Marissa Nadler has some thoughts on the word “haunting.”
“I think it does a little bit of a disservice to my music to describe it as just haunting, because there’s a lot of substance in the writing and craft,” the 37-year-old musician says over the phone from her home in Boston.
The adjective pops up frequently around Nadler’s work, occasionally substituted out for “haunted,” “macabre,” “spooky” or “ghostly.” It’s easy to see why, considering Nadler’s preference for singing in a soft mezzo-soprano over finger-picked, heavily reverbed minor chords. She leaned into this image early in her career with song titles like “Old Love Haunts Me In the Morning” and “Ghosts and Lovers” evoking a kind of New England gothic. But the subjects of her songs range widely, as do her musical influences, and her latest album, For My Crimes — her eighth overall, and third since signing with Sacred Bones/Bella Union in 2013 — brings a new clarity to her emotional depths.
Nadler’s strong sense for narrative, and her interest in morbid subjects, are still there. The opening title track on For My Crimes is sung from the perspective of someone on death row, remembering the terrible things they’ve done. But for her, “For My Crimes” is more than just an exercise in campfire-style storytelling. “It’s a song about forgiveness,” she explains. “It’s a very personal song, with very wide applications, which is my hope for all the songs on the record.”
She speaks gently but deliberately, staying away from the real-life details that inspired each track. She’s already written a more traditional breakup and reconciliation album (2014’s excellent July); For My Crimes seems to touch instead on the daily realities of making a relationship work, the epilogue to a happily-ever-after love story when real life kicks in. “People are prone to find songs after breakups or love, and this is a snapshot of somewhere in between,” she says. Her songwriting is filled with sharp details that bring these moments to life. “In your sleep you called me Natalie/That was the nicest thing you said,” she sings on “All Out of Catastrophes.”
This precision in her songwriting is reminiscent of classic country music, an influence that shows up perhaps most obviously on “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore,” in which the narrator, far from home and alone under the “poppy-red Arizona deep desert sun,” is unable to listen to old songs by the late Byrds musician without longing for her lover. Nadler credits the atmosphere in her music to her background as a painter: “They’re both slow mediums.” The cover of this album is the first to feature one of her paintings, a grayscale abstract that simultaneously looks, in her opinion, both like water and like a distant city on fire.
Contradictions like these pulse throughout Nadler’s music. In high school, she played in a short-lived punk band. “My first guitar was an electric guitar, and I really wanted to be a grunge rock princess when I was a teenager,” she says. “It’s funny that I ended up making such the opposite kind of music, but I do still think there’s a lot of edge in my songwriting.” She has a soft spot for the riot-grrrl records she grew up on, and her electric guitar shows up on several tracks on For My Crimes. “I’m doing all the solos,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of solos, but I get a little dirty.” In another nod to her early love of grunge, Hole’s Patty Schemel contributes drums to the album.
Other collaborators on the album include Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol and harpist Mary Lattimore — a cast of songwriters working across genres known for their technical prowess. Nadler, for the most part, let them do their own own thing. “The thing about asking collaborators is, I happen to love their music already, so even if it wasn’t what I had in mind, it’s sometimes better,” she says. “Like, when Kristin sang her harmony on ‘Blue Vapor,’ because of my background in listening to folk or country or blues, I would have gone on the the third or the fifth note, and Kristin came in on the fourth. I loved it.” All the instrumentalists on the album except one are women. “It was a really wonderful thing to all be in the same place at the same time,” she says. “When Mary started playing the harp, it was magic.”
The melange of contributors, genres and even artistic mediums converge in a product that is uniquely Nader. When I ask if there’s a common thread that draws her to certain works, she stops to think, before stating that she’s attracted to artwork that feels pure.
“If there’s a connection between me and the song, I feel the writer is being pure in letting the listener in,” she explains. “It’s hard to describe. I think people just know it when they hear a song and it hits them. With songs, sometimes it’s easier to say the things you can’t say.”