Folk artist Marissa Nadler gets intimate and independent

Jeffrey Joh/Staff

It’s fitting that folk artist Marissa Nadler’s fifth album is her first self-titled one. She recorded it on her own label, funded it with cash investments from fans using the Internet funding platform Kickstarter, and now owns all of the rights to her material. All it takes is a quick look at her profile to see Nadler’s recording costs ($11,000), number of “backers” (390), and a closing plea from an artist who “truly needs your help. Working a series of odd jobs and struggling to make ends meet, she has no other way to get into a studio, and sincerely wants to continue making records.”

Now, she’s raised $17,037 and is touring the West Coast. It’s a welcome milestone for a musician who has struggled with the creative constrictions imposed by major labels, including early demands to add more drums and rhythm section to songs.
Playing alone onstage at the Swedish American Hall last Friday night, Nadler cradled her acoustic guitar with a hurried grace, ramping up the reverb for each ballad. She possesses an ethereal soprano and manages to suck the air out of a room and make the crackling applause following each of her song an unwelcome presence.
Nadler’s live voice was just as silken as in her studio recordings. In front of a crowd she is fair-skinned and wide-eyed, her wavy black hair cascading down a simple cotton white dress. There was a rapturous energy in the concert hall when she sang and the fantasy only dissipated between songs.

Interestingly, her relationship with the crowd echoed that Kickstarter dynamic of fan-propping-up-artist. There’s the abiding feeling that Nadler has taken a thorny sidestep past intimacy and into vulnerability. As she tuned her guitar and tossed out jokes and song explanations, a grinning man in the audience earnestly yelled, “Excellent stage banter!” and the crowd broke into another round of supportive applause.
In a phone interview, Nadler admitted that she struggles with balancing this artistic persona and her off-stage identity, particularly because of the dichotomy between her intimate songs of “love and loss” and the logistical demands of putting out an album on her own.

“Doing the Twitter and the label and all these things, I have to keep a barrier up a little or else there is no personal life,” Nadler explained. “Especially because my real name is also my performing name, so it gets confusing who’s the real me and who’s the performing person sometimes.

Onstage, Nadler explained that this album is a re-visitation of old characters from her previous albums and she can swiftly unspool the meaning and inspiration behind any of her tracks. Before one song, she charged into a description of its meaning before hesitating to reconsider. She settled on going straight into the music: “Come talk to me after if you want to know,” she added.

Trained in the fine arts, Nadler collaborated with boyfriend Ryan Walsh for her vintage-collage style album artwork. The eponymous album’s cover features what looks to be a sepia cutout of Nadler burying her hair in her hands as paper flowers curl around her.

Fulfilling her Kickstarter promises turned into a month-long process, a rollout that “add[ed] a lot of stress to what should be a really beautiful thing.” An investment of ten dollars yields a month-early digital download of the album while a $5,000 dollar pledge is rewarded with multiple editions of the music, original artwork by Marissa, a song crafted specifically for the investor and performed in his home.

Despite these challenges of self-release Nadler believes that the Kickstarter project was well worth it, though she hopes to move on to a new model for her future work. “With this process, nobody owns these songs but me and when you’re writing songs about all these things that are so dear to you, the concept that somebody else owns them is a very strange thing.” Whichever direction she moves in, Nadler is done working with music labels.

In the midst of her performance, as she swaps guitars, Nadler says she’s “sorry for the switchover time, one of these days I’ll have tech!” But it seems like less of an apology and more of a progress report for an independent artist.