Northwest Terror Fest Spotlight: Marissa Nadler on the relationship between her visual art and music
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
An evolving sense of self-confidence allowed Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler to expose a vulnerable side on her latest record, Strangers. We caught up with her via email before her set at Northwest Terror Fest to discuss the concepts of her latest album, and how her visual art acts as an extension of those themes.
For your latest release, Strangers, you’ve stated how you didn’t realize why you were so drawn to end-of-the-world themes until after its completion, and later understood that it was a reflection of your own world Have you experienced any other self-discoveries from revisiting your material? Have the themes you previously explored taken on new meanings over the years?
I realized recently that a lot of my early work took place in an imagined dream world. I was really obsessed with antiquity and kind of time traveling - body to body. My last two records, July and Strangers, are much different in that they are for the most part in the first person narrative- more personal, more realistic. July was the turning point for me.
A really interesting evolution in your musical compositions is that your earlier work is much denser in sound, using finger-picking to fill in the spaces. With Strangers, there is a lot more physical space between notes. How does this reflect on your confidence and attitude as a songwriter? You’ve stated before that you’ve very shy on stage, does this space in your music allow you to be more vulnerable with your audience?
I think it does have a lot to do with my confidence. I think that when I was younger, I felt the need to prove myself as an adept guitar player. When I listen back, I really wish I could have slowed down a little- I think I just wanted to shred! I’ve grown to appreciate silence and the space in between notes.
In terms of being on stage singing these songs, I find myself more confident than I’ve been, especially vocally. I’ve come to really enjoy performing - the shyness will always be there but I have a better understanding of the bigger picture now. I used to be devastated if a show didn’t go as well as I had hoped, and I think I’m a bit nicer to myself now.
I love that you used the cut up method with some old National Geographic magazines to help with your writers block on the last album. Were there certain words that would come up that helped developed the more desolate themes displayed in Strangers?
It was National Geographics, but also lots of books on outer space and natural disasters. Those words certainly helped to jump start connections in my own life.
Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between your music and visual art. Do you aim for your videos to be an extension of your sound? What elements or emotions do you feel like you can relay in your visuals that perhaps you don’t delve into in your music? How do these two worlds balance each other?
I was a visual artist long before I was a musician. I still intend on doing more with my visual art- and am working on a series of paintings right now. I took an interest in animation when I was teaching special needs high school students fine art several years ago. We did some stop-motion lessons, and I showed the kids Svanjmajer and stuff like that. That coincided with me being frustrated when working with music video directors- when I couldn’t quite articulate in words what my vision was. So, I just taught myself Premiere and started playing around. I really enjoyed the whole process and hope to keep making more videos. I love film as a medium - and I’ve long had an interest in “soundtrack” work. So, it’s just another extension of my creativity.
Are there any artistic techniques that you teach in your art classes that you yourself use for your lyrics or song-writing in general?
Well, I’m not teaching currently as I’m touring and working on soundtracks and side projects. However, my philosophy as an artist has always been that if you put the time in, you get the results. I really believe in good old fashioned hard work and I tried to instill that lesson in my students back.
You seem to gravitate towards more time-consuming and fully immersive styles of art (i.e. the stop-motion animation video for “All The Colors of the Dark”). Is there a cathartic role to this type of pacing and hermetic style of creating?
Yeah. I’m a bit OCD and doing tedious tasks really relaxes me. It sounds strange but there’s a real sense of peace that comes with slow work.
Just to get a brief background of some of your favorite non-musical inspirations: Tell us your favorite Vladimir Navokov novel, favorite Henry Darger piece, and favorite Lotte Reininger animation. How, if at all, do you feel these pieces worked their way into your creative musical process?
"Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle" is my favorite Nabokov novel. I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite Darger piece or Reininger - I more just love their overall bodies of work, their beautiful craftsmanship, and complete dedication to their craft. Both Darger and Reninger deal with myth and fantasy- which is something I’m obviously interested in. I’m really looking forward to performing in Montreux next month at the hotel where Nabokov lived with his wife Vera for 15 or so years- he died there!
Growing up, you used music as a meditation since fine art became more of a job or homework. Now that the roles have reversed and you’re a full-time musician, is music still as meditative for you? How do you keep it from feeling like a “job”?
Well, I really am lucky in that my job is something that I love to do. It has it’s downsides- it’s not an easy lifestyle- but I’m grateful that I still love writing music- and still get a lot of joy and peace from the creation process.
You’ve expressed several times that you would really like to score a horror movie. If you could have done the soundtrack for any horror movie, what would it be?
Yes, I sure would love to do that and luckily people are starting to use my songs more on tv shows and stuff like that. I would have loved to score Badlands or Days of Heaven - Malick is one of my favorite directors.
Finally, who are you looking forward to seeing at Northwest Terror Fest this year?