When Boston-based folk musician Marissa Nadler was told by her label, Kemado, that they weren’t releasing her next album, she could’ve retreated to her bedroom and hit record on a Tascam 4-Track. Like many independent artists, she could’ve released it in a batch of 50 cassettes or CDRs. But she had something bigger in mind, and it required Benjamins.
Musicians have always had to exploit alternative production and distribution methods, and Kickstarter’s the latest platform in this neverending, always evolving struggle. The online crowdsourcing site allows creative projects to generate funding from private donors, and has successfully facilitated filmmakers, software designers, playwrights, and other ambitious, big-idea types who lack institutional support. For musicians, Kickstarter subverts the traditional role of the label, and alters the flow of capital: fans front the money so musicians can realize their projects.
After 2009’s Little Hells, Nadler had nowhere to turn for help with her next record. She was confident it would require top-notch production, so the lo-fi route wasn’t an option. She didn’t want to send demos to prospective labels—that could take years, and she knew now was the time. Having earned a devoted following with acclaimed albums like The Saga of Mayflower May (2005) and Songs III: Bird on the Water (2006), Nadler asked her fanbase for support. In October 2010, she launched a Kickstarter campaign.
“It was an act of necessity,” Nadler says. “I wanted to record in a good studio and make a good sounding record. I was ready to make the best record I could, and I wanted it to be done sooner rather than later. I had the songs and I felt the weight of time.”
By December, 390 backers donated $17,037 to Nadler’s cause, surpassing the goal by just over $6,000. In exchange for donating, backers would receive special items determined by how much they contributed. Five people gave $500 or more, which entitled them to the new album in three formats (LP, CD, MP3), an autographed poster, a demo CD, a copy of Ivy & the Clovers (featuring unreleased material), and one of Nadler’s drawings or paintings.
Thanks to her fans, Nadler’s groove was coming back and she was ready to ride. Her first order of business was to choose a studio.
“The songs were very much written,” Nadler says. “Still, I didn’t know exactly how the album would turn out. I was toying around with who to work with, and I had worked with Brian McTear on Mayflower . I also really liked what he did with Sharon Van Etten’s Epic, so I called him to see if he wanted to produce my new album.”
Philadelphian McTear, the co-founder of Miner Street Recordings and Weathervane, said yes. He also realized the importance of creating a comfortable environment for Nadler, who, despite the positive turn of events, was wrestling with the uncertainties surrounding her work.
“She’s an amazing artist,” McTear says, “but she had some tough breaks and her confidence was shaken. I knew she needed to feel at ease, inspired and in control. I’m not trying to sound sappy, but I’m most proud of the environment I was able to create for her. As for the results, this record’s a big turning point for her career. This could be the best record I’ve ever worked on.”
With the support of several musicians who laid down the tracks at McTear’s Philadelphia studio—Jim Callan (McTear’s uncle), Orion Rigel Dommisse, Ben McConnell (who has worked with Beach House and Au Revoir Simone), Philadelphian Helena Espvall (Espers), and Carter Tanton (ex-Tulsa)—Nadler’s eponymous record was completed in early 2011. It was released June 14 on a label Nadler herself founded, Box of Cedar.
Nadler’s past work extends the lineage of older folk musicians like Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs and Bert Jansch, and her contemporaries include Josephine Foster and Philly’s Meg Baird. Normally with little more than an acoustic guitar and her hauntingly gorgeous voice, Nadler’s songs were minimal and devastatingly intimate. This musical asceticism perfectly matched the mood of her songwriting: a woman, alone with a guitar, sharing gloomy stories of ghosts, misfortune, betrayal and death. Nadler’s desolate, anguished vision is akin to the paintings of Edward Hopper, but the sadness she summons is more primal than modern.
Aside from a few exceptions, like the tin whistle and Hammond organ on Mayflower, Nadler’s classic folk minimalism persisted until 2007’s Songs III (also recorded in Philly, but with Espers’ Greg Weeks turning the knobs). Even here, though, her sound is only mildly enhanced by acid-flavored, free-folk style instrumentation that didn’t significantly deviate from her stripped-down aesthetic.
On Little Hells, a fresh Marissa Nadler emerged. On tunes like “Rosary” and “River of Dirt,” traditional folk was mutating into a more robust Americana, mildly pop-friendly animal. The scaffolding was coming up, and a grander musical vision was fermenting, but it wouldn’t be fully realized until the definitively titled Marissa Nadler.
For the first minute of opener “In Your Lair, Bear,” it’s classic Nadler—acoustic fingerpicking, her mesmerizing, spectral voice—but a new beast appears before the two-minute mark, when a cymbal ride crashes into a wavering electric guitar that shadows Nadler’s harmony and later meets a cello. The band merely tingles from afar, shimmering softly, until “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You,” where a ballad erupts with the classic country twang of Uncle Callan’s mighty pedal steel. It’s this new expansion into previously unexplored country-western sounds that makes Marissa Nadler truly sparkle.
“I was listening to a lot of country music,” Nadler confirms. “Especially Tammy Wynette, and we actually based some of the mixing on her records. The best part of country is that it appeals to the masses, and part of my evolution as a songwriter has dealt with leaving behind obtuseness. I don’t want only a small group of people to relate to my music.”
With this approachable country sound, Nadler’s surely appealing to a wider audience. But she could risk alienating her fans, many of whom were likely already turned off by Little Hells. The steel guitar’s only a minor addition, though, in comparison to the synthesizer on “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” or the island-sounding vibraphone on “Puppet Master.” But, while the soundworld has evolved, the cozy, doom-themed songwriting remains.
“Alabaster Queen” recounts a woman’s unhealthy obsession with a man. “Wind Up Doll” is about a woman’s struggle with depression. “Puppet Master” documents an emotionally violent relationship. The music is brighter and more alive, but Nadler’s songwriting is as hellish as ever.
“Mr. John Lee Revisited,” a new version of a song from Mayflower, charts her development well. Her voice is clearer, somehow more angelic, and the music’s warmth, unlike the tinny original, encloses the listener into the story. Pulling a strategy from authors like Paul Auster ( Travels In The Scriptorium ), Nadler returns to the stories she told in 2005 and updates the characters: “Marie has a daughter and a new city now/ And your skin is soft and tired from the years/ But you’re happy now.” It’s spooky, but absolutely beautiful and brilliant.
Two years ago, it was unclear whether she’d even have a new album. Now, she’s got an album and a label. When asked about the future of Box of Cedar, namely if she’ll release other artists’ works, her response is modest but leans in a promising direction.
PW's Music Issue 2014