Marissa Nadler and the Dreamlike Realism of Strangers

Marissa Nadler's latest record, 2016's Strangers, is a dusky-toned, haunting meditation on obsession and modern existence. Using a language of personal mythology, Nadler seeks to impact a potential listener on a deep personal level.

“This might be my most adult record, because on early records, I still held that notion that you'll meet your Prince Charming, and it was more romantic,” says Nadler, now 35. “Even though the lyrics are surrealistic, the takeaway is more realistic. There is no endgame with a pretty bow to tie it up in.”

Weaving in the mythology of entertainment, very much part of the modern American psyche, and those of ancient, non-Western cultures, Nadler has created a work rich in its expression and in depth of meaning for a listener willing and sensitive enough to access that content. While not a concept album about dream theory, Nadler does tap into the core nature of dreams, aspirations and desires through the lens of adulthood, resulting in a record that uses fantasy to make observations about real life.

“I was thinking of that scene at the end of The Wizard of Oz, [when] Dorothy is not sure if the whole movie was a dream or a hallucination,” explains Nadler. “It was kind of the inspiration for a loosely constructed concept album. I abandoned [that idea] because each song ended up being able to stand on its own, and I didn't want to bill the record as a concept album, because people approach it differently.”

By not imposing the narrative structure that is the baggage of a concept album, Nadler hoped to preserve some of the magic of music itself. “Part of the reason I am a musician is that I think it's a really wonderful way to connect with people,” comments Nadler. “To tell people what the music is about kind of ruins my favorite part of the process, which is the audience feeling their own emotions from the music.”

Although not a Buddhist or much of a practitioner of meditation, Nadler and her husband (Ryan Walsh, of Hallelujah the Hills) share an interest in mythology, and the image of the hungry ghost from the Buddhist tradition truly resonated with Nadler and resulted in the song “Hungry Is the Ghost.”

“It might surprise some people to know that I'm not as mellow as my music is, to say the least,” reveals Nadler. “It's a form of meditation to me to make that kind of music. I think I have a very addictive personality, so everything really hit home [with the concept of the hungry ghost]. Some people say, 'Marissa's life is great!' But life isn't as simple as that. You don't knock off a couple of boxes on a checklist and you're happy for eternity.”

And Nadler holds a very realistic view of her place in what some might perceive as a popular-music hierarchy. Though she graced the cover of Spin magazine last month, she doesn't know what she'd do if she had multiple Grammys and hit the top of the Billboard charts and was a bit of a billionaire pop star. The kind of music she makes, as worthwhile and well-crafted as it is, isn't designed for that level of mass popularity, and, as someone who is shy by nature, she is very comfortable with that reality.

“My goal is to write good songs,” concludes Nadler. “Ten years ago, had I been on the cover of Spin magazine, there might have been some level of commercial success associated with that. Now the music industry is so different and it's very challenging, and how do you find satisfaction? It only has to come from within a field, not from extraneous circumstances.”

Marissa Nadler with Wrekmeister Harmonies and Muscle and Marrow, Saturday July 9, 8 p.m. doors, 9 p.m. show, Lost Lake Lounge, 16+.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.