For the better part of a decade singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler sealed out the sun.
Her 2004 debut, Ballads of Living and Dying, focused more heavily on the latter, packing in gothic tunes that set the chilling words of authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Pablo Neruda to music, and her catalog is littered with song titles like “Brittle, Crushed & Torn,” “Nothing in My Heart” and “Undertaker.”
On this year’s July, however, the Massachusetts-based musician finally allowed some hope to penetrate the dark, and when she sings, “Oh, I saw the light” amid the stately “Dead City Emily,” it sounds like a genuine thaw settling in.
“There’s more than just darkness and some oblique haze in my music,” said Nadler, 33, reached by phone in the midst of a tour that hits Rumba Cafe on Friday, July 18. “There’s a lot of optimism on this record. I think sometimes it just takes a second or third listen … to get past a title like ‘Dead City Emily’ and realize it’s not really that dark of a song.”
The singer even flashes a wicked sense of humor from time to time, at one point dismissing a former lover with the line “I’d rather watch crime TV than see you again.”
Of course, there are still plenty of murky moments on July, an album born of a tumultuous relationship (“I don’t want to sum things up too simply, but it’s all there in the lyrics,” Nadler said) and replete with scenes that play like cuts from Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”: The narrator gets drunk and debates dialing up her ex, drives around aimlessly and dwells on happier summers of yore.
While the songs are generally stripped-down, constructed of acoustic guitar, delicate piano and the singer’s plaintive vocals, there’s a level of craftsmanship at play that belies the music’s relative simplicity.
“Even though they seem really simple on the outside, there were a lot of revisions to get them to the right economy of language,” Nadler said. “I tore these songs apart.”
In the past, the musician, who was born to an artist mother and a father who works in the medical profession, believed it was necessary to suffer for one’s art — “There was a period I thought in order to write songs I had to have this turmoil, and I was certainly self-destructive for many years,” she said — a viewpoint that’s completely eroded in recent years.
“I love Gram Parsons, but the death of so many young musicians has done a lot to create this enigma around an early demise,” said Nadler, who long resisted putting down roots out of fear her creative impulses would become tamed, like a wild horse penned and broken. “Clarity and focus are the most important things, not hazy hangovers and whatever else.”