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Thursday, February 21, 2008
Marissa Nadler: Please do not mistake this singer for Joan Baez

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.

Marissa Nadler is not a folk singer., and she would appreciate it if you would not mistake her for one. She may be, however, the best singer-songwriter to come around in quite some time. With a penchant for Edgar Allen Poe.

Marissa Nadler might play acoustic guitar, but she's not what you'd call a folk musician. Then again, there isn't really a word to describe her. There are words that come close -- troubadour, storyteller, acoustic-goth-diva-from-a-medieval-horror-ballad -- but one begins to suspect there's still something missing.

"I was never into folk music," she says. "I don't consider the music I play folk music, and it really pisses me off when people pigeonhole it. I consider it really atmospheric, ambient, chill music, and it's definitely not Bob Dylan, Joan Baez kind of sh*t. No, but I love Bob Dylan, but I hate Joan Baez. I hate her. And when people see, you know, my long brown hair and acoustic guitar, and they're like, 'Oh, you're like Joan' -- I get so pissed."

She breaks out in a laugh that threatens to overwhelm her small body. Then she cocks her head and blinks, as though she's caught a thought that nobody else can see, and says: "The whole tour over the past couple of years has been a blur. It sucks you in and time goes by really quickly. Every night you're in a different nightclub, and they're kind of dens of vice and desperation. So I'm happy not to be on tour right now. I'm happy to be living in Boston."


It is a cold and bright morning in the middle of November. I'm standing in my living room in Brooklyn, on the phone with Marissa, trying to figure out where to meet. It's excruciatingly weird hearing this woman's voice on the phone. Especially after having just jammed the pause button on her CD. A moment ago, on my speakers, she sounded ethereal and ghostlike, a haunted voice floating above wintry strummed guitars, wailing organs and creaking theremins, singing Edgar Allan Poe lyrics and recasting Biblical stories with lost girls. Now, she's talking about which streets in Park Slope are one-way.

"I need to bring my band." She pauses, as if to take a head count. "Myles."

Ultimately, we decide on Prospect Park -- halfway between my new apartment and her hotel. Neither of us actually know New York, though, and artists having a conversation about directions is like artists having a conversation about financial planning.

But I traipse through the park and emerge relatively unscathed. I don't know where I am -- she tells me an intersection on the phone, but I can't even see streets -- and, when I climb a short hill, she's standing there, somehow both unsurprising and natural, like I've just wandered into her own private grove.

It shouldn't surprise me at all.

"I'm a fantasist, in a way," Marissa tells me when we sit down. She is small and elfin, wearing a sleeveless black dress on a day when most people are buried in parkas. A tall, skinny bearded man accompanies her. This, I use my journalistic skills to deduce, is Myles -- her band. He says little, and whenever I glance at him, he seems deep in thought. I decide that, if his cover role is that of a backing band, then on the inside he must be a bodyguard. Or, possibly, a chaperone -- to keep Marissa from being too Marissa.

"I was," she says cautiously, "not that cool in high school. I had a lot of time on my hands. I wasn't ever going on any dates or anything ... so I taught myself how to play the guitar."

In person, she doesn't seem at all antisocial. In her songs, however, you'd be hard-pressed not to believe it. Nadler's singing sounds at once caustically ancient and vividly modern. "Silvia" is about two vanished girls who meet in the belly of a whale; "Bird on Your Grave" is an argument between two people about whether or not a common friend has died. Recurring characters like Mayflower May, and recurring themes like loneliness, isolation, and an air of magical realism -- places where the ground turns into flowers, and people try to break out of dreams. Her version of "Annabel Lee," the last poem that Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, is almost fun, with eerie-but-zany bursts of theremin between extended flutters of acoustic guitar drifting in, bouncing back-and-forth, and jamming out with Poe's verses.

Playing music, for the longest time, was relegated to the status of hobby in Nadler's life. Though self-taught on guitar, banjo, and ukulele, she enrolled in the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, but soon, turned off by the pretentiousness of the art world and lured by her solitary ways and her passion for music ("Rock stars were always my idols," she admits, breaking her veil of mystery and, for a single solitary moment, straight-out gushing) she started to focus less on her painting and more on her playing.

In 2004, she released her first album, Ballads of Living and Dying, at the age of 22. It's a short, dark, and pleasantly haunted record of eight original songs and two covers, one by Pablo Neruda and one by Edgar Allan Poe. "On the surface this might not sound like a compelling proposition," the critics at Pitchfork Media wrote of the album. "But fortunately Nadler has the sort of voice that you'd follow straight to Hades." From the website that's become the harshest critic of popular music in contemporary hipster culture, it was the highest kind of praise, reserved for a select few individuals -- and Nadler was in.

She followed Ballads with another album, The Saga of Mayflower May, the next year, before switching labels. Now with the American independent label Kemado Records, she's toured with indie superstars Peter, Bjorn and John, and kept up a staunch writing regiment, preparing her next album for recording later this year.

To hear Marissa tell it, though, she never thought she'd be playing in front of crowds; least of all chill, atmospheric (not folk) shows at New York's prestigious Whitney Museum. She grew up a Reform Jew in a suburb near Boston. She was a product of her synagogue's after-school Hebrew School system, attending an all-girls' overnight camp for nine years. Her parents moved there when she was a child, ostensibly for the school system.

"I didn't fit in," she remembers. "I developed a strong imagination to combat the boredom of suburbia. Even now, I write about make-believe."

Her brother, Stuart, is a writer. "We're both similar," she says. "We both have starkness and desperation as our themes. But it comes out in different ways. He's Todd Solondz and I'm Edward Scissorhands. You know, my family always gets touchy about talking about them in interviews. And then my father's like, 'Why don't you ever talk about me?' He's a dentist."

But it was probably Nadler's mother that most influenced her art. Though a practicing Jew, her mother also harbored a longstanding interest in clairvoyance and the occult. "When I was a kid, we'd be sitting at the kitchen table and she'd tell me, 'Your dead grandfather is in the room," Nadler recalls.

This kind of supernatural, earthy, dark-but-fantastic version of the world around her -- a sort of American gothic -- resounds throughout Nadler's songs, even the ones not written by Edgar Allan Poe. Sitting in the park, peaceful and placid (though she occasionally mentions her coldness, she turns down offers to head somewhere warmer) Nadler seems remarkably casual. Her voice alternates between whispery and matter-of-fact, as though she can't decide whether to be muse or tour manager -- when in fact, she's both. She sidesteps talking about the recent flurry of attention that the media has bestowed upon her, both from music critics and the larger world. Nobody can be sure whether she's going to turn out to be the next Tori Amos or the next Chryssie Hyde.

If there's one person who isn't thinking about that, it's Nadler herself. The one thing she's eager to talk about is her music -- in all its manifestations. We segue from discussing the possible Biblicality of her own lyrics -- my favorite song of hers begins "I met you in the belly of a whale;" we both agree that she's kind of constructing her own mysticism -- to discussing her frenetic tour schedule. "It's a necessary evil," she concedes. She'd much rather be back at home, writing music, she tells me, sounding wistful. These days, she goes weeks or months without writing at all, then splurges in a binge of writing twelve or thirteen songs in a week. She tells me she wants to get into a routine of writing. Her brother, the novelist, writes "every day, from 5 to 10 A.M., like clockwork," and she wants to get into a habit like that, too.

"And art?" I ask. "The visual kind. Are you still making any art?"

She pauses and considers.

"It's taken a long time to get away from the pretentiousness," she tells me. "But this morning at breakfast, I made a drawing. With crayons, on the placemat."

She and Myles climb into their car -- it's both surprising and totally making sense that she actually drives, in a car, instead of, I don't know, flying or magically disappearing or something -- and they're off. I turn back into the park and hope I don't get lost. Wandering along the paths, the precariously shaking leaves all seem to be like lovers about to blow apart, and all the fallen twigs look like remnants of spells. Then I realize I've got Marissa's first CD on, blasting in my ears.
It shouldn't surprise me at all.

--Text by Matthue Roth / Photo Jason Frank Rothenberg

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.
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