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Marissa Nadler’s Apocalypse Dreams

There’s a package waiting for Marissa Nadler. The box was delivered to the singer-songwriter’s Boston apartment earlier today — an overcast and alarmingly windy Thursday at the tail-end of March — but she resisted the urge to open it, politely delaying until my arrival. She already knows what’s inside, anyway: a guitar, given to her […]

There’s a package waiting for Marissa Nadler. The box was delivered to the singer-songwriter’s Boston apartment earlier today — an overcast and alarmingly windy Thursday at the tail-end of March — but she resisted the urge to open it, politely delaying until my arrival. She already knows what’s inside, anyway: a guitar, given to her by PRS Guitars, a Maryland-based manufacturer with whom she now has an endorsement deal. “It’s finally starting to happen,” Nadler says, sounding a bit in awe. “Getting a free guitar in the mail is something I never would have thought would happen.”

Nadler, who’s since turned 35, welcomes me into the two-and-a-half-bedroom unit — located on the top floor of a turquoise triple-decker — that she shares with her husband, Ryan Walsh, 37, and their cat, a personable tortoiseshell named Twyla. Stuffed bookshelves flank the apartment’s hallway, and the right wall is also home to a CD case that’s overflowing — Joanna Newsom mingling with Bill Hicks. Down the hall is a spare bedroom that Walsh is using as a workspace to write his first book, an upcoming Penguin title that grew out of an article he did for Boston magazine; he describes the project as a portrait of the city’s music scene in 1968, centered around the period when Van Morrison briefly lived in Boston while writing his fantastical masterpiece, Astral Weeks

Conjoined to the couple’s main bedroom is Nadler’s studio, where she fashions dreamy songs of her own. Over the past 12 years, the raven-haired artist has assembled a rich catalog in debt to both gothic and folk traditions. Her music isn’t particularly commercial, and her world is rather small — but all that’s by her own design. In an era of oversharing, bloated album rollouts, and music-making by committee, Nadler has cultivated an old-world mystique, built around her haunting and hypnotic elegies, which occupy a hazy realm all their own. Her home is where she nurtures her tales of heartache and devastation, where she draws and paints, where she put together the (mostly) stop-motion music video for her recent single, “All the Colors of the Dark.” And, naturally, it’s also where she keeps her instruments, including an aging 12-string Martin she says is her favorite guitar. But at the moment, her attention is completely fixed on the newest piece in her collection.

“I’m in love,” Nadler says as soon as she pulls the instrument out of its cardboard box. “This is gorgeous.” She’s not wrong: The six-string’s a true beauty, cream-colored with a semi-hollow body and a fretboard decorated with images of birds, making it look almost like a flip book tracing the flightpath of a lone dove. Admiring the guitar while sitting on the living-room couch, Nadler begins daydreaming aloud about how refreshing it will be to take a new electric on tour. “When people see you up there with just an acoustic guitar, I think it comes with all these associations that you have to battle against,” she says. “And I’m kind of sick of that.” 

Her songs may not be the loudest, but there is a heaviness and severity to her work. On May 20, Nadler will release Strangers, her seventh full-length and finest so far. Written in the time before she and Walsh were married (they tied the knot in a small and simple ceremony in August of 2015), the upcoming collection is its own kind of wedding record — one that’s nostalgic for the rush and adventure of uncertainty in love; one that’s concerned with what it means to become estranged from yourself; and, most strikingly, one that looks beyond the altar and sees a world crumbling to its end. “It was an interesting dichotomy of going and picking out wedding flowers and going home and writing that the waves are gonna pull the city into the water,” Nadler says. “It was my very complex way of de-stressing, like, ‘I don’t have to worry about this because nothing really matters. This is all gonna disappear one day.’” 

A shadowy and lush song cycle, the 11-track Strangers sees its maker widening the scope of her songwriting and delivering on the promise of a career that’s refused to sputter out, despite no shortage of difficulties. Throughout her time as a recording artist, Nadler has endured personal and professional heartbreak — romantic relationships gone awry, a label deal that ended unexpectedly. At one point, the singer-guitarist wondered whether she was done releasing music; luckily, a clutch label signing (with Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones) and her most inspired record up to that point (2014’s stark July) intervened. Now, just a few years after she thought this chapter of her life was over, Nadler is following the album that she credits with resurrecting her career. And even though she could be described as a cautious optimist at best, she’s looking forward to what’s next — namely, recording new songs in August for an EP that’s likely due out at the end of this year, in addition to a summer tour and, before all that, a string of late-April shows on the West Coast.  

“I don’t normally get this excited to go on tour,” she says, “but everything just feels like it’s in a good place right now.” 

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Marissa Nadler was born in Washington, D.C. but raised in Needham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston that she remembers as a “straight-laced, conservative town.” (Residents of Needham were debating whether to allow retail sales of alcohol as recently as 2011 — the town’s since lifted its dry status.) By her own recollection, Nadler was not a popular kid growing up — more concerned with getting good grades than fitting in with other girls at school. She would also get “the sads” a lot. “I’m still the person that cries at the drop of a hat,” she says over dinner at her house, plates of generously prepared pasta primavera. “That’s not something that’s gone away, unfortunately, much to my disappointment. I really wish I had thicker skin, but I really don’t.” 

As a teen, her main priority was earning her way into Providence’s Rhode Island School of Design, which she did. “Every chance I got I was drawing and painting, to get into school,” she recalls. “I was very dedicated — at a very young age — to my craft.” Near the end of high school, though, after she was already accepted into RISD, Nadler says she discovered how much fun partying could be. “I reached the goal and then was like, ‘F**k it, I’m going crazy.’” 

She never derailed her academic achievements, but describes her turn as an “intense 180 from good girl” to someone who would regularly drink and go to school stoned. Walsh refers to that period as “the World Series of Senioritis,” in that loving way that only a partner who’s heard all of the horror stories could; more than once Nadler compares her wild days to those of Six Feet Under’s art-school problem child, Claire Fisher. “It was one way to make your small town seem more interesting, that’s for sure,” she says. 

"I just don’t like the word 'folk' because when I hear it I think of coffeehouse music," Nadler says. "Milquetoast singer-songwriters that suck."

Ironically, it wasn’t until her freshman year at RISD, while she was pursuing a degree in illustration, that Nadler got serious about music. “I was getting graded at art and there was so much pressure,” she tells me. “It was no longer my refuge for getting my emotions out.” So instead, she began writing and recording songs during extracurricular hours, a hobby she first dabbled in as a high schooler, after she taught herself to play guitar with some help and encouragement from her older brother. 

Performing at open-mic nights around Providence eventually led Nadler to the man who would become not only the producer of her debut album, but also her first serious boyfriend. “Totally love at first sight,” she says, looking a tad self-conscious to be reliving the past. “I’d never been in love before, I’d only had obsessions or childhood crushes. It was intense.” They kept their relationship professional while making Nadler’s first LP, a process that stretched through the latter half of the singer’s time as an undergrad; when they were done recording, the two started dating. The work they forged together, 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying, earned the attention of indie label Eclipse Records with its grayscale, fingerpicked meditations. 

“I really romanticized antiquity at that time, I was so pretentious,” Nadler says in hindsight. “I’m pretty down-to-earth now, but then I was writing on a vintage typewriter.” 

Discussing her early material, our conversation veers toward Nadler’s distaste for being labeled folk, something she mentions often. “I love a lot of music that’s acoustic guitar and vocals,” she clarifies. “I just don’t like that word because when I hear it I think of, like, coffeehouse music — milquetoast singer-songwriters that suck.” 

One singer-songwriter album she’s not particularly fond of is her second full-length, 2005’s The Saga of Mayflower May, which was fueled by her split with her boyfriend. “If I had to pick one record that I’m a little embarrassed about, it’s that one,” she shares. “The heavy use of vibrato just kills me. I think I wanted to recreate and reinvent myself so much that I just started singing like somebody else.” Another reason she sees that LP as a splotch on her resumé is its curiously idealized portrayal of romance. “It’s really not accurate,” she says. “It wasn’t this picture-perfect thing. I wasn’t a maiden and he wasn’t a prince. He was just some guy that moved on and he’s still with that girl.” 

Other circumstances surrounding her sophomore album were trying as well: After the breakup, Nadler moved from Providence to New York, settling in Brooklyn and taking a job as an art teacher in Harlem. (She studied at RISD for a fifth year, in the school’s graduate program, to get a teaching degree — a backup plan in case music and art didn’t pan out.) “I was way too shy to be the only teacher in a classroom of 30 kids,” she says. “It was a disaster. I was, like, crying and washing paintbrushes in the sink because I had no idea how to manage a classroom and couldn’t raise my voice even if I wanted to.” 

Still, even with the stressors at work, it was the heartbreak that weighed most on her. “I tried to get this guy back for a long time,” she says. “I think part of it was using this drama to fuel my songwriting and that’s kind of why, in later years, I was so adamant about not self-destructing for my art. Because I did it for so long.” 

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Shyness has always been a problem for Nadler. She says she’s able to break through it now, but years ago she’d have to drink before shows to overcome her stage fright. “I was never an alcoholic or anything like that,” she says, whispering the A-word. “But I was just frickin’ nervous and I didn’t know how to deal with it.” She says her drinking was never out of control, that it was just a crutch, but she swore it off completely three years ago. “I may come across like a reformed party girl or something, but it’s never going to go away,” she says. “Under the surface, there’s this hurricane brimming that always feels like it’s ready to explode.” 

Nadler insists that her drinking very rarely interfered with her performing abilities (“I respected the venues and respected the audiences”) but there were a few instances in which it did. “There was this one concert in Norway: I was really sick and I overslept and missed a flight and then arrived to people waiting for me, and I swigged a ton of whiskey and could hardly sing,” she remembers. “There was this hilarious review: ‘One of the best records of the year, one of the worst concerts I’ve ever seen.’” 

James Reed, a friend of Nadler’s, admits, “I’ll be very honest, I saw some sloppy shows at times.” Asked what changes he’s seen in the singer over the course of their decade-long friendship, Reed, 38, says, “I recognize a healthier person… [She knows] herself well enough to recognize what’s healthy, what’s a good choice.” 

The two first met when Reed, a former music critic for The Boston Globe, profiled Nadler in 2006, writing, “she has a voice that, in mythological times, could have lured men to their deaths at sea.” His piece ran in advance of her third album, 2007’s Songs III: Bird on the Water, a set of songs that displayed greater confidence and brought the songwriter more attention. It was also Nadler’s first full-length with Kemado Records, the label that would go on to spawn the offshoot Mexican Summer, named after a song from Bird on the Water

“I remember things felt good, up until Little Hells,” Nadler says. “After Little Hells came out, I thought that things were going to get easier for me, but instead they got worse.”

Little Hells is the name of Nadler’s fourth LP, released in 2009, the same year she relocated to Boston, after cycling between New York, Providence, and, briefly, Los Angeles. Musically, the material was more engaging and varied than its predecessors; but, commercially, it didn’t satisfy the label. So, Mexican Summer — which had subsumed Kemado and, in 2010, found considerable success with Best Coast’s brand of lovesick power-pop — dropped Nadler from their roster. “It sucked,” she says. “I was just totally floored, and it took a while to get back on my feet from that.” 

All these years later, Nadler’s hesitant to discuss what happened with Mexican Summer; enough has already been written about the situation, she says, and she doesn’t want to be known as somebody that carries grudges. “I’m over it, completely,” she swears, sounding genuine. Nevertheless, I ask her how she felt back then. “I was so pissed off,” she says. “And then to have to see, like, bands walking around with Mexican Summer tote bags and T-shirts? This is a song I wrote that meant something to me, and then to see that name… It just sucked.” 

Without the backing of a record label, Nadler decided to take her career into her own hands: She started her own label. “I was like, ‘I’m never working with another record label as long as I live.’ Obviously, I went back on that, but that was pretty much, ‘F**k this, they all suck.’ I was so bitter,” she says. “I was more determined than ever to prove that they were wrong.” 

Enter Box of Cedar Records, which Nadler founded herself and named after a song on her first album. To fund the making of her fifth record — simply titled Marissa Nadler — the label head/singer-songwriter started a Kickstarter campaign that raised a total of $17,037, well surpassing its goal of $11,000. The resulting LP collected her brightest and cleanest songs to date, including the country-flirting “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You” and the moony-eyed “Wedding.” It was around this time, of the label woes and the founding of Box of Cedar, that Nadler met Walsh, whom she calls “a godsend” for his eternal optimism, a quality she freely cops to lacking. 

Even when he’s reminiscing about the hassle of mailing out orders, Walsh can’t help but grin. “When she did her self-releases,” he says, “[there were] so many overseas, so many want vinyl — every post office in the whole city hated us.” 

But in spite of all these triumphs — rebounding from the Mexican Summer setback, putting out her self-titled album, finding love — Nadler’s darkest moments and songs were still ahead of her.

“July Fourth of last year, we spilled all the blood,” Nadler sings on “Firecrackers,” a wounded strummer from her sixth album, 2014’s July. “I know better now, I don’t call you up at night.” 

The song was inspired by her breakup with Walsh, which, as that opening lyric reports, happened on July 4, 2012. During dinner, Nadler and Walsh appear more comfortable discussing their schism than one would assume. They never really go into much detail about what exactly caused the collapse, but they clearly accept it as part of their history and, if anything, seem to be more sure of their bond because they took time apart. 

“I think we were both a little aimless when we broke up,” Walsh says after our meal and their nightly ritual of watching Jeopardy! with Twyla by their side. “We didn’t know what each of was going to do next in our — ” 

“Life,” Nadler says, finishing his thought. 

A few months before they separated, Nadler released The Sister, an eight-track companion to the self-titled record that was somewhere between an EP and an LP, never effectively marketed as either. She’s fond of the songs, but Nadler definitely regards the project as a misstep. “Maybe I got addicted to the feedback from people and also thrilled by the idea that I could release something whenever I wanted, so I just rushed it,” she says. “It wasn’t really ready.” 

After putting in the effort and financing to quickly cobble together another record, Nadler was feeling burnt out. “I literally moved home at 30 — it sucked,” she relates. To get some breathing room (and settle concerns her parents probably had about the stability of her career), Nadler put her graduate degree to use and took a job teaching art at a special-needs high school. “I was really jaded about how people get successful,” she says. “I felt like the cards were kind of stacked against me. But then it felt really, really great to work in a totally different world that wasn’t this self-absorbed music-industry world.” 

"I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop," Nadler says. "This is just the kind of person I am."

Despite taking joy in her teaching post (“I’ve kept in touch with a lot of the students and I got one of them into art school, which is really cool,” she says), Nadler regards that time as difficult and remembers little. “That was a really bad period of my life,” she says. “I feel like I blocked it out — I literally look back on that time and I don’t remember anything.” And though she toyed with the idea of completely calling it quits as a professional musician, Nadler was eventually drawn back to her craft. “I thought I could just step away,” she says, “and I thought that maybe I could just be a teacher, but I really couldn’t. I missed writing songs.” 

So in 2013 that’s what she did, with the support of a new label: the Brooklyn-based, avant-leaning Sacred Bones, whose founder, Caleb Braaten, had messaged Nadler years earlier, saying he was a fan and asking if she’d like to put something out on his imprint. She eventually took him up on that offer and headed to a studio in Seattle to record with Randall Dunn, a producer associated with drone-metal acts like Sunn O))) and Earth. “She was sort of, I think, in a zone of, ‘Am I going to keep doing this or what?’” Dunn, 41, says over the phone. 

If Nadler was indeed approaching July as a last-ditch effort, it helped that she was more committed and confident than ever. “I was determined to write the best songs I ever had,” she asserts. Impressively, she pulled it off: A spare but complex work, July sounds as if it’s bathed in a soft fog, meant to be enjoyed beside the low-light warmth of an oil lamp. It forgoes the character-driven yarns and fantasies that populated past LPs, instead favoring lived-in details and first-person intimacy. Earlier songs dressed themselves up in antiquity, but there’s no mistaking what the first line on July is about: “If you ain’t made it now, you’ll never gonna make it / 17 people in the dark tonight / You see some familiar faces behind the cellular lights.” 

“I knew something was special just from the demos she gave me,” Dunn says. “It was pretty apparent to me, even before she got here, that ‘Oh man, this has potential to really be beautiful and pretty amazing.’” 

Nadler explains that, after the record’s release, she noticed a renewed interest in her music. “Sales were better, more radio play, more interview requests… People just cared again,” she says. “You know when it’s a ghost town: Nobody tweets at you, nobody follows you on anything, and you’re just acutely aware of [that] fact.” 

Though Nadler maintains she pulled off a bit of a comeback, Braaten disagrees. “I didn’t think her career needed revitalizing — I know that she says that,” the Sacred Bones boss, 39, says over the phone, laughing. “It’s a nice compliment for the label, but I think her career was perfectly fine… But July was her best record, up until that point, and it was obvious. I think people loved it right out of the gate.” 

In the midst of making July, Nadler also made progress in her personal life. She quit drinking in 2013 — she doesn’t open up about what exactly went into that decision, but says there were “definitely some rock-bottom moments” — and, that same year, she and Walsh reconciled. 

“I’m just endlessly curious about Marissa,” Walsh says with a love-drunk look in his eyes, answering the question of what brought them back together. “I think the things we liked about each other were still there and the things we were frustrated with were fading away or not important anymore.” 

“We love each other,” Nadler says. “It just felt like coming home. I guess it sounds really cheesy, but it’s just like when somebody becomes your best friend, your family, your home.”

On our second day together, after hours of trudging up the past in her apartment, Nadler and I decide to go for a drive and discuss the present. Cruising through Boston’s gentrifying Jamaica Plain neighborhood, we talk about how different her life is now compared to where it was just a few years ago. The clouds that have been hanging over the city for the past day or so have finally parted, so when we bend around Jamaica Plain Pond, the sunshine’s blinding as it reflects off of the water’s surface. “I don’t feel like I’ll ever be in that boat I was in in 2009 again,” Nadler says as she’s driving. “People want to see you succeed at a certain point, [if] you’ve been around long enough and been releasing a certain caliber of music.” But she can’t completely break from her nature. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop… This is just the kind of person I am, I’m like a real neurotic.” 

And that accounts for the tone and color palette of Strangers, a record that anticipates destruction both on a widespread scale and within the margins of one’s personal life. Whereas July drifts through the bleakest chapter of Nadler’s story, the new record (which is a worthy and superior successor) looks outward, concerning itself with “how an individual interacts with the world,” as the songwriter puts it. The lyrics are painterly and, at times, apocalyptic — on the piano-led opening track, “Divers of the Dust,” Nadler sings, “Last I heard, in the end / The waves were scraping city streets.” The hooks, while still relatively subdued, are more immediate than they’ve been in the past. All in all, the fast-approaching LP — which, like July, will be out in the U.S. via Sacred Bones, and released internationally through London indie hub Bella Union — feels both fuller and more focused than the one that came before it. 

As we get out of Nadler’s car to walk alongside a cemetery in the daytime — an obvious wink to her on-record persona — she describes Strangers as a sort of second sophomore album, a distinction that speaks to how refreshed she is but also how daunting it was to follow July. The recording plan never seemed to be in question —  it was more or less mutually understood that Nadler and Dunn would collaborate once again in Seattle — but the writing didn’t come easily. “I didn’t have the heartbreak,” Nadler said to me earlier. “Also, I’m never going to write a better heartbreak-and-reconciliation record than July. I’m really proud of that record and I knew that if I tried to make a record, sonically or subject matter-wise, that was similar to that, I would fail.” 

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When she did find themes that inspired her — the apocalypse, solitude, feeling distant from yourself — they weren’t necessarily the kinds one might expect from an artist engaged to be married. But there’s certainly a reading of the new album that makes sense in that context: The record takes an open-eyed look at what it means to join your life with someone else’s. 

That first night I was in Boston, in Nadler and Walsh’s kitchen, she remembered an exchange she had with Dunn: “I’m in the studio and Randall is like, ‘I don’t really think these songs are about the world ending. I think these are songs about your world ending,’” she said, smiling on the edge of laughter. “And I got really mad at him and was like, ‘You don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about.’” 

Nadler concedes that there might be some truth to that point, but resists such an armchair-psychologist interpretation. If there’s any direct relationship between the songs on Strangers and the decision to get married, it’s that a wedding doesn’t solve anyone’s life. 

“I think a lot of people think, on paper, ‘Oh, someone gets married, their life is great.’ There’s these pre-conceived notions of external events that will somehow heal you or make you a normal or happy person, and it’s not really as simple as that,” she told me at her dining table. She was explaining why there’s a sense of loneliness that blankets Strangers, but also why there’s an ache that’s still with her, even as her life has settled. “People feel lonely when they’re in crowds of people or even when they’re in a happy relationship. There are just certain things that don’t go away.”