It's easy to see how Marissa Nadler's experience as a songwriter is informed by her extensive experience as a visual artist. She studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received both her undergraduate and graduate degree. In fact, she started as a visual artist before becoming a songwriter. The intensity and honesty she exhibits as a visual artist manifest themselves in her songwriting, as you'll read, though poetry also influences how she writes. Songwriting and illustration, she says, is about "trying to find the beauty or ugliness" in a subject, using the artist's ability to approach that subject from a unique point of view. It's also about "compressing life into a couple of lines," as a good poet does.
How do you think your experience at RISD prepared you for songwriting?
I studied illustration, though I was more of a painter. And I was a visual artist way before I was a musician. Growing up, I didn't take music classes or singing classes, and I was way too shy to be in chorus or plays. I think when you are constantly looking at things, trying to find beauty or ugliness in what you are drawing, you get a poet's reference point as to how you can interpret the world onto canvas. Songwriting is the same way. It's about using economy of language like a poet to compress life into a couple of lines. Painting has helped me describe things in a more artistic way in terms of color and synesthesia, and it has helped me to write better lyrics.
Do you find it helps be more economical with words?
Definitely. As a painter, I'm a minimalist. And I try to write lyrics by compressing emotions in a similar fashion.
Are you a visual songwriter?
Yes. I usually paint the scene when I write. I try to describe the scene, what's around me. My songwriting is less analytical and more about talking about what something looks like and feels like.
Speaking of poetry, how much of it do you read?
I love poetry. Writing and reading poetry, really understanding it, is more challenging that reading fiction. You have to read it over and over. Last night I was reading a John Ashbery poem, and it was so beautiful how he was sucking the most intense things out of life and putting it on the page.
The last great book I read was by Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. There is not one wasted line in the book. I love Anne Sexton's poems. She's one of my favorites. And Pablo Neruda.
How does reading poetry help you as a songwriter?
It's important to me how a word sounds, and I'll use a beautiful sounding word in a lyric even if it doesn't make complete sense. I'd rather use a pretty word than an ugly word that might make more sense in the line.
If you want to be a good songwriter, you have to learn how to use words economically and musically. That's why reading poetry is important.
My brother's debut short story collection is coming out this summer on Little Brown. We have always been different aesthetically. He's always pushing me to get my point across quickly and telling me that I should avoid purple prose. Early in my career, I was more Fitzgerald than Hemingway, but now I definitely cut more to the chase in my words, and musically I got rid of the most of the reverb and cut deeper.
Describe a somewhat typical songwriting process for you.
The lyrics usually always are the last thing to fall into place. I pick up a guitar and hum a melody. Then I just use stream of consciousness to put words in. I never say I am going to write a song about, say, that jerk who screwed me over. It just falls into place. I'll get a pretty melody, and then I'll just plug words in with the right cadence or syllabic flow. Once I have those placeholders, I decide what I want a song to be about. It's usually written in a very abstract fashion until the end, when I realize it's about something. It's almost like I've been taken over by a spirit because I never intentionally sit down to write a song about anybody. It's not until the end that I realize what my creative side is trying to get across.
How do you know when you have a good melody?
It's an instinctual thing. I just know. And sometimes, if I work too much on it, it gets worse. I'm a big fan of not overworking material. I recorded every song on this album on the first take.
So is it important to start and finish a song in the same sitting?
When I write songs, I usually write the whole thing in the first sitting. I go back and work on the lyrics, maybe add a bridge or a key change, but the melody almost always stays the same. The first moment I sit down is always the most important. The lyrics have to be as good as the melody, and for me the melody is easier. I don't know why, but it might be because I have a little bit of fear of writing. Growing up in an artistic family, I was always designated the painter. Writing was never my designation.
When you say fear, are you afraid it's not good, or do you not like the act of writing?
I love writing, but like most artists I have a fear of rejection, which can be debilitating. But I'm getting better at not being overwhelmed by my fears.
But you also must have the same fear as a visual artist.
Oh yeah. When I was at RISD, the critiques killed me. I did well, but I hated having to put things on display. That's the one thing I don't like about how artists live today. Back 500 years ago, people were commissioned to do art. They weren't reviewed. Now, everyone who makes art has to put it out there knowing it's going to be torn apart.
Has being a visual artist made you more disciplined as an artist?
I have an intense work ethic. If I don't do something creative every day, I feel immensely guilty, like I've wasted my day. But with this record I was pretty manic when it came to songwriting. I wrote every day, constantly, for a period of about a year, often at strange hours. I might wake up at 4am, or I might stay up all night. When the muse hits, you have to be aware of it.
I can't wake up every day and say I'm going to write a song. I can't do that unless I take a hiatus and let the energy build while I wait until I feel like I'm going to explode. I'm a big believer that you have to live your life to have things to write about in the first place.
So how often do you seek inspiration?
I think that I'm active, although I tend to write more about things that have happened to me, in terms of love or heartbreak. I find inspiration through the direct connections in my life. I write a lot about coping emotionally. I wrote five records pretty much about the same guy, which sounds insanely crazy to me now. But it works; I had a vessel to pour the pain into.
Do you need distance to write about pain?
Someone pointed out to me that almost all my songs take place in the past tense, and I think that's when I'm able to write about something. I need to be out of that place to be able to write about it. Some of the songs on the new record are sequel songs, where I revisit the same topics or events from the last record.
Is it hard to tell a story, or to talk about pain, in three minutes?
Yeah, but I don't think many people pay attention to my lyrics at all. And that sucks, because I work so hard on them. A lot of people listen to my voice and the vibe of my music. I put more work into the lyrics than anything else.
What do you need in order to have a good writing session?
Complete solitude. I can't write around other people. I can hardly play around other people. I'm extremely shy. I've had severe stage fright my entire life. I need to be alone, and I need the apartment to be anemic, clean of clutter, and without distractions. I write with a pen and paper. I like to cross out mistakes. Actually, I wrote my first album on a typewriter. I was in art school at the time and was into handmade paper as well. I like typing on a typewriter because it's so neat.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
I go to another type of art. If I'm having trouble writing songs, I turn to painting or sewing or making books. You can't force songwriting. I have anxiety over not being able to create. I'll clean my entire apartment and think up things to do before finally sitting down to get creative. You can spend your whole day on a song and it can still suck, but cleaning gives you a sense of accomplishment. If I clean my apartment, I know I've done something right.