Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Brad Kopplin
Not absolutely sure what our cruising altitude is at this precise moment. We must have one, but they're not telling us - the pronoun I'm using to refer to the woman sharing the left-hand side of the aisle with me who made a few frantic cell phone calls in Spanish when it became evident that we'd be reaching our next destination an hour and a half later than expected and the business man across the aisle from me, with the bulky Boss headphones he uses only to keep the chaotic air chatter out of his head, just getting to page 35 of a James Patterson novel - the riveting parts.
Whenever taking to the air, there's an inclination to think and or write about the clouds and their appearances, being that they're more expressive and shapely from up above. Right now, their formlessness works in a diabolical way, kind of like it does on the ground, but with more insistent in-your-face pluck, making you think they're one thing and a million other things, when in effect, they're just a stretchy blanket. The clouds are just one, white, replication of a gravel fabric road, gentle enough to snorkel in. The illusion of what they lay out in their covering is that they're a stopping point, that you could hover or linger with them. They're a firm standing area, making you think - deceptively - that the bottom's not all that far below. We could fall out the hatch of the plane and we'd bounce upon that whiteness like trapeze artists and trampoline hoppers. There would be no crash, no free-falling plummet to a head and bones-splattering landing. We're just up here. We're just looking down at that cotton garden and as unnatural as it feels, most of the same feeling is reciprocated in a feeling of belonging to these friendly, or more so impartial and passive skies, that every day, at a certain height are blue and lit up just like they are on all of the sunny days found on the ground.
The long path of set-up brings us to the work of Washington state's Marissa Nadler, a songstress who exhibits many of the attributes of the delicate balance of soaring thousands of feet above the dirt and the wars, not to mention the wireless networks and the rest of the grand scheme, and yet hasn't the slightest control over any of it. Her new album, Songs III: Bird on the Water, is not about having any hands tied or being incapable of action, but it illuminates the idea of boundless lift necking with an effervescence of unknowable space. The reverb-happy songs climb likes kites in unpredictable and jerky streams of breezing. She climbs with them and coyly observes, it seems, rather than direct or instruct them. She's there, alongside, eyeing them in awe and yet understanding that they're coming out from within her small frame, which is prone to folding protectively and holding onto itself the unspectacular dresses of a maiden that in some way become much more spectacular because of her ways.
She finds ways to become magnetic and weightless, drawn obsessively to the fountain of release and then seconds after the refreshing sip, propels herself back up into the stratosphere, like a spooked and satisfied doe deer scatting back into the forest from the pond's edges. The agility of her patient and delicate vocals recall the smell of sweat breads cooking and laundry hung out to dry on lines of rope - bed sheets clapping hard as the wind kicks up. Sometimes, when she sings about meeting people in the belly of a whale (a drastically different situation than the one Colin Meloy would ever dream himself in), she makes you believe that she's the one kicking it up, unloading a moving slope of air right into your locks and causing a light hiss across your ears.
The Daytrotter interview:
*Why do you think you love that reverb so much? Space is a good place to exist in musically, is it not?*
Marissa Nadler: Well, to put it simply, I like the way it makes my voice sound. It's an aesthetic choice for me. My paintings have the same atmospheric quality that my music does, which comes about from making diluted pigments with encaustic paint, or wax paint. There is something about haze and atmosphere that I find alluring and part of the art that I make attempts to access what I think of as a dreamlike state. I think sometimes it can really extend notes and make them resonate into a sphere that separates me from the earth for a little bit of time. Also, a lot of my favorite old singers sound like they have this classic plate reverb on their voice, and it harkens back for me. Roy Orbison, I am convinced had quite a bit on. The irony is that now that it has become a bit of a trademark for me, I have started performing live without it. Right now, my set up is three mics: one with a long hall reverb, one with a Gregorian chant-like delay, and one dry. I like the dry vocals as much as the wet ones. A lot of my newer recordings, such as the Stereogum.com cover of "No Suprises," and some other compilation tracks, are clean.
*How's your stage fright coming along?*
MN: It's just about gone. I have played so many shows this year that I think I have gotten over it, and it only took eight years!! It only comes back if I haven't had a show for a while. But tonight, for instance, in Brussels, there was not even a hint of it. There is a show coming up at the Whitney Museum, and I am confident with my new band setup it should be totally gone. I think that a certain fragility has always attracted me in performers and I know I will never be polished to the point of gold and silver.
*Do you have any nice things to say about Peter, Bjorn & John? What was it like hearing a "hit" every night?*
MN: They were really nice guys and very startled by their own fame. Very down to earth. The Clientele from England were also total sweethearts. I have nothing but good things to say about the people on the tour. The audiences were huge, so that was new for me, but I think I won over a few new fans.
*What do you wish you had more time to think about or do?*
MN: I want to put a good three to four hours a day into practicing the piano, in order to become proficient at it. When I was learning guitar, I would practice for many, many hours at a time -- learning how to finger pick -- and that is the only way I know to get good at something.
*Who's a better writer, you or your brother?*
MN: Well, he is a short story writer and a novelist. I am a song writer. They are completely different animals, and we both respect what each other does quite a bit.
*Did you ever think the path you're on now was going to be the one?*
MN: I always knew that I would be doing some kind of art form professionally. When I was younger, however, I thought that I would be a professional painter, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design for that for five years. But, somewhere along the way, songwriting became the main focus. I found an immediate emotional release from singing songs, whereas painting was a laborious and studies process for me. The more time went on, the more I became convinced that singing and songwriting was more fulfilling to me. The reaction I got to my music was far more immediate, and the encouragement I have gotten has been really positive. So, it is surprising to me now the way that things turned out, but nothing is written in stone and we write our own destinies.
*What's the last great book you read?*
MN: A Brief History of the Dead