Marissa Nadler has made a name for herself as an artist creating immersive music with relentlessly haunting vocals and introspective, thoughtful lyrics. Her latest and seventh studio album, Strangers, finds Nadler in a unique place as a songwriter, turning to more personal inspiration to craft tracks about loneliness and the complexities of human emotion. We chat with the Bostonian singer-songwriter about the fine (if nonexistent) line between a sad and happy song, collaborating with Okkervil River and exploring the “strangeness of reality.”
What is your songwriting process like? Do you find yourself working out a melody first and then lyrics, or vice versa?
I write the melody first, with a guitar, and lyrics last.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Some favorites that I always go back to are Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Neil Young, Elliot Smith, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.
Do you have to be sad to write a sad song (like on July), or happy to write a happy one? To what extent are your songs rooted in your experiences vs. invented?
I don’t believe there are strict dividing lines like that. I suppose in some sad songs there are glimmers of joy or hope, and the opposite is true for happy songs. I feel that great songs don’t categorize human emotions into such strictly divided categories. There’s an amalgamation of myriad emotions in a single day or year or relationship, and I feel great songs have to draw on the ability to recognize that subtlety.
How has your songwriting evolved over the course of the seven albums you’ve released?
It’s evolved quite a bit. I started out writing very abstract and fictional songs, and they slowly become far more personal. My first two records were very much quantum leaping into other people’s bodies, in different times, and escaping reality by creating other worlds. I definitely feel that I am slowly starting to explore the strangeness of reality more. When you’re young, maybe it’s before you’ve had your heart truly broken, so you’re writing about it from an imagined perspective. I think as I had more true life experiences, I didn’t have to explore escapism as much as there was abundant fodder for songs.
You’ve collaborated with a variety of artists, from Father John Misty to Okkervil River. How do you feel about collaboration in songwriting? Who do you like to collaborate with and how does that affect the songs produced in that process, from your personal perspective?
I’ve been doing some guest vocals on Okkervil River’s new album. Father John Misty and I covered each other for a split 7”. I’ve done some cover songs with some artists over the years as well. I really enjoy working with other artists. I’ve yet to write songs with other people – songwriting for me has always been a very personal and private process. Nevertheless, I’m not opposed to trying some co-writes in the future. I think it would be fun to write songs for other people as well.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Yes, I’ve recently been writing for the Talkhouse.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“Unchained Melody,” and “I Found a Reason” by the Velvet Underground. I can’t put into words why. I just know the way I feel when I hear the songs and that’s enough for me.