From the Ethers: An Interview with Hannah Marcus

I first discovered Hannah Marcus’ music nearly ten years back. Hearing the opening strains of “Laos”, a track off her last album, Desert Farmers, I was nearly frozen in place. I wasn’t sure how or why, but something in the song called to me on a deeper, more private level than any other song I had heard. It seemed to invade such a personal space within me where I held deeper, undisclosed emotions and, yet, it wholly belonged in that space. After half an hour’s worth of hearing the song on repeat, it found a home in me and it has since never left.

What especially caught my attention was Marcus’ utterly strange and distressing way of turning a phrase, sounding out a word with an inflection so alien, it startled and seduced in equal measure. Her songs were like doors to other worlds that explored the ideas of situational love and lives configured by loss and abandonment. In Marcus’ songs, people struggle not to survive but to simply exist; survival and the pain endured is merely an afterthought. To be able to encapsulate the heady and emotional complexities of human drama in the span of a pop song is an achievement in itself. To pen an indelible melody to accompany her striking visionary world is leaps and bounds over the moons of many songwriters.

A dip into Marcus’ repertoire of work reveals a multi-faceted stretch of musical invention; oscillating between two emotional extremes of joy and despair, the songwriter employs the shape-shifting textures of her spiritually-soaked jazz to bridge a gap between her darkly Weimar-inspired brand of Americana and a lyrical wisdom to match the erudite precision of Anne Sexton’s earthy poetry of bankrupt hopes.

The singer’s first proper album, 1996’s River of Darkness (produced by Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters), explored the haunted inner soul of a young woman feeling her way around an unfeeling world. The album’s songs were populated by characters from literary worlds, transmuted into the even stranger and still familiar people they become once they are the inhabitants of song. Her most plaintive effort, Darkness was the first step in a direction that would bring Marcus to another level of music-making — one that included samples, drum loops, and a wider musical scope of ambient soundscapes and nightclub torch-singer blues. Faith Burns (1998), a sensual strip of sour jazz and the rusted clatter of industrial rock, stretched the artist’s ability to explore the more grievous roads of love. Mired in a sweetly poisonous atmosphere, Burns laid bare a disturbing mêlée of inner demons, the anatomies of desire examined in one expressionistic pull.

By the time Marcus recorded Black Hole Heaven (2000), her next release, she had discovered a more conventional structure for her otherworldly compositions with the help of the late Tim Mooney, who signed on for production duties. Easily her most pop-oriented effort, Heaven, a collection of inverted, modern-day fairy-tales, interpolated dance beats into a strange brew of dark Americana-folk. The album chronicled a difficult period in the singer’s life, a crumbling marriage and a life ultimately sidelined by the ensuing divorce. A couple years later, with Desert Farmers, Marcus reached the zenith of her emotional and psychological strains. Sculpting beautiful, majestic and shambolic sounds into a deeply intimate package, the singer attempted to assemble the strange origami of an alienated life, an observer on the lonely margins of her world making dubious folds in a paper heart nearly torn apart by the years of strife.

As a solo artist, Marcus simply upped and left after Desert Farmers, opting to continue her musical work as part of the Wingdale Community Singers, a band that included the songwriting talents of novelist Rick Moody. Marcus’ distinctive voice can still be heard on the band’s three albums, works richly steeped in the traditions of storytelling lore. But as a separate identity, she is sadly missed and her music will remain frozen in a portrait of earthly existence, yet charged with an energy that came from the ethers.

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Can you tell me how you got your start in music? When did your songwriting begin to develop?

My father was a cellist and composer and his was a family of classical musicians. My grandfather was a composer and pianist named Ernst Levy who made a controversial recording of Beethoven’s opus 110 and 111 piano sonatas, as controversial as that might be. My great aunt was a viola coach. I played the cello when I was a kid for a couple of years. It was during a particularly excruciating time in my childhood and I aggressively abandoned it. I’ve recently taken up the fiddle again (I played violin for six months when I was six) and I am enjoying it immensely.

I started writing songs when I was very young — I think lyrics were an anchor for both music and stories in a mnemonic sense as well as a conceptual one. I wrote a few songs when I was nine, a few in high school, and a few in college. I was trying to find a new narrative impulse, a poetry that came out of Dylan and Carly Simon and the Child Ballads. I stopped for a couple of years and was re-inspired in my early 20s when I saw Mark Eitzel play in San Francisco. He had such a command of vision. It was enveloping. It was the shoegazing era when people were turning inward and there were inverted little environments in the fog of San Francisco where we could make our little comics and make stories and dramas in our magical, melancholy world. That whole thing shattered pretty neatly.

Your sister’s life with autism was a very strong inspirational force in your music. What was it about her life that sparked your musical creativity?

I think there’s just something ineluctably confronting about dealing with someone who has such an alternate vision of and place in the world. She was a big part of what made my early life chaotic and difficult, but also her wild consciousness is so palpable and up-front, and her beautiful spirit is undeniable to anyone who meets her, I think. She has also shown me that there are different ways of becoming happy, of evolving as a person. I don’t know, actually, exactly how that has influenced my songwriting specifically, except that it was such a major factor in my life.

It has been ten years since you last released a solo album. Why had you chosen to put your solo career on hold for being in a band (Wingdale Community Singers) and are you planning on releasing a solo album in the future?

As for the ten years since I released a solo album… my whole relationship to songwriting went through a sea-change around then. I’ve thought about what it was — the Internet, my age, the old “combination of factors” — but I lost the anchor in songs that I’d always been able to rely on. I honestly think it was partially the dominance of the Internet that has changed the entire way that music and words are consumed and exchanged. Also, I’ve written lots of songs I like and I’m not sure what’s next. I needed to take a break from it. I do have some songs I haven’t released properly, but in the interim the whole system has changed. I don’t know. I’ll release them. Maybe I’ll tie a thumb drive to the foot of a migrating bird in the spring. That would be a kind of release. God, I feel sad about songs right now. Who knows? The Wingdales actually just released a new record on Blue Chopsticks that I think is really good, and I’ve given a couple of those songs to the record. It’s called Night, Sleep, Death.

But I did do some great recordings in Montreal at Hotel2Tango that ought to come out somehow. They will.

“Laos” stands as your most mysterious and cryptic recording. There’s an obvious deep and profound sadness present in the song. It has this very strange, disjointed narrative that seems to reference ideas of redemption, loss and possibly death. What is the story behind “Laos”? Moreover, what does its most cryptic line, “Somethings you should never see…” refer to?

“Laos” is specifically about someone, actually — a friend of mine’s son died in his late 20s. A drug-related death. Someone he knew had to go and identify his body. That line is really pretty straightforward.

Your music has a very peculiar spiritual slant to it. There’s the use of religious imagery — but not so much expressing a belief rather than painting a certain atmosphere and mood with those images (“Laos”, “St. Jude” etc.). Can you talk about this element in your music?

You’re absolutely right about the peculiar spiritual slant to my music. I have been thinking about this a lot right now. Just finished reading Dante’s Purgatory and I’ve been doing these drawings of my dog with quotes from Purgatory that have a formal Christian ring to them — I also just finished a send-up video at Christmas called “Let’s Have a Christopher Hitchens Christmas”. There is something really juicy and great about the movement of giving ourselves real permission to fight back against religious lunacy. On the other hand, there’s lunacy, as in “luna” — the moon. I don’t want to give that up. There’s also my dying dog, and those interstices where poetry happens, where two strains of thinking can come together. Not that I’ve ever succeeded in writing poetry, but I have lots of respect for poetry. Beckett used to carry Purgatory around.

“Osiris in Pieces” has an interesting history. It got off to a rocky start and apparently didn’t go down too well with the first producer who attempted to produce it. It now stands as one of your most accessible songs in your repertoire of work. Can you give some background on the evolution of the song?

“Osiris-In Pieces” — the lyrics were there but the first pass at the music for that song sucked. Joe (the first “producer”) was totally right. But we had some non-musical differences at that time, stemming mostly from the fact that I was in a challenging phase of my life and behaving erratically. So was he, actually. We have since made up and I love and respect Joe immensely. Tim Mooney, the guy who ended up producing the record, recently died. I still can’t wrap my head around that. I always thought I’d work with him again. Dammit. Tim really made that record, Black Hole Heaven, happen. He calmed the inflammation and got to work.

Of all your solos albums, which stands as your most personal work and why?

I think I’d have to say Black Hole Heaven is my most personal album, not necessarily my favorite, probably because it’s my most personal. I really let myself hang out to dry on that album. I can’t really listen to it. I haven’t in a while. I should try.

Your songs have a very strong literary bent: you either reference literary works in some way or another or they are written and structured in a very literate way — more like short narratives rather than song lyrics (“Hairdresser in Taos”, “River Phoenix”, “Watching the Warriors”, “Coconut Cream Pie”, for example). What kind of literary influences feed your music?

There’s definitely a literary bent to my music. I was just re-reading the end of Beckett’s The Unnameable, and that entire piece feels like one pulsating blob of song lyric, one frisson after another of song lyric potential, it’s like a hunk of song-lyric uranium. Plutonium. Man-made. It’s maddening.

Has the lack of exposure for your music frustrated you?

Well, yes. The lack of exposure has really frustrated me. But I have to take responsibility. Lately I’ve been bemoaning my voice. My friend Jolie Holland, for instance, has a voice that just fills me with amazement. Or PJ Harvey’s voice. Christ. I have a perfectly nice voice, but it’s not a voice you can just rely on, like Blossom Dearie. It’s not a voice you can build a house on. My songs, yes. But I think it would have been easier with my personality, which is erratic and ambivalent, to have a voice that was more of a workhorse and not this pale ephemeral thing. Plenty of people have had plenty of exposure with voices like mine. But I’d like a Sara Carter voice. Oh well. One does not get everything one wants. I am lucky in many ways. Maybe with age and whiskey.

Apart from your involvement with Wingdale Community Singers, what other projects are you currently undertaking?

I have been playing a shit-ton of fiddle, which I absolutely adore, but which doesn’t quite fit into my other world, yet. Not sure what it means. It’s the first time I’ve let myself indulge in any sort of music-jock antics. Which is ridiculous, considering how many spectacular fiddle jocks there are out there, and for many other reasons? The meritocracy of the fiddle jock is about as far from the world of ’90s San Francisco shoegazing as you can get. I am loathe to admit just how much time I’ve been pouring into the fiddle. Perhaps I can gently turn back toward songs. Lurking like a flock of neglected flamingos. Turn slowly so I don’t scare them away. We’ll see.