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Out of the dark

Marissa Nadler breaks into Boston
By RYAN STEWART  |  October 16, 2007

HIP: On Songs III, Nadler is transformed from coffeehouse folkie into indie-rock songstress.

Marissa Nadler, "Silvia" (mp3)
Needham native Marissa Nadler got her start as a singer-songwriter. And until the February release of her third album — Songs III: Bird on the Water, her first distributed by the hip NYC indie label Kemado through the Peacefrog imprint — it seemed her successes here in the US would be mostly confined to the folk clubs that dot New England. But Songs III isn’t just another girl-with-acoustic-guitar solo outing for Nadler. The disc is a full-on collaborative effort produced by Greg Weeks, whose band, the Philadelphia psych-folk group Espers, backed her in the studio. The result has transformed her from a folksy balladeer into an indie-rock songstress cool enough to be championed by the likes of Pitchfork.

“I think after the years of songwriting and honing my craft that there’s been a lot of growth in how I use my voice,” she offers over the phone from an Internet café in Buffalo. “There’s a little bit more variation going on.”

Nadler’s previous efforts, 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying and last year’s The Saga of Mayflower May (both Eclipse), may have established her as a talented songwriter, but Songs III, an elegant collection of melancholy material that splits the difference between the dark majesty of Nick Drake and the warm feel of Joni Mitchell, positions her as a more fully formed bandleader. Both accessible and eccentric, the disc finds a happy balance between Nadler’s vivid storytelling and the æthereal textures favored by Weeks and Espers. Organ textures bolster “Silvia,” electric guitar punctuates “Rachel,” and a string section cushions the fall on “Feathers.” Weeks never clutters the mix, but Espers’s embellishments flesh out each song and create a solid foundation for multi-tracked layers of ghostly vocal harmonies.

It’s a fruitful meeting of styles that complements songs of loss and isolation. “Bird on Your Grave” and “Rachel” are farewells to persons who have passed away. “Diamond Heart,” the opener, reads like a direct — and uncomfortably honest — confession to an ex (“I had a man in every town/And thought of you each time I tore off my gown”). The most arresting track is “Silvia,” which is about a woman who drowns herself (“The water is your friend”); Nadler’s vocal is disarmingly sweet, and backed by soothing organ.

This isn’t the first time she’s dealt in dark themes. Ballads of Living and Dying included “Undertaker” and “Cedar Box,” and indeed, she’s developed a reputation as a death-and-gloom chanteuse. But she balks at that label. “A lot of people focus on that, and I don’t really think that it’s fair. Yeah, there’s a lot of death in my songs, but there’s a lot of death in life. I think it’s stupid not to write about it. There’s also a lot of life in my songs — a lot of focus on nature and beauty. I get sick of people pigeonholing me as this ‘death songstress.’ It’s only one little part of the content of my songs.”

Nature does play a large role on Songs III: there are frequent references to birds, flowers, and bodies of water, something she credits to her formative years in Massachusetts. “Especially the winters and the autumns. I spent a lot of time as a kid at Walden Pond and stuff like that.”

But it was in Providence that Nadler got her start as a singer-songwriter, while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. After recording her first two albums on her own, she toured Europe, where Eclipse has wider distribution, and she found her largest audience. “I think there’s this exotic factor about an American artist in Europe, which made it more exciting or something.”

If she’s only now beginning to make a name for herself in the US, or even in her native New England, you can attribute that in part to the stage fright that plagued her early on and, she explains, led her not to seek out gigs on her own. She played only when she was asked. That’s not the way to break out in a scene as competitive as Boston’s. But the release of Songs III has forced her to get over her fear of the stage. Along with the usual solo shows, she nabbed a spot opening for Swedish indie sensations Peter Bjorn and John on a recent tour, after which she departed the US yet again for a string of early-October Scandinavian dates.

“This is the first record I’ve had on a label that is not extremely underground,” is how she explains the new-found interest in her music here in the US. (Entertainment Weekly gave Songs III a thumbs-up.) “The guy who put out my first two records on Eclipse is based out of Arizona, and he runs a mostly mail-order thing. Now the records are actually out in the record store, and that’s helped publicity.”

It’s also helped Nadler score more shows around town in rock clubs like the Middle East — a pleasing development. “It would be so great if I didn’t have to go to Europe every time I wanted to play a show,” she jokes. “So I am really excited that I’m finally getting a fan base in Boston. It’s encouraging, and it makes my parents happy.”

  Topics: Music Features , Marissa Nadler , Entertainment , Music ,  More more >
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