The fact that a decade has already passed since singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler released her first studio record, "Ballads of Living and Dying," is surprising enough, but her career longevity is even more interesting when you consider that music was never her plan.
"I don't think I expected to do this when I was growing up," Nadler said, chuckling. "I think I thought I was going to be a famous painter, not a musician. But it's the same thing, no matter what kind of art you're doing; it's the same time, dedication and work ethic involved even though it's a different medium."
Over the course of 10 years and six albums — including her most recent release, "July," which was released, a little confusingly, in February — the Boston-based art-pop singer has tirelessly engaged in a tricky balance between evolving stylistically while still sticking firmly to the Gothic-tinged folk music that her fans have come to love and expect. It has been a process for Nadler, who boasts a disparate and steadily expanding range of influences, from Edgar Allen Poe to Townes Van Zandt and Robbie Basho (and who has collaborated with the black metal artist Xasthur), and her ability to broaden her creative horizons while remaining in touch with her past work is something a lot of artists likely envy.
"I think my writing has gotten more razor-focused over the years, but I still feel good about the back catalogue," Nadler says. " 'July' is inspired by real life, and I think because of that, these songs seem to be resonating with people more strongly. My earlier work at times was shrouded in mystery and fog to the point that some people may not have been able to see the door in through the haze. I'm interested right now in writing songs that 'look people in the eyes,' to quote a friend."
"It's a journey," Nadler says. "Artists will tell you that being an artist is a lifelong journey, and you just keep on going for it, keep trying to make something that you can be proud of."
Nadler has much to be proud of. It is not easy to remain familiar to your audience while still sounding fresh each time out, but Nadler has succeeded in doing so. "July" both maintains some of the darker sensibilities that have characterized much of her previous work and injects chilling moments of realism into this album.
"Dead City Emily," for example, is an echo in the middle of a dream, an ambient folk ballad that lulls you into its gentle sway as Nadler delicately and hypnotically strums her guitar. "Drive" is a minimalist piece of Americana with a brutally honest opening lyric: "If you ain't made it now/You're never going to make it," proving that Nadler has no interest in pulling punches. She lets loose on "Desire," an achingly beautiful tale about two people who never get their romantic timing right. Her content tends toward the autobiographical, but through a filter.
"I didn't feel too exposed writing the record because I think the details are shrouded enough, and it's not like a journal entry," Nadler says. "People have to dissect the lyrics to get to the heart of the songs."
Despite her natural preference for personal writing, however, there is one song that stands out on the album for multiple reasons, one of which is its otherworldly fictional storyline.
" '1923' just came out of thin air, but it's a story about time-traveling lovers," Nadler said, laughing. "With the exception of that song, however, every other song on the album was very much about my own life."
When you sing about death and lost love, as Nadler does, your music is going to connect with people in ways you cannot possibly imagine. Nadler's music might not cheer you up, but it is exquisite in its sadness, and there is something to be said for being able to skillfully write such material.
"My music has always had that darker element," Nadler says. "My first record was called 'Ballads of Living and Dying,' so it's not like a new look for me. It's been pretty consistent the whole time."
But this is not to say that "July" is an exercise in wallowing in sadness or self-pity, or that Nadler seeks to go in these directions with her music — far from it. She might be choosing to shine a light on some of the more personal aspects of experiences she has gone through, but there are moments of respite and relief as well.
" 'Drive' is inspired by 10 years of touring, and the ups and downs that go along with that," Nadler says. "But it's actually a hopeful song about finding meaning in the simple things in life: in this case, the open road."
A decade into her journey, Nadler is digging deeper and looking for richer musical, vocal and lyrical textures to add to her work, and it's never been more evident than on "July."
"I walked into this record with an open mind," Nadler says. "I didn't really come up for air until the end."
Marissa Nadler will be at White Water Tavern 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 15.