Just Woke Up: California dreaming with Hannah Marcus
Hearsay #21 / 2000 / Phone interview with Ewen 


"I'm fascinated by altered states"

It was mid-afternoon in London, but in San Francisco the day was just beginning. Despite her desire to be telephoned at 8AM (SF time), Hannah Marcus was still nearly asleep when Ewen rang for a chat. The ensuing conversation is one of those wonderful, mixed-up wanderings through a songwriter's mind that touches on everything from fog to Swiss composers, funny hats to lurid orange stained glass, while she tells us about the conception of her new album, Black Hole Heaven (reviewed later on this issue). Hannah Marcus is one of those talents we pride ourselves on covering - hovering on the fringes of the music business while making disarmingly original and intelligent records. She even recently contributed a song to a new John Denver tribute album, in the company of such Hearsay favourites as Red House Painters and the innocence mission. You know, maybe people say the truest things as they wake up - revealing their true colours and spouting wise words soon to be forgotten in the garish light of day. Except, this time for Hannah Marcus, a dictaphone was running and nothing was lost. So, without further ado...

How do you react to your own physical environment? What do you see when you look out of your window in the morning?
I see another couple of windows that look out on another couple of windows - they're indoor windows. When I was doing my last record I was in
Los Angeles we had a bedroom that was painted dark pink and it had this stained glass that the landlord had put in. The doors of the bedroom opened on to a patio and there was this hideous stained glass - this orange hardware-store stained glass, so the bedroom was always the same lurid orange colour. That's what I woke up to every day. It actually propelled me back to San Francisco!

Do your songs spring directly from what happens to be going on around you, or it something more subtle and subconscious?
People will sometimes do that annoying thing of going 'that's a song!' They'll see somebody with a funny hat and go 'there's a song!' Less and less now, but every so often it happens to me. Trona, for example, was a song that happened the way I said it happened. I got out of a car a few miles from this place in the middle of the night and it was like 'gee!' But songs are getting more mysterious in general. The more information that's being exchanged or is accessible to us, the harder it is to write songs. They're like commercials. They're becoming more and more self-conscious. I've noticed, even in the past few months, that my relationship to my songwriting is changing.

We're all so aware of the way things have been and could be, and the way the public and critics listen to things, that you can't stop it filtering in to the actual writing process.
Yes - it's all resonance. It's all echoes.

Do you envy songwriters of the past, when different forms of songwriting were new? Or do you feel you're trying to find a new form of songwriting now?
I wish I didn't envy any other period of time but sometimes I do. Sometimes I envy the past. I was looking for a video in the video store and I realised I'd seen every Coen Brothers movie. I was like, 'shit! I've seen every Coen Brothers film!' I'd seen them and the time was passed and there's no more surprises for me with the Coen Brothers. I remember when I hadn't seen the Big Lebowski and I assumed it was kind of crappy and then I saw it and it was so great - it was such a treat. It's like having experienced all Bob Dylan's music or whatever and it's all been done. As for songwriting, I don't know. I'm too ignorant right now to see songwriting for what it's going to be. And I'm still so in love with songwriting that I'm not at all certain what the future is. Maybe we have to have a different perspective on it. Beck said something in an interview - he gave some really great interviews for a while - and he said 'Everybody write a song! Go to Radio Shack and buy yourself a keyboard and write a song’ and I was like 'Wow! That's it!' because Beck is the quintessential embrace­-the-moment-and-transcend-it. He's really good at that. He's almost too good at that and it kind of scared me. It was so proletariat. One day everyone's going to sit down and write ten songs and then that's it. Then again, songs have been happening for so long and we're blessed with the ability to forget a lot. Undoubtedly all sorts of great songs were written during the Shakespearean era by bards and they were just forgotten. So we can write them again.

There's little respect for genre in your music. It's particularly noticeable on your new album with many styles going on at once, even within the same song, and yet you transcend genre and make the songs totally yours. Is this deliberate?
That's a great question because I was thinking about that. Therefore it's a great question! I didn't intend to do that on my last record – it just happened that way. And it happened so pleasingly that I was thinking about how it might happen on this new record. It made me think about genres because that's the one thing I know I appreciate. Some other people are loath to go from genre to genre but that's who I am – I sit down to write a song and it will come out as, say, a country song and it's not something that I intend. I sometimes think it comes from some neurotic childhood problem – I felt obliged to prove I could write different types of songs. But another part of it is that I just love all these different types of songs and, hopefully, because they've all been written by me they will have some coherence.

I know absolutely nothing about your background, musical or otherwise, but there's so much going on, musically, in your songs... I wondered if you were classically trained.
My father is a classical composer and cellist so my parents tried to make me into a classical cellist. I had kind of a rough childhood and my cello playing reflected that. Dragging the cello around when you're a kid is such a damn drag. I always wanted to learn the piano but I think that my parents' vision of a classical pianist was such an impossible thing to achieve that they didn't even want to bother teaching me piano, which was sad. So I was trained classically but I got tired of the cello and switched instruments. First I played the violin but my mother didn't want me to have one of those bruises on my neck so then I played classical guitar when I was 13, which was very helpful. And then I quit and took piano lessons for a year and quit and then I took up the flute for a year and then quit that and I came back to piano on my own. My father's whole family was filled with a lot of very serious composers. My grandfather was a strange Swiss man who was a classical composer and they were all very serious and typically suspicious of anything other than semi-tonal early 20th-century European music.

Both musically and lyrically your songs never quite go where you expect them to. Lines jump out at you and trip you up. One that jumped out at me earlier today was ‘I'd like to rip your fucking throat out and plant a tree inside your neck.’ It starts off as if it's going to be one thing, one mood, and then turns into something totally different so you get a whole new sense of what's going on. Is there a sense of humour here, rebelling against the serious musical traditions?
Sometimes I long for a less ironic approach to things but I always find myself going back to that sense of irony. I guess that's my sense of play because irony somehow brings me to that home-place where I go, 'Yes! This is my song!' and it feels finished. If you think of someone like PJ Harvey, someone who I admire and think is fantastic, I could never write like she does because I have too much of this sense of bemusement. Things just strike me as being really funny. She can be funny sometimes, but it's different. She rides a fine line and she does it so incredibly well – sometimes I write things to just amuse myself and it generally comes back to irony. Somebody made a comment about the irony in most of my songs and I got really offended but then I thought about it and thought 'gosh – I guess he's right.'

But that doesn't stop your songs being serious. The sense of irony and fun somehow adds to the genuineness and seriousness. You think it might detract but, in fact, it does completely the opposite.
I tend to keep wanting to go to that point on the head of the pin where humour and tragedy crowd together, pushing each other.

It exhibits itself musically as well as lyrically. It's very much in evidence in your songwriting on your early recordings, and certainly in the schizophrenic production on your more recent outings.
Faith Burns was really the first record that I was really happy with. Before then, I don't think I had really developed a sense of how I wanted things to sound. I wasn't very intelligent about the recording process and hadn't really trusted myself. I kind of left it all to whoever I was working with. It was a great mystery to me and I didn't have a sense of control. I'm amazed at people like Cibo Matto – 20-year-old girls who go in there and feel like they can take control of these blinking instruments – I was an idiot around the studio. The whole thing seemed big and glamorous – even these pathetic little eight track studios. It was 'boys, just go ahead and do your thing!' For Faith Burns I actually got together with this friend of mine Joe Goldring – he has a wonderful sense of production and a really amazing ear and he'd just opened a studio. I came into Faith Burns with a vision of the way I wanted it to sound. I knew I didn't have to have my voice so up; I could throw in a lot of strange stuff and let go of a lot of what I thought was supposed to happen. Joe was the perfect person to work with me on that. And then Tim Mooney, who was the drummer in American Music Club, he took it to another place with this new record.

You work a lot with interesting, creative people such as Ralph Carney and Mark Kozelek. Do you enjoy collaborating with people who are great creators in their own right? Do they bring unexpected things to your recordings?
Definitely. Definitely. Sometimes it's people who you'd least expect that turn out to bring something to a recording. I'm a lot less afraid of bringing in people with strange little visions. Mark is someone I'd like to work with again. He's coming out with a new solo EP right now. He shouldn't be shrouded in a cloak of mystery – he's mysterious enough already. And Ralph Carney was great – I didn't know him personally, like Mark. He was just somebody that I admired. On this new record, though, it's basically just Tim and me becoming stir-crazy. The previous one, there was more of 'let's bring in this big musician!' I don't know about the next one. What else?

Well, another thing that's always struck me as curious about your career is the way songs come back again on different albums, or repeat on the same album in a different arrangement, or you'll release an album called Weeds and Lilies and put the song of the same name on a different album...
I didn't even think anyone would notice that song stuck at the end of that rather dense record. I was thinking about re­doing that song, actually. Again! I just figure what the hell. It's not like it's some sacred space that you can't pilfer your own loot!

Do you think it's possible to create a definitive version of a song?
I think there are definitive versions of other people's songs so there must be definitive versions of my own, I suppose. I've thought of different songs that I'm in love with and I'd love to cover but then I think why? That was a great version of that song so there's no real reason to cover it. And then I get depressed and have to move on. But, of course, because my memory is not quite functioning yet I can't give you any examples. I was just singing some song and thinking 'well, there's obviously no reason for me to do this song because I can't do it as well as the person who did it first.' As for my own songs, I don't think Demerol has had the version it should have, but maybe that's just too bad. I tried to do the big rock version on
River of Darkness and I thought ultimately that the original was still better. But I still feel like there should be a big rock version of it, so that's good. At one point I was thinking 'maybe I should put out a record with only that song' because it was pissing me off so much! But I think I've gone more towards respecting recordings. Especially right now, where production is songwriting and people actually build songs on samplers. The whole sense of what a song is... I feel almost like I don't have a language for what certain songs have become. It's like literary criticism at this point. There are DJs that do remixes who are in themselves really songwriters - people like Tricky or DJ Spooky. In a way, it has taken the idea of a perfect version of a song and blown it to pieces.

Your lyrics seem to focus often on people who are troubled or disturbed in some way. I wondered if you were fascinated by the edges of humanity - the fringes of what we tend to refer to as normality.
I think I'm fascinated with altered states, with people in states of mind or circumstance that take them out of the every day. I find myself often mired and weighed by my everyday circumstances and I try to continually remember and terrify myself with the possibility of things just spinning out completely into another reality and how easy that is to happen. Weeds and Lilies is in fact about my sister who is autistic so she is always in a state that other people would very narrowly perceive as abnormal but with other people, you just find times that bring you out of your hypnosis and wake you up to another place and I like to go to those. What other examples of songs were you thinking of?

Even immediately on your new album with Lot 309, you seem to be in that kind of territory.
Oh wow! That's weird. That was actually a vision of my life - bitter and awful! For some reason, like a dream-vision or something, with this horrible white-trash German woman with no sense of the tragedy of her circumstances just describing her environment like it was great, and it was just disgusting and horrible. That's what my house in LA brought me to. It propelled me through these difficult, life-threatening circumstances and I thought that was a song. So that was completely a dreamlike thing but I think it manages to convey a lot, partly through that Beach Boys feel. It was definitely about LA more than a person, but it's true, it does have that element to it. I was singing in some off-German accent. Or maybe French. I don't know how it turned out - I haven't even talked to anyone about how that song strikes them. Because, you know, why?

There does seem to be something fundamentally Californian about your songs. You hear a lot about how California hangs on the edge of earthquakes and how it's the end of the line for all the wanderers and dreamers and misfits who set off and are eventually stopped by the ocean. These people seem to populate your records. Do you feel that that's California in your experience?
I do, I do. There's something very bittersweet about California. God knows why but it never occurred to me until you said it. In fact, it's been a source of pain for my family that I'm still here. When I went back and played in New York, the guy from the record company said that people from New York would really understand me and that I'm much more of a New Yorker. I've always associated with New York and I love Lou Reed and Patti Smith and I love people who never left New York, who just understand New York from that I've­-never-left-New-York perspective which I no longer can do because I did leave New York and I'm a Californian. It never really dawned on me until this very moment. EB White said once, about New York actually, that the people who understand a place are not the people who are from there but the people who came there, who went there to find something. Most people in California have actually come here. I can't actually believe it, that I'm a Californian, but I am. But there's so much myth here. San Francisco is a very strange place - it almost hypnotises you before you realise it into this dream lotus-eating state and everybody knows it. And now it's filled up with all these internet people so it's got a different feel. The culture is really changing here. But the physical environment is so striking. Sometimes it seems good and sometimes it seems evil. It's just so powerful, like there's this giant fog. I've been here for so long and yet I still look out the window and see this white cloud descending, moving across the city at four o'clock in the afternoon, just covering up the sky and it still amazes me. And San Francisco is completely the opposite to LA, because for a while no one thought you could make art in LA or write about LA - you'd have to write about your experience somewhere else. LA is a minefield. I got there and I couldn't believe it. It's too much! But you must come here. I'll go to London and you come to California. I guess Mexico is going to have to be the next California. I went down to Mexico and I was pretty struck by its poetry. Who the hell knows. Maybe Mars will inspire a new genre.

Who do you think would play you in the TV movie of the Hannah Marcus Story?
Oh my God - that's one question I never thought I'd have to answer. Who would I want to play me, or who might they actually get after they've asked several people? If I was casting it I'd choose Theresa Russell although I guess that really wouldn't happen. Theresa Russell could do me when I was young. That would work. It would be very strange but that's all right because it's not going to happen.

And what makes you happy? What makes it all worthwhile?
That's the hardest thing to answer. I'll be thinking about this all day now. Love?! And that's the truth, I suppose. And a good pie crust. I've been kind of obsessed with pastry making lately. In fact, I had to quit this pastry-making job because I was breaking all my nails so I couldn't play the guitar. But it makes me really happy when the pie crust turns out well. You see, Beck could answer that question but I can't answer that because I want to be sincere about it. Flowers??

Editors' note: The following ideas for headlines were considered but ultimately rejected in the typesetting of this interview:
Marcus is Willing
Desserter's Songs
Promises and Piecrusts

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