You’d think that being on a label named after a song of yours would serve as a sort of employment insurance, but singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler knows that isn’t the case. “Yeah, they dropped me from their label named after my own song,” she says of Mexican Summer, home to such buzzy bands as Best Coast and No Joy and the label that was slated to put out her just-released fifth album.
Forlorn and sand-swept, “Mexican Summer” appeared on her 2007 album Songs III: Bird on the Water, which was the first full-length she recorded for Kemado Records; the imprint named after it was founded in 2008. Nadler released two albums on Kemado and was going to move to the label she, in a very literal sense, helped inspire for the follow-up to her 2009 album Little Hells. As she describes it: “The guy’s like, ‘Well, it’s named after your own song, why wouldn’t you want to be on it?’ and I’m like, ‘Sure, of course.’ “
Unfortunately, this supposed match made in PR heaven didn’t pan out; Mexican Summer did reissue her 2004 debut Ballads of Living and Dying, but dropped her five months before her new material’s scheduled release. “There was no warning whatsoever,” she notes. “The problem was I think my records have always been critically well-accepted, but never sold lots of copies.”
It doesn’t help that Nadler’s the type of artist who’s much too easy to misrepresent, a plight she’s well aware of. “I’ve never been intentionally obtuse, but when I was younger, I did have a fear of being pigeonholed into a girl-with-guitar kind of genre, so I did everything I could to throw curveballs,” she says. That said, most of her earlier songs—centered around her acoustic finger-picking, her sardonic way with words, and her haunting, sorrowful voice—offered up room-service fastballs for those itching to stick her in any available bucket: chick singer, fairy folk, dream-pop, and so on.
Even after showing she can handle herself around fuller arrangements on Songs III, and ably navigating drastic left turns like the drum machine-driven, psychedelically-leaning “Mary Come Alive” (on Little Hells), those tags persist. But while this was once a concern, Nadler doesn’t really care what anyone calls her music these days. “My main goal is to write beautiful music, and connect with people, and that’s about it.”
It’s this self-assured spirit that fueled her latest album. Self-titled and self-released (with the help of a crowdsourced funding campaign), Marissa Nadler is a portrait of an artist finding comfort within her own skin; it’s no coincidence that this record is the first in Nadler’s catalog to feature her voice unobstructed by reverb. “Before, I used an insane amount,” she confesses. “I was just so into the sound of it that I forgot my own natural voice.” Rather than making her sound vulnerable, effect-free songs like “Wind Up Doll” and “Little King” gain strength through their sparseness.
“I do think there’s something about reverb that tends to put a distance between a listener and a song,” she says. “Even if you’re watching [the songs] live, it puts [up] this barrier, and I didn’t want any more barriers.” When the reverb does kick in, as on would-be countrypolitan hits like “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” and the seemingly chipper “The Sun Always Remind Me of You,” it enters with a grand flourish.
This isn’t to say, either, that Nadler’s new self-assurance means she has nothing to hide. The shiny, happy veneer of “Sun” is a ruse; listen to the lyrics, and it’s clear that the protagonist is heartbroken because of the sun, not in spite of it. “I thought it would be more interesting,” she suggests with a wry smile, “instead of singing about depressing things and it sounding depressing.”
Marissa Nadler plays Mercury Lounge July 27 and Littlefield July 30