Marissa Nadler’s music seems to exist in a world of its own. Most songs consist of little more than a carefully finger-picked acoustic guitar and a wispy, disembodied voice that recalls Hope Sandoval’s reverb-drenched sighs or a sort of gothic singing saw. Nadler’s sound is intimidatingly gloomy, both out-of-time and—thanks to the hoopla surrounding Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie and other freak-folk kin—strangely of-the-moment. Listen to her new record, _Songs III: Bird on the Water_, and you’d never think it came from an earth-bound, slightly skittish art-school girl from Needham, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb of Boston.
“My music is so mellow and spacey, everyone expects me to be this ethereal person who just floats in on a cloud with a reverb implant in her voicebox,” Nadler says. “And I turn out to be a super neurotic girl from the suburbs.” The dark-haired 26-year-old seems a bit uncomfortable with the disconnect between her real-life persona and her musical one—she doesn’t seem the type to have had a lover actually die at sea, for instance, and you’d be hard pressed to hear her use the word “diadem” in casual conversation. But like rock’s great self-mythologizers, Nadler uses her overactive imagination as an escape, fleshing out her made-up world to tape as a means of organizing her real-life anxieties.
Nadler originally had hopes of being a painter, but became disillusioned with the creativity-stifling competition at Providence’s Rhode Island School of Design. Unexpectedly, her passion shifted to music, a hobby since she was 14. “I’d been making records on a four-track for ages,” she recalls, “but I finally made one that I thought was good and I sent it to a bunch of really small record labels that a friend recommended to me.” While sending her tapes around, an audience for her particularly insular brand of acoustic music popped up and suddenly Nadler found herself traveling around the world, all alone, playing her deeply personal songs for increasingly larger audiences. “It’s brought me out of my shell,” she admits. “I was really, really shy when I was younger. So I never thought I’d be performing. I still have stage fright, but it’s getting a little better.”
Now only a few years into her career, Nadler has already recorded five full-length albums, and she blames that hyper-productivity on her upbringing and natural ambition. “I have a neurotic impulse to create that I think is very much a Jewish thing,” she says. “Even in high school, I spent every night drawing and obsessively copying master paintings. Now, I feel
guilty if I wake up and don’t accomplish something really amazing each day.” Smiling, she throws up her hands in mock-resignation and admits, “But I can’t see a way out of it—I’m a true neurotic!”