For the past decade, Marissa Nadler has crafted gorgeous, open-hearted folk songs often centered around her personal loves and losses. Her new album, July (which happens to drop tomorrow, February 11), focuses on two years' worth of relationships and experiences. Among the album's tracks is "Was It A Dream," a song that explores the blurry line between reality and fantasy. "There's this kind of surreal vibe to the song," Nadler explains. "The song was about doing things that you regret and, in the morning, trying to remember if something was real or not."
The Boston-based singer-songwriter just released a new video for the track directed by Ryan Walsh, which captures the song's celestial essence. Featuring an elderly man who becomes infatuated with Nadler's presence in old archival footage, the clip is reminiscent of classic silent films like those of Georges Méliès. We caught up with Nadler to talk about her ten-year career, the concept behind the video, and balancing her day job as an art teacher with her life as a musician.
Can you tell us a little bit about the concept for the "Was It A Dream" video?
"Well, we have to give credit to Ryan Walsh, the director. He's really talented and has really creative ideas. Ryan and I are very close, and so he knows my aesthetic. I definitely wanted something beautiful and dreamlike. I dressed in a white-and-black dress that was very simple. We had this older gentleman named Archie who had never been an actor before. I met him at a party and thought he'd be perfect [for the video], so I asked him. He's going through this old footage and he becomes kind of attached to [it]. He's watching her, and he passes her on the street. The lines between reality and dreams are blurred."
It's been ten years since you started making music. In that time, what's the most important thing you've learned about songwriting?
"That sounds crazy! I started so young, but it's been a while. The first thing that comes to my mind is 'The more honest the better.' There's a fine line between sentimentality and hard-hitting honesty. You just have to learn how to balance that tightrope. Some of my favorite songwriters — Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell — they don't shy away from telling their true emotions. As I've grown older I've just tried to be as real as possible. To use economy of language, keep my nose to the grindstone, and try not to give a sh*t about anything else."
Is it ever hard to be really honest, knowing that so many people are going to listen to your songs?
"It is. I think that if you want to be an artist, you have to deal with the fact that you give a part of yourself away. You're letting something into the world that you can never take back. As I've gotten older, I've just accepted it more and more that, as naked as I sometimes feel. It isn't like I'm singing songs like Liz Phair's 'Flower' — which is a song I love — but I don't feel that naked."
Your last few albums have all been self-released. Why did you decide to team up with Sacred Bones for this one?
"I made the conscious decision to make my next record with a label. I was a little bit burned out from self-releasing, as much as I like parts of it. I wanted some help, so I could focus on the music. It was really a conscious decision. I just went through my inbox. I knew Sacred Bones was putting out music I really liked. I'm super excited to be on [the label], because they have these filmmakers — David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch — their artwork has meant so much to me as a visual artist. I've had a lot of disappointments, and I almost didn't want to believe it was real. I didn't want to believe it was actually happening until it actually happened."
Speaking of being a visual artist, are you still teaching art?
"I am, yes. I teach students at a therapeutic high school. It's really art therapy in a way. I really do love it. Being an artist can be a really solitary, lonely pursuit. It's a lot better than sitting at home reading record reviews."
Is it hard going back and forth between your day job and your life in music?
"This is probably the last year that I'll try to balance both. I don't have any time off. Every single weekend I'm doing a mini three-day tour and every vacation I'm going on tour. There's no time off. As long as you're not selling a million records you have to work your ass off as an artist. It's good though, but it's hard to stay up until two in the morning for a show and then wake up at five for your kids. We'll see. But, I have friends who have part-time teaching gigs. I think it's good to give back a little."
How do you think you've changed as a songwriter between July and your last album, The Sister?
"Well, the luxury of having self-released The Sister is that I now think of it as an EP. I think of the self-titled record as the last full-length record. For The Sister, I could have benefited from a being like, 'Hey, this is isn't ready yet' [laughs]. But, part of my personality is that I'm impulsive, and I don't think about things. Compared to The Sister, this record is very focused and encapsulates two years of my life. People liked This Sister, but I wasn't happy with it. I'm much happier with July."
Your songwriting could fit into many different styles. Do you consider genre when you are writing your songs?
"I definitely don't think about categories. I realize that music journalists need a genre to meta-tag it somehow, but I don't want to pigeonhole myself. I want to keep making records for a long time. I think it's easier to do that if you keep barriers open."