From a Jamaica Plain apartment, Marissa Nadler illuminates loneliness
Marissa Nadler’s “Strangers” opens with what sounds like a dispatch from the apocalypse. On the striking “Divers of the Dust,” she sings of disintegrating cliffs and “waves . . . scraping city streets” over deliberate piano, her voice given just enough echo to make it recall a specter.
It’s a gutsy opening, and the rest of the record is just as unflinching when it comes to depicting the world and those who populate it — particularly those who live in its shadows. These characters are fully born through Nadler’s evocative lyrics and come alive through her skilled songwriting, which brings together ideas rooted in folk music with gathering-storm uneasiness to create an altogether new idea of the American gothic.
Nadler, who plays Great Scott on Tuesday, is sanguine yet serious when discussing her approach to writing “Strangers,” her seventh album.
“One of the prevalent themes, I came to realize, is a deep existential loneliness. . .” She trails off, then chuckles. “I say as I laugh,” she says. “I mean, it sounds so ridiculous when I say it out loud, but I didn’t realize until after I’d recorded and heard the record that [‘Strangers’ is] one of my darker records.
“There’s always hope when you’re writing romantic songs: ‘if this ends up working out, it’ll be great.’ There’s that naivete. And then you get older and realize there’s no fairytale happy ending, and the themes get more complex.”
Nadler grew up in Needham, and currently lives in Jamaica Plain with her husband, Ryan Walsh of the revved-up rock act Hallelujah the Hills. While she notes that living in urban areas encouraged her sparse sound — “you can’t plug into an amp and practice your solos at midnight,” she notes — the character sketches on “Strangers” were also informed, in part, by the alone-together nature of apartment life.
“When I was writing the record, I was holed up in our apartment, totally isolated,” she recalls. “Not hanging out with anybody, I think I was just daydreaming. I don’t know my neighbors. I don’t know anything about the people I live on top of, or across the street from, so much so that I was able to make up stories about some of them. I think sometimes city living can be very lonely.”
Nadler’s songs are populated by the solitary: the TV-eschewing voyeur of “Shadow Show Diane,” the solo observer who narrates the title track. Despite its focus on alienation, “Strangers” is a fuller, lusher record than its 2014 predecessor, “July”; its songs crash and flutter, and Nadler is touring with a full band in order to “bring the record to fruition,” as she puts it.
“I think that after the success of ‘July,’ Marissa felt more confident to expand on her sound, to grow her world a little bit bigger with more instrumentation and greater storytelling,” says Sacred Bones Records founder Caleb Braaten, who first heard Nadler’s music in 2005 and whose label has released her two most recent albums.
“I was trying all sorts of new muses — ‘July’ was the ultimate relationship record, and I tapped that well dry,” Nadler says, laughing. “You can’t keep writing about the same [stuff] over and over again; people lose interest, especially when I’ve done so many records. You have to think, ‘Hmm, what next?’
“This record was where I realized, you have to make the music for yourself,” she adds. “I stopped reading reviews. I wanted to make something beautiful that I could be proud of, and that I knew I’d worked hard on. You have to forget that people are going to listen to it, because it really hurts the creative process.”
Nadler directed and animated the stark, black-and-white clips for two tracks from “Strangers,” the late-night rumination “All the Colors of the Dark” and the gently thrashing “Janie in Love.” Both videos juxtapose imagery of Nadler with animations of nature — flora and fauna — coming apart and rebuilding itself, similar to the way “Strangers” deals with the rupturing of bonds between people and places. “A lot of the record is very closely tied to nature,” she notes.
Nadler, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, taught herself animation while teaching art at Granite Academy in Braintree. “The kids loved animation, so I learned it for them, kind of,” she recalls. “I had this one student who I showed Jan Svankmajer, this Czech animator who I’m kind of obsessed with. I was an illustration and painting major at RISD, but I never did any film stuff. It clicked very easily.”
One of the year’s starkest statements, “Strangers” offers portraits of solitude and loneliness, providing a haunting soundtrack for an increasingly chaotic moment. “It’s a really terrifying time we’re living in,” Nadler says. “People are always asking, ‘Why are you writing about these dark themes?,’ and it’s a strange question for me. It’s hard to avoid it.”
With Wrekmeister Harmonies and Muscle and Marrow. At Great Scott, July 19 at 8 p.m. $15. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com