Transformation, Rebirth, and Unsolved Mysteries Inspired Latest Marissa Nadler LP The Path of the Clouds

Photo by Nick Fancher

Marissa Nadler binged Unsolved Mysteries during lockdown. Among other things, obviously – the Boston-based “dream folk” songwriter took piano lessons, and wrote, recorded and produced her ninth solo album The Path of the Clouds, out October 29 on Sacred Bones/Bella Union. These activities are less unrelated than you might think, as the long-running true crime show inspired several songs on the record.

The implied brutality doesn’t track at first, set against the notion of Nadler’s sparse acoustic riffs, carried higher into the heavens by her now-iconic mezzo-soprano. She notes, though, that the stories that inspired her most were not necessarily the most violent, but rather, perhaps, the most mysterious: the ones of those who disappeared, never to be found.

“That concept of starting a life again was something I found very interesting, and personally related to,” she explains. “Just the concept that maybe if these people did make it, that they were able to recreate themselves. In some ways, I’ve gone through some transitions in my life that made the overlaps kind of clear.”

That idea of transformation, of being reborn, plays central to the record. Acclaimed for her brilliant guitar playing and haunting vocals over the course of her nearly twenty-year career as a songwriter, she’s got some consistently big shoes to keep filled. Music critics (perhaps worth noting, male critics) frequently ascribe the siren narrative to her: Pitchfork wrote in a glowing review for 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying that hers was “the sort of voice that you’d follow straight to Hades,” and in a 2006 article, The Boston Globe said, “She has a voice that, in mythological times, could have lured men to their deaths at sea, an intoxicating soprano drenched in gauzy reverb that hits bell-clear heights, lingers, and tapers off like rings of smoke.”

Without projecting anything onto Nadler myself, I can imagine that such consistent, albeit well-deserved praise, praise evoking the divine, might weigh one down with a certain type of pressure to perform, to repeat successes. Which, I think, is what makes The Path of the Clouds not only special, but perhaps Nadler’s most impressive album yet. Her yearning for transformation, for definition on her own terms, shines through with the experimental risks she took not only in the lyricism itself, but in the scope of the instrumentation too; the album features piano, woodwind and synthetic elements, what she calls “a return to some of the spacy stuff that I’ve always liked,” i.e. the Pink Floyd records she grew up on. It’s ambitious and complex, evidence of an artist in constant evolution.

Despite the inherent anxiety and downsides, the pandemic offered her space to try new things time to be “very creatively fruitful.” Thematically, it strays from earlier work. “A lot of these songs are more about personal growth and change, instead of some of my early records, [which] were lovelorn, heartbroken,” she says. “There’s a lot less of that on this record, and more about a personal journey.”

Meanwhile, her experimentation with other instruments played into the LP’s different sound. Though her piano teacher Jesse Chandler ultimately played keys on the record, she wrote much of it on a piano. “If you’ve been playing an instrument like the guitar for a long time you get stuck, or you gravitate towards certain chord progressions,” she explains. “But when you sit at a piano, your fingers go to different places. Chord progressions that are harder to play on the guitar are easier on the piano, and little things like that gave a lot of melodic inspiration to me.”

We are left with eleven songs about “metamorphosis, love, mysticism and murder.” While the fresh instrumentation is best displayed with the sweeping grandeur of tracks like “Elegy,” the lyrical storytelling shines on the Unsolved Mysteries-inspired tracks. On “Bessie, Did You Make It?,” she asks just that: “Did you make it on your own?” She inverts the traditional murder ballad narrative, one where victim becomes survivor in a stunning journey of resilience. Similarly, the title track tells the story of plane hijacker D.B. Cooper who famously hijacked a Boeing 727 in 1971, escaped by jumping out and purportedly faking his own death. In Nadler’s hands, it becomes a tale of mastering your own fate and going out on your own terms.

In many ways, perhaps that’s what the pandemic offered Nadler: the chance to disappear and start over. And she did, subverting our expectations to give us something fresher, fuller. This didn’t just apply to her musical practice – a RISD-trained fine artist, she’s honing her painting practice and seeking gallery representation as a visual artist, training she’s also applying to her music videos, while also exploring the idea of film scoring, an intuitive next step for music so cinematic and rife with drama. Considering what the first twenty years of Nadler’s career have offered us, I look forward to what she brings us with the next twenty, with each reborn version of herself.

Follow Marissa Nadler on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Anika Vents Pent-Up Pressure (and Sings for the Birds) on Sophomore Solo LP Change

Photo Credit: Sven Gutjahr

In Berlin, Annika Henderson, better known to listeners as Anika, was accustomed to seeing “these groups of gangster birds that try and eat your sandwich out of your hands.” Nature was different, though, when she temporarily moved from the city to the countryside to make her latest album, Change, released via Sacred Bones Records on July 23.

The ones here are a little bit nicer and they don’t do that,” she says on a recent call from the small German town where she relocated in late 2019. Plus, there were a lot of birds. At least, that’s what Anika thought until her landlady mentioned that the population was decreasing. That conversation, plus Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, informed the song “Never Coming Back.” 

“There are things that are happening and we don’t really notice,” says Anika. “When it’s gradual, you don’t notice and then, suddenly, you wake up and look outside and there are no birds. Maybe now we can do something, but, by then, it’s too late and then it’s like the Dodo.”

In a deep, languid voice, Anika sings, “I saw the signs, I chose to ignore them/I saw all the warnings.” If it sounds like a love song, well, that’s by design. “It’s kind of written like a love song, but it’s about other things,” she says. “It’s never about one thing. It’s always about many things. The main thing is about birds.”

The tell-tale lyric comes when Anika sings, “I found your body on the windowsill/lying on the grassy floor.” She says, “Either I just murdered my boyfriend or whatever and he’s lying on my windowsill or it’s the birds or it’s a slight reference to the Shaggy song.”

Several years earlier, Anika, who is also known for her collaborations with British band >BEAK, as well as artists like Tricky and Dave Clarke, had considered quitting music. A friend had invited her to Mexico, but she couldn’t afford to travel there without a gig and she didn’t have a band. Anika found a group of musicians in Mexico and they gelled so well that the group evolved into Exploded View, who released albums in 2016 and 2018. “It’s always when you totally give up that something happens and you think, oh, it’s just why I’m alive,” Anika says. 

Exploded View kept Anika busy enough to delay working on the follow-up to her 2010 self-titled release, so moving to the countryside seemed like the antidote to a busy life on the road. “I thought, great, I have a place so that I can chill out and it would be a contrast of extreme touring and then chilling out,” she says.

But her plans took a change of course after the COVID-19 pandemic struck early in 2020. “It wasn’t really just corona. Corona was a side note to what was going on in my personal life, where basically everything was so extreme in so many different ways,” says Anika. The situation, she says, was “complicated,” but Change kept her going.

“I think, just before corona, I was considering maybe I should quit,” she says. “This happens every so often and then some crazy thing happens where I have no choice but to continue.” But, Anika clarifies that “no choice” doesn’t mean anyone was forcing her to make the album. Rather, it’s “no choice in that it suddenly makes sense and it’s this massive liberation, or life jacket, and in this weird time.”

True to its title, the concept behind the Change morphed, too; Anika had been working with an entirely different idea for the album prior to the pandemic. “The script changed in so many ways, in terms of the actual lyrics, the music, the way I could record it, who I could work with and it just became something totally different,” she says. “But I’m really happy for the way it did turn out.”

For one thing, the situation prompted Anika to handle a lot of the album’s components herself. She was ultimately able to bring in friend and collaborator Martin Thulin, from Exploded View, as a co-producer for change Change. “He definitely wasn’t pitching any agenda,” she says of the collaboration. “He was there to help achieve what I wanted to and that was nice, but it was definitely a challenge to get him there.”

Change became a release for Anika. “The whole album is so much pent-up stuff,”she says. “ In the situation that I was in at the time, I wasn’t really able to say much or do much and it was a very difficult situation.”

On top of that were recent global events. “That added to things going on in the world, where it feels like you don’t have a voice. All this stuff is going on and how can I actually have an effect to stop this stuff from happening or how can I have a say?” Anika says. “There’s stuff going down and I want to speak up. Social media doesn’t really cut it when you want to have an opinion on something or actually make a change.”

Anika channels personal and universal sentiments into a collection of psychedelic synth songs that capture the global melancholy and frustration of 2020. “The songs were a way to get all of this out,” she says. “I have so much frustration and I hope it’s a vehicle for other people to have the same experience.” 

Noting that she suspects others have the same feelings and are asking the same questions she is, Anika adds, “I think that’s why it’s important to keep doing music that’s from the heart.”

Follow Anika on Instagram for ongoing updates.

MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Dolphin Midwives, Anika, Olivia Newton-John in Toomorrow

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

The new Dolphin Midwives album, Body of Water (Beacon Sound) is a transcendent, magical work that defies ready categorization, encompassing voice, harp, percussion, and electronics courtesy Portland, Oregon sound artist Sage Elaine Fisher. Experimental, ambient, neo-classical, sonic manipulation — the album encompasses elements of each of these, yet stands as a singular, distinctive work in its own right.

It’s bookended by two widely differing pieces. The opener, “Hyperobject,” starts as a simple series of percussive beats paired with a light “ha-ha-ha” vocal melody, both of which become increasingly fragmented until they merge in a swirling cascade of intense sound. At the other end, “Sunbathing” is a gentle number played on the harp, lyrical and soothing, though there’s a slight twist in the final minute, when there’s a sonic hiccup, a kind of stumble. Sage’s processed voice provides an ethereal sheen. “Hummingbird-i” begins with a stuttering vocal that seemingly emulates the rapid wings of the bird. The mesmerizing “Clearing” has a crystalline lead voice winding around murmured backing vocals and a pulse running underneath as steady as a heartbeat. In “Capricorn,” Sages sings in counterpoint to a somewhat clipped keyboard line, her vocal harmonizing turning back on itself in a never-ending cycle. Body of Water is a remarkable work of great depth, an intriguing album that casts a spell, drawing you into its mysterious realm.

British-born, Berlin-based musician Anika (Annika Henderson) first made her name with her 2010 self-titled debut, which offered fractured reworkings of songs like Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang” and Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep.” She’s since worked with numerous other musicians and artists, as well as forming the band Exploded View (based in Mexico City), but hasn’t released another solo work until now.

Anika pithily describes her new album, Change (Sacred Bones) as “a vomit of emotions, anxieties, empowerment, and of thoughts like — How can this go on? How can we go on?” Perfectly reasonable questions to ask during a pandemic, which is when this album was recorded, Anika co-producing alongside Exploded View’s Martin Thulin (who also played bass and drums). The first track, “Finger Pies,” opens with the kind of melodic, ’60s-era sound (thudding bass, poppy melody) that brings to mind the best of Motown, but that’s just the jumping off point. Anika has the kind of cool, deadpan delivery that inevitably gets compared to Nico. But there’s a sly humor at work, as in “Critical,” when she solemnly intones she’ll give her man what he deserves, only to reveal that the “little gift” might just be cyanide. Among the electronic beats, rhythms, and synths, you’ll find some heart and soul, and no small measure of determination; as she urges in “Rights”: “Feel your power/Show me power.”

In the summer of 1978, Grease was the word, and if the radio wasn’t playing “You’re the One That I Want,” it was playing “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” But little did most of those enjoying Olivia Newton-John’s turn as Sandy in the musical blockbuster know that it wasn’t her first time before film cameras. In 1970, she appeared in Toomorrow, as a member of an aspiring rock band who get beamed up to a UFO, where some visiting extra-terrestrials beg them to voyage to their home planet, because Toomorrow’s music is so cosmically conscious it will help their species survive. Gee, and all Toomorrow wanted was a record contract!

Due to various legal complications, the film had poor distribution and was little seen, making it an obvious contender for cult film status, especially after Newton-John became a hit recording artist. Now, the film’s soundtrack has been rescued from obscurity by ace reissue label Real Gone Music. The songs are light, tuneful pop; think the Cowsills or the Partridge Family. Newton-John gets the lead in “Walkin’ on Air,” and her voice rings through on the group numbers. The film is good kitschy fun, and can be found on DVD (or you can watch it in its entirety below, thanks to intrepid YouTube users).

INTERVIEW: Heaters

Heaters2

“Play ‘Free Bird!’ Hey, play some Skynyrd!”

It’s surprising to think that after all these years, the above still gets shouted at rock bands who are just trying to finish their set. I personally stopped finding the line funny around age 14, but the same cannot be said for the sad twenty-somethings behind me whose idea of high art is probably the Fast and the Furious franchise.

I digress. The real victims of this sloppy heckle are not my ears, but rather the members of Heaters, a band who has come all the way from Grand Rapids, Michigan to play the annual Village Voice 4Knots Festival. Fortunately the vast majority of the crowd are brimming with enthusiasm for the group, who sound as tight live as they do on their recordings. They’ve recently released their Mean Green 7” on Beyond Beyond is Beyond records and will have a full length come September. Having played SXSW, and the Austin Psych Festival in the past couple of months, the band is still in a perpetual state of momentum. Fortunately for us at AudioFemme, they slowed down ever so slightly to give us an exclusive interview and chatted about the Grand Rapids music scene, playing bass on acid, and stealing other bands’ drummers.

AudioFemme: Welcome to New York!

Heaters: Thank you.

AF: Did you guys just get in this morning?

Nolan Krebs: (bass/vocals) We got in yesterday actually, we had the day off yesterday so we went out to the Rockaways and had a nice ass day.

AF: Are you in town for long?

NK: ‘Til Monday and then we play Boston.

AF: Do you have anything fun planned for the rest of the stay?

Andrew Tamlyn (guitar/vocals): We’re gonna go to Coney Island I think tomorrow.

NK: Yeah, we’ve never been.

AF: I love Coney Island. The Side Show is worth it if they still run it.

NK: Oh I’d be so down.

AF: It’s really good. Don’t go on the Cyclone.

NK: I feel like I would throw up. Is it intense?

AF: It’s not so much the motion sickness, it’s just that it’s made out of wood and it gives you whiplash. Every time you go around it feels like someone’s punching you in the back. So if you’re into that, go on it. So 4Knots! Your set was amazing, I really enjoyed it.

All: Thank you!

AF: Did you hear that guy yelling “play ‘Free Bird’” by any chance?

NK: Yeah, what a tacky, unoriginal thing to say.

AF: Do people still think that’s funny?

AT: I don’t know. It’s kind of like a “your mom” joke, you know?

AF: Who were you most excited to see at 4Knots?

AT: Meat Bodies.

AF: They’re great! I was just kinda like, oh, another band. But then they started playing and I immediately ran to the stage. Their guitarist is fantastic – so animated. I was very impressed by their set.

AT: Most of these bands I haven’t heard of, but I’m excited to see Happyness.

NK: Happyness are our friends.

AF: I LOVE Happyness.

NK: We met them at South by this year and they’re total sweethearts.

AF: Yeah I saw them in April and interviewed them in a tiny bathroom in a venue in Brooklyn, and they’re just adorable. They’re the sweetest guys. So, you guys are from Grand Rapids Michigan; what’s the music scene like over there?

AT: It’s weird, it’s kind of all over the place. There’s lots of metal and folk.

Joshua Korf (drums): There’s a lot of pop punk.

NK: They’re trying though. It’s a cool city and we moved there because we knew there would be places to play. Andrew and I were friends in high school and we kind of split up during college and shit, and then afterwards knew we wanted to try and do something with music so that is the best place in Michigan to try and start something. It’s young and looking for a foothold but it’s trying.

AF: Yeah I was going to ask why you were drawn to that city as opposed to other music hubs like New York…the big ones.

JK: It’s a cheap place to live.

NK: Yeah I feel like we had a little bit of space to breathe there and figure out what we wanted to do and what kind of music we wanted to make. Chicago isn’t very far away and we play there about once a month so sometimes we kind of feel like we’re a Chicago band.

AF: Well I think midwestern bands kind of get slumped into that one category a bit…Chicago and Minneapolis and such.

NK: Totally.

AF: I feel like you guys have recorded quite a lot in the small time that you’ve been a band. I know that the Mean Green 7” just came out in April- are you guys already working on anything new?

NK: We have our first full length coming out in September on Beyond Beyond is Beyond, which is a Brooklyn-based label. Our Mean Green record came out through them as well. When September rolls around we’ll be-we’re on a two month tour right now-but by then we’ll have some space to breathe and probably start working on something else.

AF: How far into the tour are you?

AT: Just like a week.

AF: You guys did another pretty long tour in March?

NK: Yeah, March through May we went down to Texas for South By Southwest and Austin Psych Fest so it was kind of like back and forth driving to and from Texas.

AF: Anything ridiculous happen? Any good tour stories?

(Josh starts laughing hysterically)

AF: Oh, something happened.

(Continual laughter)

NK: I took acid way too late in the night before we played at Austin Psych Fest because we were watching Tame Impala and someone politely asked if we wanted LSD, so I said yes and didn’t end up sleeping that night, which sucks. I had a great time but didn’t sleep before our set…

AF: Did you play while you were high?

NK: Um, I wasn’t really high by the time we played but I remember looking at my bass guitar and thinking, “this feels weird. Something’s weird.”

AF: I can’t imagine performing while on acid. That sounds terrifying.

NK: Yeah, some bands can totally pull it off but personally I get confused.

AF: So you two (Andrew and Nolan) moved to Grand Rapids together, and Josh, you were their next-door neighbor. How did that courtship work? Did you just see a drum kit in a window and bring him a Jell-O mold, or?

AT: Actually, he was playing in another band and after his set we were like, “dude, we really like you! Come play with us!” So we stole him and then we all moved in together and just started hammerin’ out tunes.

AF: So now all three of you live together?

NK: Yep. We’ve lived together for like two years.

JK: It’s really convenient for stuff like rehearsing and practicing and recording in general. Instead of having to go to a practice space we can all wake up in the morning, have coffee and go to the basement and play together.

AT: We’re all brothers.

AF: Yeah, it’s impressive. The dynamics must work so well for you to not get sick of each other.

NK: It’s weird because I actually hate them both, so…..

AF: I can tell. I can sense the steely reserve emanating from you.

(All laugh)

AF: I was reading an interview with you guys recently and I believe Andrew you said that a lot of new music consists of people doing a kind of karaoke vocal track over prerecorded music.

AT: In certain genres, yeah.

AF: Do you feel semi out-of-touch with contemporary music?

AT: I’d say so, yeah. I feel like we’re a little out of touch with most radio/contemporary music, but I mean when it comes to just playing with other rock n’ roll bands, not at all.

NK: Contemporary music is kind of funny for us to listen to as engineers of our own music. We listen to it and we’re like “oh my god, this is so different from what we try to do in our basement.” But, to each his own.

A: I still respect it all. I’m not hating on anything.

AF: Hate on some things.

(All shake heads)

AF: No? All right. Speaking of contemporary music, what are you listening to right now?

All: The Fat White Family, Vocaloid.

NK: They’re a Chilean Psych band.

AT: On Sacred Bones Records.

NK: Amen Dunes, Mystic Braves…honestly the bands we’ve toured with have come to be our favorite bands. Mystery Lights. Wand.

AF: So your contemporaries.

All: Yeah.

AF: What are your goals as a band currently? Are there festivals you’re dying to play, or venues you’re trying to get into or radio stations you want to be on?

AT: I think it’d be cool to play the Fillmore in San Francisco. That’s pretty iconic.

JK: My dream was always to play Psych Fest.

AF: You did it!

JK: Yeah, when we got that email it was so surreal.

AF: It sounds like such a blast.

JK: Yeah, it’s the perfect festival in my mind, because everyone that’s there is there to see music. There’s a hang-out-and-do-drugs thing, but I’ve been to so many other festivals where it’s just about how fucked up you can get and it’s not about the music, and everyone I talked to and encountered at that festival was there to see good music.

NK: It was like, record nerds.

AF: Your people.

NK: Yep, our people.

AF: So my last question is kind of a silly one: do you have any music that you love which is a guilty pleasure? And what is it? But un-ironically, like you truly love the band.

JK: The Strokes (who are currently playing on the boat)

AF: They’re playing this for you!

AT: Grizzly Bear????

AF: Oh, come on.

NK: They make beautiful music.

AF: That’s bullshit. They’re a hip band.

NK: I don’t feel bad about any music…

AF: Not bad but embarrassed. Mine’s The Wallflowers if that helps anyone.

NK: Oh, ok.

JK: Guns N’Roses.

NK: Andrew and I listened to a lot of hardcore music when we were teenagers, so now listening back to that it will make me blush.

AF: Like Alkaline Trio or something?

NK: Yeah that sort of bullshit, but whatever, that got us into a lot of guitar music so…

AF: Oh no, you don’t have to defend it.

NK: haha, thank you.

AF: The blushing part is what I mean. The fact that it makes you blush makes it that category.

Be sure to check out the title track off of Mean Green below:

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