Marissa Nadler needs to write. It’s a therapeutic necessity: she uses it to process the events in her life. By her account, her best music happens when that need arises. But Nadler would still be able to write even if that need disappeared because she’s so disciplined. Like most of the songwriters I’ve interviewed, she thinks the muse is a farce: you have to work your craft, she says. “I don’t believe in the idea of the muse because I’m a big proponent of the work ethic. I don’t want people to think that my ideas just arrived on the wings of the muse. I have to work hard,” she told me.
But that doesn’t men writing every day. In fact, Nadler may go months without writing, even though she may have enough material to write about. She likes to fill the well so that when it’s time to write, she doesn’t have to search for inspiration. And when Nadler does write, she is, in her own words, “like a bat”: she needs a cool, quiet, dark room.
Nadler’s latest album is For My Crimes (Sacred Bones Records). This is the second time I’ve interviewed Nadler; the first was in 2011, where we talked a lot about her visual art. Read my latest interview with Nadler after the video for “Blue Vapor.”
How much writing are you doing outside of songwriting?
Not too much. Is that horrible to admit? I used to do some journal writing, but I think I just prefer to store the ideas and then have them spill out as songs. I often go through songwriting bursts. I may not write songs for six months, then I’ll write straight for six months. It comes in phases. I do think I’d journal if I had more time, though.
So are you consciously not writing even though you have stuff to say, or is it more that there are times when there’s not much to write about?
A lot of it has to do with time. I have so many side projects that take up my time, like videos and my visual art. But I do think it’s more about consciously holding back and filling the well, so when it is time to write I don’t have to search for inspiration.
When you’re filling the well, where are those ideas coming from?
This album is coming from life experiences, though I don’t want to give too much away. I always have my eyes open, so my ideas come from everywhere. I have open pores to absorb visual details and things I hear. The same things that make songs good also make essays good. You need a setting and an emotional arc.
I like the “pores” analogy.
Well, I don’t have to try to observe. That’s a blessing and a curse, because I’m one of those people who is very sensitive to everything around them. I have to try sometimes to be less of an empath, to be honest. I feel things deeply. By the time I go to write, whatever I take in has already processed itself.
Are you also affected by what you read, not just what you see?
It varies from album to album. This album, not so much. On my last album Strangers, a lot of the songwriting was from what I read about the universe and outer space. But this record is strong, I think, because I felt like I had to write it. I didn’t have to try to write it. It just wrote itself. I don’t believe in the idea of the muse because I’m a big proponent of the work ethic. I don’t want people to think that my ideas just arrived on the wings of the muse. I have to work hard. I use songwriting as a therapeutic process. I use it to process everything that goes on in my life.
I assume, then, that you are a disciplined writer.
When I wrote this record I had a practice space in a basement in Boston. The one thing I’ve always needed is perfect silence to write. So I’d sit on the floor with a notebook and a pen and disconnect from the world. I treated it as a day job.
The lyrics always come last for me. Melodies come the easiest. They are two distinct processes for me, the lyrical and the musical. It takes me a while to figure out what a song is about, so I’ll painfully work on the lyrics until the day before studio time.
So do you know what a song is about before you write the lyrics?
It’s actually the opposite. “For My Crimes” was a weird example. I got an email from my producer right before I went in to record. He had about 50 demos, and I think he was trying to squeeze me to see if there was anything left. Laughs. He made a comment about not hearing any songs that were as good as the ones we had just finished.
So I panicked and asked my husband, who is also a writer, to give me as assignment. Something to write about. I have to admit I was a bit blocked up to that point; I thought I had written everything that I could write. But an assignment can push me. So he told me to write a song about death row. “For My Crimes” is from the point of view of someone on death row, but from the minute I wrote it I knew it wasn’t about that at all. The themes were much more about guilt and forgiveness. It had much more universality beyond the specificity of the exercise.
When did you realize that the song was about much more than death row?
I wrote it from the point of view of a man on death row looking back on his life as he’s about to die. I tried to put myself in his shoes and humanize someone who often doesn’t get humanized. It’s really almost a love song because at the end of his life he’s reminiscing about a moment he remembers fondly, a love affair. Looking back on love like that is something we all do.
Can you sit and write for long stretches?
I can. Not only that, but I need to remind myself to eat, to step away from things. I can get so involved that I lose touch with everything around me. I have to tell myself, “Marissa, it’s time to stop for the night. It’s already one in the morning.”
Is that when do you get your best writing done?
Not really, It generally happens first thing in the morning. Though I should clarify that since I’m not a morning person, that means around 11am. Laughs. So between 11am and 2pm are my best times. Then my brain crashes until around 8pm. I’m a night owl, so I can write late into the night. But on this record, I did try to keep office hours. Again, I don’t believe in the muse. The more time you put into something, the better it turns out. That being said, learning how to walk away is an important lesson.
What do you mean by that?
For example, sometimes a song is better shorter than longer. There’s a lot of economy of language on this album, a lot of intense editing. There’s a lesson I learned from a demo I have on Spotify that did not make it on the album. It has more streams than any other songs, which really perplexed my label. It was recorded on an internal microphone, so it sounds like shit. That goes to show you that if a song is good, nobody cares about the fidelity. Justin Raisen, who co-produced this album with Lawrence Rothman and me, said it has so many streams because I hit the chorus in the first minute, it’s catchy, and it has an accessible theme.
It was weird because I think of songwriting in a much different way. My analytical brain is turned off. It’s all emotion. So he helped me turn on that analytical part of my brain when it comes to songwriting. Take the song “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore,” which was eight minutes long at first. And Justin told me that there was no way it could be that long. That was good for me, because if there’s one criticism of my songs that I’ve read over the years, it’s that some of them drag.
Do you do a lot of revising to your lyrics?
I do a lot. I’m very hard of myself when it comes to lyrics. I’ve always been around writers in my family, so I just want to make sure they aren’t shit. Laughs. A of times, there might be a word that makes more sense in the song, but another one might sound better. And you have to weigh all those elements. The way a word comes out of your mouth when you sing makes a big difference. It’s about balancing musicality with meaning.
Back to environment: is there a place where you get your best writing done?
My home is my body, my vessel. Because I move around so much, my sense of home has much less to do with place than with peace. I have to create peace if I want to create. Like a lot of writers, I’m somewhat of a shut in, and I do my best work when there is no sound. A leaf blower will ruin my writing. I have trouble shutting out any stimuli, so I need a dark room with a candle. And I like sitting on the floor facing a wall.
Is there a room you gravitate towards?
Where I’ve been living the past five years in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, my studio is attached to the bedroom. I do all my art and music in that room. I’m constantly moving it around because I have so many artistic outlets, even candle making. But sometimes I’ll just sit on my bed and write. I still like to use a pencil and paper, then type the lyrics afterwards.
It’s a pretty involved process. First, there’s getting a guitar line and rhythm. Then I come up with a melody. Words come next, then instrumentation, then harmonies. On the last three records, I’ve written instrumental lines, the melodic secondary melodies. When I was younger, I’d focus just on the vocal melody, but as I’ve matured as a musician I’ve started to write more instrumental layers in the song.
You mentioned pencil and paper. Are you particular to a certain type?
Not at all. And you’d think that of all people, I’d have a particular type. I’ll write with anything, even eyeliner. But whenever I write, it can’t be in color. It has to be black. I find color too distracting when I write. I do like pencils, but sometimes I’ll force myself to use a pen. Its permanence inspires a type of confidence.
I’m also not particular to a certain type of paper. Lined or unlined, it doesn’t matter. I have a million notebooks lying around, but come to think of it most of them are sketchbooks because of all the visual art I do. So they end up being weird combinations of doodles from when I start to space out and ideas of songs. Once I know a song is a song, I move to the keyboard.
When I was in the practice space, I didn’t have my computer. So I wrote lyrics on scrap paper and recorded them on the voice memo on my phone. When I listened back, if I was able to remember them, I’d treat them with respect and do a second revision in which I’d type the lyrics and work on them there.
Is there anything you must have with you when you write?
A guitar, for sure, because melody is first. It’s rare that I’ll get a melody in my head without a guitar. Chord progressions usually give birth to vocal melodies. I also don’t like bright lights when I write. I need a cool, dark room. I’m like a bat!
Who are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Next up is The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. And I just got done reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. As you can tell, I like fiction.