Lee Jackson in conversation with

Marissa Nadler


Folk chanteuse and songwriter Marissa Nadler possesses one of the most striking voices to emerge from the underground in recent years. It’s a voice that sounds like it should be emanating from a phonograph player in a dusty parlour tucked away at the back of an old Victorian home. Her subjects occupy a similar sepia toned universe where fact and fiction merge into the dream world of folklore and come alive through song. Marissa’s music has an immensely mythical aura, and her rich, operatic mezzo soprano is the perfect conveyance for her vivid, and occasionally morbid, tails to spring to life.

There’s nothing morbid or downbeat about her abilities though or her actual music, which often soars far above the cold ground that inspires it.

Combining a sage understanding of the acoustic guitar and the story song with a unique self-taught vocal style, she manages to invoke the spirits of many great singers past while still sounding completely modern and original. Two albums have surfaced so far on the Eclipse label, “Ballads of Living and Dying” and the recent “Saga of Mayflower May” (featuring artwork by the Terrascope contributor, and Dream Magazine honcho, George Parsons). Both come highly recommended for anyone who appreciates the early albums of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Mazzy Star and any kind of dreamy psychedelic folk. Amid a newer breed of visionary female folk singers such as Josephine Foster and Joanna Newsom, Nadler more than holds her own. This interview was performed via email in October, 2005 as she was working with Ed Hardy of Eclipse Records in the Mojave. And read closely; she’s looking for musicians to accompany her live on the road.

A lot has happened since last we talked. You've released an awesome new album. You've toured Europe and just played a series of shows with the one and only Jack Rose. What has changed for you as an artist in the last year?

I suppose I have gotten really encouraged to keep pursuing this path - to know that there are people willing to listen in the deepest reaches of places- I would never have imagined stepping into some of the most surreal landscapes and strange interactions, singing in medieval churches in the UK, in yurts.... Touring has really restored my faith in humanity - there are a lot of great people in the world, little glass shards of wonder in the mire of sadness that I feel resurrected from - and that just if one person responds to one song, a 19 hour car ride listening to the same five CDs feels worthwhile. Maybe getting an I-pod would be good.. What has changed- I don't wallow in melancholy so much after a bad set anymore- don't leave my instruments in trunks of cars and consider giving up anymore - there is just some strange force I feel pulled by.

How was this most recent tour?

The tour went really well- playing in a log cabin lodge in Big Sur, with the wilderness - listening to Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice driving down the pacific coast highway, with the gorgeous overlooks, I have to admit I feel part of the land more so than ever before. It inspired me to look more outward to the inspiration. I got to meet some musicians I really admire, I won't name any names, but I got to meet some personal idols of mine.

How are you coping with stagefright? I imagine Arthurfest was the biggest crowd you've played so far.

I was quite nervous, especially having to play in the daylight. I usually play in the dark, and make the stage shut off all the lights. This forced me to develop a thicker skin and I wasn't able to hide behind shrouds of ambient lighting. I had to deal with the fact that people were looking at me and could see me. The set was really well received and it was extremely encouraging. I just closed my eyes through the entire set and tried to travel to some deep seated room in my head. Each show I play, I realize that my nerves are getting better- there are things about playing live that you have no control over, and it’s important to keep perspective. There are things like your voice warbling, sound problems that give the set character. I’ve learned to give up a little bit to fate.

Jack is one of the most amazing guitarists around today. Did you two ever play together?

Jack and I did not play together- but I must admit touring with such a veteran really toughened me up. He is a real professional and taught me a lot about how to get it done. Also, I have picked up a few tricks on the slide guitar and some new open tunings from him.

Your new album and ‘Ballads of Living and Dying’ are almost sister albums, with thematic links and recurring characters. What are the differences between the two? To me this one sounds more ethereal, deeper vocally, more harmonies....

I was a lot older in many ways when I wrote the second record- not talking about age of course. The second record I am a bit sullied, lurking in the mire of some haunting experiences that left me with the need to write about them. I suppose. A confidence is evident there that wasn't there before.

What haunts you?

Loneliness is a pretty recurring haunt in life, I would say. I’m in Arizona right now helping out at Eclipse and at night the wind is extreme, during the day the sun is brutal, and there is nothing but this development in the middle of absolute nowhere. The Mojave desert, complete with roaches, crickets, and desolation, the hills of desert lands in the background… Of course boxing records is fun - and I am catching up on all of this new music. But, generally, I would say the same things haunt all people in life, you know?

How would you characterize your relationship with death?

I think of death as the great release, sometimes, a final release from woe and despair. Of course, I think I’m more fascinated not with death itself but with how it affects the people left behind. My songs are more about the people left behind than just one dead person. I am pretty intrigued with life in general, and death is just part of the natural cycle of being.

How did you learn to play guitar?

My older brother taught me when I was very young, and I took his fingerpicking technique. He moved away to college, and I started writing. It took a long time for me to get it down, lots of practice fingerpicking - I should have started lefty but there was only the one righty guitar in the house. By the time I finally could play, years later, it was too late to switch.

Influences: I know you're a big fan of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Who else? Your songs seem to me to combine elements of American and European folk and pop, yet vocally you're not easy to pin down (which is a grand thing!)

My influences come from lots of things- Nina Simone, Odetta, Big Mama Thorton, Elizabeth Cotten, Billy Holiday, Bessie Smith, Patsy Cline, Blind Willie McTell, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, - all of those people sang from the depth of their bellows- from experiences and pain. I like the grit, although I don't sing with the grit, my influences are early American blues, and later hybrids of that. Their music has resonated with me throughout my life. I grew up listening to Nina Simone, a later hybrid I would say of blues, soul, Motown, cassette tapes. A lot of my influences come from painters though, because I painted for so long, I kind of try to put paintings in my head.

When did you write your first song and what was it about?

At the very beginning, there were a bunch of Dylanesque songs, yet this was when I was quite young, and they were songs about things that I was too young to have experienced yet first hand - love, heartbreak, death, desperation, the moment... the usual fodder. I worshipped all of these singers I was listening to, and spent much time just learning how to sing and play. The first one that I remember actually being convinced was actually a song worthy of not being scrapped was when I was about 18 or 19, having been writing since I was about 15. I was in a painting seminar for college credit, taking a course in painting in Rome when I was in school. I was standing on a bridge and I saw these dead dogs floating in the water. I wrote some lyrics about the these heavy waterlogged corpses floating in what was supposed to be a picturesque scene. I worked on the lyrics of the song for months; it was the first song I recorded.

Leave it to floating dead things to get you thinking. Was Dylan an important voice to you? He at least serves as a bridge to a lot of those older, grittier folksingers of the past.

Yes, definitely- I had a big songbook of his and I spent a lot of time learning how to play and sing at the same time by going over his simple yet elegant chord progressions. My favorite songs of his are ‘Farewell Angelina,’ ‘Visions of Johanna,’ ‘Desolation Row.’ I liked when he was writing all the surrealist lyrics, which no doubt has some psychotropic influences. In fact, I just saw the documentary Scorcese did and it was really interesting to me to see all the live footage, especially of Odetta and Lady Day.

Have you ever heard any Jackson C. Frank?

No - the name sounds familiar though.

Did you always know you wanted to write and play songs for a living? Are you still painting?

No, I never considered music as a career until recently. I always felt too shy to have the right personality to make it in such an image oriented field. I wanted to be a painter for as long as I can remember, and music was a side thing. But, as I grew out of that dream of being a reclusive painter, that boho idealism, the expressiveness I got out of singing took over from anything I got from painting. It felt more real to me, and it was new and fresh, because I’m not trained, so I was coming at singing from an outsider art perspective, which I find freeing. I still do some drawing and woodcarving of birds and things like that, but nowhere near as often as I write songs. I think I just found my calling a bit later in life, but the art training helped my writing in terms of the visual world giving me stimulation.

I think you should paint your next album cover; or better yet, get Ed Hardy to release a special limited wood carving edition.

I’ll keep it into consideration- I definitely expect to paint part of my next album, but I also have some amazing friends that are artists. One in particular, Rachel Mosler, is going to do the cover for the next one. I just think people should see her artwork. It’s absolutely breathtaking what she does. My mother I also expect to have some artwork from, who is also a great painter. I kind of want it a communal effort in some ways, you know? A labor of love.

Tell me some about finding your voice. There's something very direct in what you do, stripped down. You don't seem really concerned with being overly arty or weird as much as conveying a palpable emotion, and that's kind of a rare today in terms of "psychedelic folk."

I try to just sing the way I sing, the way I have always sung. As I grow older, I find that I am a lot less inhibited, because I used to be too shy to even sing in front of anyone. I still make my friends close their eyes when I sing them a song, because I don't like being looked at when I sing. But, I have gotten a little better and now I don't have to turn all the lights off. But, you know, I just like to sing.

How did you come to meet Brian McTear? Could you say a few words about working with him and Amy Morrissey on "The Saga of Mayflower May"? It's really a phenomenal production.

I think it was Greg Weeks of the Espers maybe that recommended I record with him. I can't remember for sure. But, I must say that Brian and Amy are both amazing. Amy does these great plaster paintings of the Virgin Mary that are so beautiful. They are both super nice people, with great vintage recording equipment. They have a giant plate reverb machine, lots of stuff I found fun to play with. I got to use their guitars also, better than using my beat up disaster. But, generally, they were really open to whatever, each song was done live. It was a good experience.

Could you talk some more about the inspiration for your lyrics--pictures, stories, paintings, old folk songs, travel (inward and outward), etc...?

Some of my favorite fine artists are Adolf Wolfli, Henry Darger, Dianne Arbus, Egon Shiele, Giaccommetti - and I think the defining link in them all is that they express this fragility of the human emotion, and this bleak loneliness that runs through the terrain of so many lives. That kind of aesthetic has always appealed to me, for some reason. Those were my first loves, my first dates. Picasso's blue period and rose period I have always found beautiful, and sometimes I imagine myself in one of those absinthe hazed scenes, and write soundtracks for these scenes I imagine; or putting myself in some Weimar Rebulic scene, imagining singing in an old tavern dressed like a dolly. Travel lately has inspired me to write. Right now, I’m writing this from the Mojave. At night, it’s like an adobe Edward Scissorhands, and certainly one of the most surreal places I’ve ever been. Bleak, warm desert winds, and bugs crawling everywhere. There is definitely inspiration in the land for me lately, and it’s important to look outwards, not just inwards, for ideas.


How cool is working with Ed and Eclipse? I've said it many times: Eclipse is one of the best labels in the world today.


Ed Hardy is awesome. He is so supportive of his artists. I sent him a CD-R almost two years ago now via a recommendation from my friend Jeffrey Alexander from the now defunct Iditarod, and Black Forest/Black Sea [and currently event manager of Terrastock 6 of course] - and he was so easy to work with, letting the artist have complete creative control. He’s such a hard worker and a good example of someone who's hard work has paid off, I think.


Greg Weeks is another strong supporter, not to mention a gifted songwriter in his own right. What's it like working with him?


Well, I don't know yet. I’m going there this week to work with him - The first order of business is recording a cover of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” for a BBC compilation. And then we start tracking. I have a good feeling about it though. I love everything he has done, and I am really excited that he wants to work with me. Not to mention he is one of the most charismatic people I have met.


Could you ever see yourself performing in more of an ensemble setting, as Greg does with Espers?


Yes, definitely. It’s just a matter of finding people who want to be in a band and aren't tied down by domesticities and significant others and day jobs. So, the answer is yes, but I just haven't had luck hooking up with anyone that can travel. Basically, I’m looking for a pedal steel or lap steel player, and a good piano/keys/synth player who can also sing...lets consider it an advertisement. Know anyone?



Dreams for the future? What’s next?


Well, I am trying to live in the present, and remove expectation from my outlook. Yet, of course, I would like to be able to continue touring and releasing records, and I hope that people continue to be supportive.


Marissa Nadler was interviewed by Lee Jackson exclusively for Terrascope Online

Produced & directed by: Phil McMullen © terrascope.online 2005


Grateful thanks to Marissa for her time, effort, patience - and of course her beautiful songs.


More information available here: http://www.marissanadler.com/


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