(Photo by Nick Fancher)
MARISSA NADLER IS USED TO BEING MISTAKEN for something or someone else, and not just because she now lives in Nashville after years in Boston, and before that New York and Los Angeles – “there’s a lot more Republicans down here, and that’s a huge culture shock for me,” she says, still slightly bemused.
Her long face, longer hair and even longer melodic strains, contributed to a style that was moody-folk-meets-interior-rock, her delicate mid-range voice offering slow, quiet songs that haunt you even in sunlight. The assumption so often was that here was some 19th century wan woman only tethered to this world by tragedy and tragic romance.
As Australians who saw her on her first, and to date only, tour here more than a decade ago saw however, there has long been a solidity to the way Nadler approaches writing and performing, that belies the seeming fragility and eccentricity of her voice and songs.
“Even from the first record I was pretty conscious of what I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to be basic, I didn’t want to be coffee shop folkie,” Nadler says. “I didn’t want to do a lot of stuff, so maybe I was overly eccentric for years which made it hard to remove the genre tags from my songwriting.”
So when she said that with her latest album, The Path Of The Clouds, the plan had been to “go big”, it must have struck people as odd. Especially when even as the album sounds fuller, thicker with instrumentation and textures, it remains relatively intimate. But look closer.
This idea of Nadler being big, or forceful or loud, might surprise, yet the truth is her songs play like a really quiet metal band: there’s heft and intent but it’s so subtly carried through people can think they’re getting a pretty sad song, when in fact they are getting a deadly quiet track that will explode in them later.
“My writing was always pretty strong. My singing might not have been, but my playing has gotten better. When I listen to my first six records, starting from when I was 22 years old or something, I’m like, wow I’ve come a long way as a singer: I’ve dropped the affectation, learned to play the guitar passionately, not just quickly,” Nadler says.
“But I do love black metal and this has been the most intense few years where I’ve really honed my craft. At this point I am 40 years old and I’m getting joint pain and stuff like that, and it’s of course you are: you’ve toured for 20 years of your life to absolutely no acclaim [she laughs] so all of a sudden it’s nice to see people say good things about this record because I’m such a lifer.”
If dark metal seems too much of a stretch for those first hearing Nadler, maybe a stepping stone might be The Path Of The Clouds’ close connection to pastoral psychedelia – specifically, Pink Floyd, but also Gene Clark, formerly of The Byrds and writer of two songs (The Strength Of Strings and For Tomorrow) covered by the spectral folk/alternative rock collective This Mortal Coil whose style may in some ways have prepared the ground for Nadler.
Once again, it’s something that has bubbled away in the background previously (and on 2018’s For My Crimes she had a wry, appropriately sadly beautiful song called I Can’t Listen To Gene Clark Anymore), but it is unmistakable this time.
“I absolutely love Pink Floyd. I grew up listening to them. My parents were married in 1975 and I grew up on a steady diet of prog rock and excellent bands, and Pink Floyd was my favourite. That’s why I fell in love with reverb,” says Nadler enthusiastically. “I spent the past years listening to The Byrds, Gene Clark, rekindling my early love for Pink Floyd and I’m really happy that you picked up on those because after my last record came out I wanted to prove to people that I’m not just one-dimensional.”
To that end, people might expect Nadler to do nothing but murder ballads, ghostly tragic things. But murder ballads have a limited emotional range, generally anger, revenge and sadness, and The Path Of The Clouds finds her exploring a broader criminal mind, from small time crooks to large-scale con men, from people who prefer to live on the fringes to those who in a moment choose reckless over responsible.
“A lot of murder ballads in the history of popular song have revolved around a man killing a woman. Always. It’s always a man killing a weak, poor, innocent woman,” Nadler says with a note of disdain. “I think the only true murder ballad on this record would be Bessie Did You Make It?, and in that song [inspired by an episode of the TV series Unsolved Mysteries] I made her the one who chose to kill her husband.
“I still think the medium is a beautiful one and I’ve been deeply inspired by some of these songs, but I think it’s interesting to flip the form and modernise it.”
So, beyond the traditional murderers?
“I’m drawn to the minds of the lost. I’m drawn to getting into the heads of people that have felt similarly outsider-ish, and similarly cast off by society. Whether because they chose the wrong field or they are not the right look or they are not the right personality type or race,” she says.
“The human condition is a suffering one and I’m just tapping into a few stories and some of my own to give voice to that when the Martians come and get us.”
The Path Of Clouds is out now on Bella Union.