marianne nowottny interview

(October 2001)

8.30am. Quiet.

Then: thump, Thump, THUMP, THUMP! Rattle. Clatter. Crumph. THUMP! THUMP, Thump, thump. Fade.


The lead-footed postman has just delivered the morning's quota of drastic plastic. I drag myself out of bed and crawl downstairs, a dry-mouthed half-human conjunction of sleep and jaded anticipation. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and as I shuffle the standard white jiffy bags, plain old 7" mailers and the cardboard CD envelopes it never seemed more true. The same old same old same old shit. Every day I'm searching for something hand-made, something that stands out, something constructed from Walkers crisps boxes and gaffa, a tape wrapped in a defaced NME cover or – aha! – a graffitoed torpedo-shaped package from New Jersey. This one won't be a run-of-the-mill corporate indie essay in bland conformity, surely.

It isn't.

The torpedo shape, it turns out, is a result of the Barbie-sized effigy of Marianne Nowottny contained inside. She is in a cellophane tube bag with a colourful label bearing the words Manmade Girl – vinyl head and rooted hair, moveable arms and legs. A pair of pink high-heeled pumps nestle at the bottom of the bag. Dislodged in transit they lend the doll a wistful, winsome air. Or they would if she wasn't covered in black marker pen scribblings. A signature up the right leg is complemented by Robot-related propaganda on the left and both arms. A necklace, with "N" pendant attached, has been tattooed on and black fingernail polish applied. Strangely, as a finishing touch, a black stripe has been drawn on the sole of each foot. This is both the best and oddest thing to drop onto our doormat since the pink vinyl 12" wearing a pair of girls panties (but that's another story.)

Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. I haven't taken the doll out of the bag. I can't quite get over the idea that if I did she'd become animate and, after a period of time where I feel more alive than I ever have before, force me to become her slave and perform all manner of illegal and depraved acts. As it is, she's suspended from the picture rail above the stereo and is staring at me.

Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. There was a record in the package with the doll. A double CD called Manmade Girl, Songs and Instrumentals, by Marianne Nowottny. It is a tense affair, an uneasy marriage of lush and crazily primitive sounds, of electronic abasement and natural glory, of perceptive disdain for so much of the here and now and appreciation for what might be there and then. Nowottny creates the confusion, a turbulent cacophonous whirl of sound, and then delivers the message to us, like an operatic Dorothy broadcasting from the twister that's carrying her away to Oz or Alice beaming back reports from Wonderland, distorted by the looking glass, barely recognisable as skewed and skewered reflections of our world.

"Advertisements stamp the sky
Tailored people walk out from the butcher shop
Lean cuts, ready to hang out
At this café, hey hey"
Manmade Girl

Manmade Girl doesn't appear until last-but-one on disc two, a full 23 tracks into the record. It is a microcosm of the whole, a summary of what went before, a reminder of the emotional heights and depths that have been traversed. With just a couple of tape recorders, a Tandy keyboard and a harmonium, Nowottny comes on like a weird, wired lovechild of PJ Harvey and Tom Waits. Her voice is mixed, and pitched, so low as to be almost inaudible amongst the cacophonic burble of chopped-up piano and swirling, whirling electronic noise. It sounds like nothing else on earth. It is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. "Manmade Girl was responding to the industry-created pop idols. It's also about technological paranoia and how we're ingesting our chemical waste through the air and water. We also completely separate ourselves from animals. They don't have the ability to reason, so they can't protest as we control their population and speeding metal death machines run along the asphalt through the forests where they once grazed and nested. Everything we use is a product from a string of inventions before it. All manmade."

Marianne was born in 1982 and lives in New Jersey. Her records are released by a small NJ publishing house, the Abaton Book Company, run by playwright Lauri Bortz and her husband, and one-time member of The Girls, Mark Dagley. Bortz was stopped on the street one day in 1998 by a 16-year-old Nowottny because she liked her hat. Soon after, Abaton published a book of Nowottny's poetry and, when she'd got up the courage to play it to them, released a cassette of songs she'd recorded on a dictaphone with schoolfriend Donna Bailey inspired by a sequence of acid trips and terminal boredom.

Her debut solo album, Afraid of Me, followed and then Shell's first CD release, Shell Is Swell. Bailey, a classically-trained pianist self-deconstructs her knowledge of piano for Shell, leaving Nowottny to concentrate on the words. The result is considerably more pop, and considerably more arch, than Nowottny's solo material. "Donna's playing style is very choppy and rhythmic and there are a lot more hooks in the Shell songs than my own. She'd play old country songs like Mountain Dew and A Boy Named Sue and classical songs like The Hall of the Mountain King [and] we'd apply the melodies to our poems because we'd both keep notebooks of our writings, drawings, ideas, and diary entries… With Shell we talk about broken hearts and teen suicide in a jumpy and angrily fun way.

"My own songs usually come to me almost in a fully formed melody when I just let my fingers wander up and down the keys in complementing patterns. The lyrics used to always be waiting in an abundance of poetry but I haven't kept up on writing consistently like I used to. Now, there will be things people say or dreams that will get me thinking. I love being around writers and artists, like Lauri Bortz and Mark Dagley. Because of the way they word things, they stimulate my imagination. No pressure and supplied inspiration. You can't ask more from a label."

Especially when you're not yet 20 years of age, a time when most kids would sell their grandmothers into slavery just to get the chance of an audition for the first round of trials for a preconceived, over-packaged girl band run by a fat, power-crazed, manipulative Nazi. "I'm always asked by people So do you write the songs? Those people should take a look at the information on the back of the CD."

Ooh, get her! People who do believe she writes the songs have compared her to all sorts of sonic innovators, experimentalists, singers and songwriters (Om Kolsoum, John Pfeiffer, Brian Eno, Charles Ives, Stereolab, Pere Ubu, Electric Eels, Jeff Buckley, Liz Phair, Leonard Cohen, Melene Dietrich, La Monte Young and Danielson amongst others) but she's seemingly got no interest in avant-rock traditions. "I think I'm more avant-pop than avant-rock. I don't usually rock. Only on certain occasions. But no, I don't identify with any groups out there. I'd hope to be remembered as some outstanding part of the evolution of music, but how traditonless can you get with music?" But then she springs an out of leftfield comparison of her own: "I was inspired by Tori Amos. She made an entire pop album with a piano and a harpsichord!"

Tori Amos? Jesus wept! Manmade Girl is worth a hundred Little Earthquakes. Marianne is Kate Bush against Tori's Barbara Dickson. Sure, Amos shares herself with the world, but according to the singer-songwriter template. Amos colours inside the lines, Nowottny is cutting up the page, mixing it with glitter and dreams and throwing it into the wind. Where does the creativity come from? "I want to capture my ideas. It's so frustrating to forget what you were about to say or be left ecstatic from a dream to only remember the emotion it left and nothing else. I don't want to have to settle for music, clothing and art I don't entirely agree with. The best way to relate to such things for one's sake is to create it for yourself."

Such self-confidence. Partly that's teenage chutzpah, but mostly it's unnatural maturity. Some people have said there's a gothic side to Nowottny's music, but that's too easy a tag. She'd admit to nihilism, but there's nothing morbid about her, it's all spiritual. "I am a spiritual person and feel overwhelmed by it sometimes and it's a beautiful feeling. A goal of mine was to make a song that demanded intense concentration and would make the listener forget that they were awake. I made an extremely spiritual song the other day that was praising the sense of belonging to some power of the beyond. I believe in fate and I always look for signs and I'm superstitious but I usually keep it to myself. I don't go by the nostalgic Friday the 13th type superstitions. There's no listed set of omens, they are all different. I'm not a nutcase. I just trust in a path that was laid out for me and I'm just following the signs."

And the biggest signs of recent times were the tragic events at the World Trade Centre in New York. "I recently wrote a song for the Village Voice benefit compilation for the victims of the tragedy. I wrote a happy song about New York because I don't want people to ponder the ill feelings of worry. I'm sure if there's another attack and there's panic in the US, it will only affect me by pushing me to create even more for distraction and expression. But if the terrorists took over our culture instead of killing us, I guess I wouldn't be allowed to own a musical instrument or play out anywhere. That would make a difference. And I don't think my corpse would make any music either, unless I'm rotting on the ground and there's a funny whistle as the wind blows through my rotting ribcage."

Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. Manmade Girl is out now on Abaton Book Company. 100 Gifford Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07304, USA

This interview first appeared, in edited form, in Careless Talk Costs Lives #1

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