Marissa Nadler: The Making of “The Sister”

by BUST Magazine

By Hilary Hughes

Between the launch of her independent label Box of Cedar Records, last year’s self-released full-length, fully funded by her fans album, and the recent release of The Sister, Marissa Nadler has had a big, big year. Nadler is embarking on a two-week tour that brings her through a handful of intimate venues from Massachusetts to DC before she arrives at NYC’s Joe’s Pub on June 16, then pops up again later this summer on the West Coast. Below, we got into it about The Sister, how this LP sets itself apart from her previous records, and what touring life is like for the Bostonian singer/songwriter known for her otherworldly pipes.

Hilary Hughes: Let’s talk about The Sister and what went into making it. Did you change your creative process this time around?

Marissa Nadler: I think that it was definitely more of an organic, atmospheric record. Within that, the songs were character studies—if anything, it’s more realistic and more inward, with more storytelling. The Sister is more a portrait of a short period of my life. I really think of it as going with the last record as a darker, more acoustic companion record to it, as if it were a double album separated by a year. I couldn’t afford to do a double record at the time, but I wrote these songs and they were at the same studio and a lot of the same players played it, so I was thinking about how they’d go together.

HH: Back to the character study—you develop characters and narrators in your songs as elaborately as you do chord progressions. With the “characters” of The Sister, do you identify with one more than others?

MN: To be clear, songs are about real people in my life as opposed to a song like “Silvia” from a couple of records ago, which is about a fictional character. I think that’s been a big shift for me. Instead of writing these make-believe stories, I’m coming out in a more observing way. I really like the song “Christine”—I like “Apostle” a lot, too. When I play live shows, I tend to play a lot on a 12-string guitar, so I wanted to bring that organic quality to it.

HH: You’re known for having this ethereal quality, this melancholy in your music. There have got to be a couple of songs that were really challenging to write or get through.

MN: They all were, and I think for me the emphasis to write songs has been a healing thing. The songs about relationships have worked out to be the harder ones to write. “The Wrecking Ball Company” and “Apostle” were both about problems in a relationship, so it’s really hard to write about that kind of thing. It’s easier to write a breakup song than a song about an ongoing relationship because in a breakup song you can kind of moderate yourself or idealize somebody else—”they were the love of my life, woe is me”—it’s tougher for me to write songs about ongoing things because you have to be realistic. The person you’re with is actually going to hear the song and have it affect your relationship.

HH: Right—you don’t want to write a song for the sake of writing a breakup song later.

MN: Exactly.

HH: You said it’s been a while since your last show, but you’ve been able to play a few of these songs out already. Have the songs of The Sister reached their proper places, or do you think these songs will grow as more audiences get to hear them?

MN: Well, there’s definitely a difference when I play live versus when I play on the record, and mostly that difference is instrumentation. I don’t really have a steady band and I’ve honestly never had a long-term band. For certain records there are players who’ve come on the road with me, but now that I’m older I tend to make some of the songs more stripped down, more intense, less poppy. Some of the songs on my other records kind of have a poppy sound, and you don’t really get that live—it gets more ethereal. I think most people tend to like or respect that each song is its own thing, whether it’s live or recorded.

HH: It’s almost as if one can’t exist without the other.

MN: Exactly. There’s this live sound I’ve come to be comfortable with, and then there’s the on-record sound, and they’re very different. You don’t play the song the same way twice. Usually, I won’t write out a set list—I’ll feel out the audience and see if it’s going well or not and play different songs depending on how the room is or how they’re feeling.

HH: You and Mike Fiore—aka Faces on Film—are going to be touring extensively over the next two weeks. How did this tour come to be?

MN: He’s a friend of mine, and I just started hearing him play around town a couple of years ago. I actually met him at a wedding. We had mutual friends of ours, Boston musicians. I instantly liked his songwriting. I don’t book my own shows now, but when I think of who I’d want to play with, he’s one of my favorite songwriters out there today.

HH: What do you listen to when you’re on the road? Does your daily soundtrack change when you’re in touring mode?

MN: Oftentimes, if it’s a really long car ride, I’ll listen to podcasts because they keep me company. I really like the new Beach House record and I listen to this singer James Blackshaw a lot. All sorts of different stuff, really. If there’s somebody with me, I let them put their iPod on because it gives an introduction to new music.

HH: What’s your pre-show routine in a new city? There must be some additional prep that goes into preparing for shows in unfamiliar places in addition to load-in and sound check.

MN: I’m one of those rare musicians that’s always early to a show [laughs]. Live, it’s usually just me alone. I’ve taken to drawing and other things to kind of chill any nerves or jitters that busy your hand and mind, like Scrabble. When I was younger, it was more of a party. Now, I don’t—I don’t have a backing band to hide behind, so I can’t really drink before a show. I just try to pass the time and pick up an activity. The internet is the ultimate time killer.

HH: Do you have an iPhone?

MN: I do! I just got it. I’m still trying to figure out how to use it.

HH: I feel like I’m constantly checking Instagram on mine or something. That thing devours time.

MN: Yeah, a while back I deleted Words With Friends from my life because it was taking away from the preparations before shows [laughs].

HH: Now, you’ve had a big year between last year’s Kickstarter success and the new album that came from it, the launch of your label, and The Sister. From these experiences, what have you taken away from all this? What have you learned about the industry?

MN: Running my own label is a big undertaking with the time—I really thought that it was the only thing that I could do. It’s had its ups and downs. I was really pleased with the reception of the big record, and this time it was more of an EP for me. It’s more stripped down. I think it’s important to remember why anybody does what they do, why I still like to play music. When it’s just you alone, it’s important to remain connected to the music and the reasons why you make it, because it is easy to get discouraged with the business of it.

HH: You’re the definition of DIY—you write your music, you perform it, you release it yourself. What do you want people to understand about the DIY aspect of your endeavors?

MN: I think that it looks really easy or kind of effortless and fun, and it definitely did to me—it was more work than I thought. I think most people understand, and I don’t think there are that many misconceptions, and I think most people do understand how much work goes into a self-released record. The one thing is that sometimes it doesn’t work. As I said, it’s important to stay connected to the actual music, even though you spend a lot of time ordering a lot of supplies and boxing records and stuff like that. More and more people are doing DIY things, whether they’re putting their own records out or starting Etsy shops. I think it’s becoming a more acceptable way to put music out. I think it’s a very tough industry.

HH: Has being thrown into the business end of things affected the way you write? That must take away from studio time and writing time.

MN: Well, you know, I think in some ways there’s the urgency to be more prolific because you don’t have the security of a label, if that makes sense. In terms of the actual writing, when I write songs I’ve just generally put the label thing on hold and go back to it in a month and do it right, in a real creative, stingy way. That’s the way I’ve always written—I don’t write or play music every day. I do it all at once for a while, and then I do something else.

HH: If there’s one message you want people to take away from The Sister, what is it?

MN: I don’t know! I guess it’s the same thing with all of my music—I hope people enjoy listening to it and get some kind of emotional attachment. I think with any kind of music, I hope it touches certain people. If it’s only a handful, that’s a win for me.

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