. I was raised Jewish. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not identified with a lot of religions that way. But this is one of those things that anybody could take. It’s about living in the moment. I have a very busy mind, as you can tell, and I’m full of stuff to say. I can never fall asleep at night. I’m a workaholic. There is no healthy way to be an artist, I guess. But I could learn a page or two from staying still and being able to appreciate your life and your body and your moment on this earth. That’s something I’ve only gotten with age.”
You’ll care less of what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.
“It’s a David Foster Wallace quote. That just helped me to focus more on what’s important. Having grown up in this review cycle where every single record I had to worry about the numerical grade, you have to make sure you’re killing yourself on the road for the right reasons. There has to be that understanding that most people are busy living their lives—as they should be.”
Stay pure.
“I try really hard to stay pure with my intentions as an artist. Writing music is not about fame, and it’s not about money. It’s not about success or reviews. It has to be about a need to make it. I realized I can’t live without it. I’m sort of a lifer at this point. I’ve reached a new level of Zen about certain things I might never have and I don’t care about having. That’s also advice I’d give to other people.”