By CHLOE ROTH
Massachusetts-based songwriter Marissa Nadler performs this Sunday, Dec. 18, at Cafe Du Nord with local songstress Emily Jane White. We caught up with Nadler while she was working on a mysterious vocal project somewhere in the redwoods of Northern California. She offered an honest, brave, and transparent look into the trials, tribulations, and rewards of making a record, starting a label, and being a woman with severe performance anxiety in a male-dominated industry obsessed with dramatic stage antics.
Last year, Nadler launched a Kickstarter campaign to release her eponymous full-length album. Within two weeks, her cult following had already helped her surpass her goal by pledging $17,000. But the campaign's success did not mark the end of the struggle that began when Nadler was dropped from hip indie label Mexican Summer, which had taken its name from one of her songs. "It was a personal blow, not just a professional one," she says. "I'm not one to dwell on the negative. If anything it gave me more fuel to try to make the best record I could possibly make."
So, true to her DIY roots, Nadler set up shop and created her own record label, Box of Cedar Records. Taking into account what any label would do for a new release, in terms of publicity and sales, Nadler created a way to redress the "rookie mistakes" she'd made earlier in her career, like signing away rights to two of her favorite records. "I like the creative freedom," she explains. "There are a lot of misconceptions, that an 'independent' record label will give you complete creative control, and that's not true."
Of course, there were a bevy of new mistakes to be made. The Kickstarter funding didn't come close to covering the costs of creating the album and label. But it would have taken incredible foresight to know that 70 percent of the packages, which cost over $11 per overseas shipping of vinyl, would have to be mailed to fans in Europe.
"It was very rough," she recalls. "I had to borrow a lot of money from a lot of people." Playing "credit card roulette," she maxed out four credit cards to put out the album. She was living in a small town outside of Boston, where the rents are more affordable, with her musician boyfriend Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills, who helped make the Kickstarter a success.
"It's hard out there," she says. "But music is absolutely my calling and I didn't want to have to give it up." After working every type of day job imaginable, she applied for 75 teaching jobs. With a bachelors in Fine Arts in illustration and a masters in art education from the Rhode Island School of Design, she still didn't hear back from a single school. But six months of record-sales later, she has recouped the costs of making the album, something that never happened for any of her previous on-label efforts. "It's nice to be able to make a living as an artist," she says. "I'm extremely grateful that I've had the fortune to get my music out there."
Over the last 10 years Nadler has toured incessantly to promote her five albums. But at no small cost. "I have always had severe stage fright," Nadler reveals. "But I know that you need to tour to get your music out there. So these tours, not just because I do them alone but because of these inner demons I'm battling with self-doubt and self-loathing, make touring really hard."
At a recent show in London, Nadler met a fan who had traveled all the way from Poland to hear her sing. "I've struggled with doing something with my life that's altruistic. Throughout the past I've thought maybe I should just become a nurse or doctor. But then I think to myself that a world without art would be a horrible place. As hard as it is for me to get up on stage, it makes the live performances even better, because people know that about me. I do it for myself to overcome my fears, but I also do it for the people that listen, because the music means something to them."
Because of that motivation, Nadler has managed to produce a large body of work in a short amount of time. A prolific songwriter, Nadler went into the studio this time with 18 songs and a group of friends she trusted. Produced by Brian McTear and recorded at Philadelphia's Miner Street Studios, most songs on Marissa Nadler were recorded live on the first take. "I'm a perfectionist in many ways," she says. "But not with my music. I let my imperfections show in my music because I think imperfection is beauty." Rooted in folk but influenced by shoegaze, Americana, and early country, Nadler names Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Sammi Smith, whose up-front vocal placement inspired the album's sound, as major influences.
Nadler's next album, The Sister, slated for a Spring 2012 release, is already finished. Fans can expect darker sounds and lyrics, and, with each song about a person in her life, themes about the effect of drugs and alcohol on Nadler's community.
These stand in stark contrast to Nadler's earlier woodsy lyrical themes, which often got her pigeon-holed as a dreamy folk singer. "It's not like I grew up in the woods as a fairy princess," says Nadler, who actually grew up in a suburban cul-de-sac. "I struggled with fitting in in school, so I created an alternate universe to live in. Psychologically, creating a mythology was something I was interested in because I wanted to escape my reality."
Her aural and visual aesthetic, that lulling beauty of her voice and music, belie an intense and outspoken personality. "Even though my music is really gentle on the ears, the lyrics are really gritty," she says. "The real Marissa is filled with passion. I'm fiery, not celestial."
And it's true. Nadler is a woman with a lot to say. Especially about being a woman. "For my entire career I have been combatting sexism. It's rampant in the music industry." She gives a few examples of interactions that would most likely not be experienced by male musicians.
After a World Café show in Philadelphia with Sharon Van Etten, whom Nadler calls "the real deal," a sound guy told her: "I personally think the decay on your reverb pedal is a little much." While groups like Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, and My Morning Jacket use the effect with little backlash, Nadler says that when female vocalists use reverb it is regarded as a crutch rather than an aesthetic preference or choice. "I'm sick of defending my choices," she says. "I don't like that women musicians are expected to be twice as good of a guitar player, twice as good of a singer."
"I've made up my mind, for my own career's sake, to just not bother, to take the high road, to focus on my music, get off the Internet, and take a walk," she continues. "Because there's nothing I'll ever be able to fix about how fucked up the music industry is, or change the fact that it's sexist. All I can do is be the best songwriter I can be."