Marissa Nadler felt like falling apart. It was the fall of 2014, and she’d just come home to Boston from a tour promoting her dark, lovely breakup album, July. “When you come back, it’s always followed by a post-tour depression,” the singer-songwriter tells me over the phone. “So I started writing all these end-of-the-world songs as a way of coping with anxiety. I wrote a lot of shitty songs before I got to the good ones. I was struggling.”
One of the good ones she wrote that October was “Divers of the Dust,” a surreal piano ballad that ended up as the opening song on her seventh album, Strangers, out today. “It’s a dreamy, hallucinatory song about envisioning the world ending, and me floating on top of it,” she says. “It was out-there.” Nadler considered making a full LP about her apocalypse fantasy, only to scrap that idea as too restrictive: “I was like, ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to write a concept record.’”
July reinvigorated Nadler's career, winning her warmest reviews and biggest crowds ever. Following up an album like that is rarely easy, and Nadler was finding out how hard it could be. “I couldn’t have made another July,” she says. “That was very much a record about heartbreak; my life had hit rock bottom, and I was living in my parents’ basement at 30, just briefly, after a breakup. My personal life is at least a little more stable now, and I don’t want to be known as someone who only writes heartbreak songs.” Musically, too, she was looking for a way out of the elegiac acoustic style that had been her signature for a decade. “I was sick of reading a ‘folk’ tag next to my name. That’s not really how I think of myself." ("I can think of male songwriters who play acoustic but don’t get the f-word," she adds later. "I don’t think anybody ever called Elliott Smith a folk singer.")
Nadler's breakthrough on Strangers came when she began recording elaborate home demos for her new songs, filling as many as 20 instrumental tracks in Logic with vocal harmonies, drum machine beats, guitar riffs, and synthesizer strings — a departure from her usual bare-bones pre-recording process. “I’m kicking myself that it took me so long to start doing that,” she says. “It’s an interest of mine to be as self-sufficient as possible as a woman musician, and really know my shit.”
Working in a Seattle studio with a full band a few months later, she colored in those sketches on a grander scale. Guitarist Milky Burgess played the "bleak, Western" lead riff that Nadler wrote for Strangers's title track; "Hungry Is the Ghost" builds to a squalling tempest of guitar feedback unlike anything she's ever done. "I really like that My Bloody Valentine–esque distortion wall, and how big and messy it gets," Nadler says with a laugh. “I like to rock out, too, in my own slow, narc’d out way!”
Strangers shows unexpected flashes of humor, like the winking melodrama of "Janie in Love," about a real-life friend's slightly manic approach to love ("You’re a natural disaster, and I am / Watching you blow up everything you touch," she sings). "I was having a lot of fun with that one," Nadler tells me. "It's not a takedown, it's a compliment of her hot-mess vibe." "Shadow Show Diane," meanwhile, hints at Rear Window intrigue with images drawn from long nights on her own Boston porch. "I don’t make a habit of being a voyeur or anything, but sometimes you can’t help it," she says. "You see crazy shit."
A few days before we talk, Nadler tweets out a request to fans that's very much in keeping with her public image: "tell me some of the saddest, most beautiful Bert Jansch songs!" She laughs again when I bring it up. "I really do gravitate toward sad, beautiful songs," she says. "My favorite song on any record is always the slow-burning, moody one." Strangers is full of slow-burning, moody ones; it wouldn't be a Marissa Nadler album if it wasn't. "I think I’m still in my teen goth phase," she jokes. "I grew up in Massachusetts, with dead black trees everywhere, and lots of old graveyards. I was absolutely the girl in the corner drawing skulls in my notebook. I still mostly wear black."
Taken together, though, July and Strangers feel like a dividing line in Nadler's career, an exciting new start. "I had an interview with this guy in Europe recently, and one of the questions was, like, ‘There’s a legend that says an artist’s first three albums are their best,'" she says. "I’ve never fucking heard of that! Maybe that’s also a female musician thing, I don't know ... People have this misconception that there’s an expiration date on somebody evolving, but I intend on continuing to evolve."