Marianne Nowottny Discovers Herself

By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 1999 New York Press

By Kenneth Goldsmith

The next P.J. Harvey just got her first job at Burger King. Marianne Nowottny, a 16 year-old high school sophomore living in northwestern New Jersey has just released her first CD and, put simply, it's the most drop-dead debut I've come across in a long time. Afraid of Me smacks of Jeff Buckley's gut-wrenching Live at Sin-é and has the all self-confidence of Exile in Guyville-period Liz Phair; for its sheer hipness, this record might be the musical equivalent of Sadie Benning's Girlpower. It's a moment, and what a moment it is; thankfully it's been burned to disc. There's a mood here which merges the grainy black and white intensity of Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate with the exotic emotional break point of Bob Dylan's Desire. Imagine Marlene Dietrich doing cover versions of Tim Buckley's Lorca and you start to get the idea; if Om Kalthoum recorded a disc of Nick Drake tunes, it might sound like this record. Clocking in at a mere 30 minutes, there's not a dead moment on the disc—it leaves me drooling for more. And as impressive as the disc is, what's more astonishing is the potential here. Afraid of Me was recorded in a basement using nothing more than a primitive keyboard and a couple of portable cassette players. There's no production value to speak of, yet the power of the disc is undeniable--wait till some producer gets their hands on Nowottny.

Nowottny sounds much older than she really is. She's got a touch of Marianne Faithful's gravely mezzo and sounds like she's seen more than her share of gin-soaked nights in smoky bars (but of course, she's five years shy of being able to legally drink). She's got an impassioned way of slurring phrases, stumbling over lyrics and slamming syllables together that gives an unexpected punch to her songs. Equally unexpected is her complex song structures, which dash in and out of conventional time signatures, moving in all directions at once. But the most radical feature of Nowottny's program is her use of alternate tunings. On one cut, "Harbor," she's de-tuned her keyboard and let her voice drolly snake around it in an obliquely related key. Reflecting the title of the piece, the feeling is that of a harbor full of ship's horns bellowing at staggered intervals on a foggy night; it's haunting stuff. Likewise, an instrumental cut simply titled "Instrumental," pits an off-kilter music box against a wobbly de-tuned synthesizer, creating a precariously clumsy musical dance. It's got all the grace of a six-year old at her first ballet recital—and all the intense nail-gnawing emotion to go with it. When I mentioned some of the more obvious experimenters working along similar lines as Nowottny, she drew blanks. Charles Ives's experiments with quarter tones? Nope. La Monte Young's investigations into microtonal drones? Nah. Stereolab's wink-and-nod use of dated analog equipment to make savvy pop? Never heard of ‘em. Danielson's home-grown warped religious pop? Daniel who? Of her naiveté, she says "I'm ignorant as to who discovered what. All I know is that I've discovered myself."

Laurie Bortz also lives in Newton and runs the Abaton Book Company. She thought Newton was a pretty sleepy place too until she spied Nowottny--a 6' bleached-blonde who dresses in Victorian-era clothes--hanging out on the street with a group of friends. Bortz went over, introduced herself and told Nowottny she was a publisher and playwright. Nowottny told her she was a poet. Bortz asked to see some of her work and after getting a gander of Nowottny's words, she was impressed enough to publish a chapbook in an edition of 200. Not long after, Bortz had her pal Uscha Pohl, a fashion designer, gallerist and scenester of the Tribeca boutique Up and Co., stage a photo shoot on location in Newton using Nowottny and her high school gang. Garbed in skin-tight "uberbabe" t-shirts, the teenagers looked like they were straight out of Kids. Suddenly, something was happening in Newton.

Bortz and her husband Mark Dagley, an artist and one-time guitarist for the legendary punk band The Girls, bailed out of the Lower East Side a couple of years ago after two decades of coping with high rents and small spaces. They found themselves a huge loft for next to no money in Newton, which is about an hour outside Manhattan—if you have a car—which, being true New Yorkers, they don't (Nowottny also doesn't drive. She uses the New Jersey Transit buses compulsively). Since moving there, Abaton's been busy issuing a steady stream of high-quality artist's books. Their small catalog includes a handsome volume of Bortz's plays and a series of wonderful artist's pamphlets by such well know figures as George Condo and Olivier Mosset.

A few months ago, I found Abaton's first audio release in my mailbox, a cassette by a duo called Shell. As it turns out, Shell is Nowottny and a fourteen-year-old pal, of hers from South Jersey, Donna Bailey. It's a strange affair: echoey vocals and keyboards mix bits of found sounds and music. The title of the disc is Shell vs. Neu!, which refers to the tracks of the avant-German band which Dagley mixed in with Nowottny's whispering "LSD" over and over. Nowottny told me that the genesis of the sessions was a series of acid trips that she and Bailey did out of sheer boredom in Donna's room. They'd just drop a bunch of acid and let the tape roll. To kill time, they'd scribble handmade cassette covers with crayons and plaster them with commercially available stickers.

It's hard to exactly pinpoint where all this sophistication and experimentation comes from. Nowottny's just an intensely creative kid who's been locking herself in her room making art by her own rules. She splits her time between her divorced parents, one who lives in South Jersey and the other who lives in Newton near the Pennsylvania border. Nothing much happens in either place. Nowottny told me that the most exciting event in Newton is the army of black bears who rifle through the trash. She adores life at Millville High School, where she's been named art student of the year for the past three years (I can't imagine there's much competition) and is an avid reader of sociology and biology textbooks—just for fun. Her mom was a classical pianist but her real influence came from her addiction to Indian variety shows and Bollywood films which aired on local cable stations every Sunday when she was a kid. It gave her an exposure to alternative tunings, a practice that she carried into grade-school choir practice, much to her teacher's chagrin when she began singing in a different key from the rest of the group. Nowottny thought it sounded great. But Indian pop songs were just the tip of the iceberg in her home: family belly dancing sessions and hearty rounds of German oomph songs were regular events. There were also Japanese theme nights where the whole family would dress up in traditional samuari garb and eat sushi. All of this in rural New Jersey.

What's next? Nowottny's got a ton of ideas: she'd like to remix symphonies with industrial music. Machines with orchestras. Drills and cellos. German cabaret music with Egyptian music. And then there's more Shell stuff, which is going to be recorded this summer when school's out; it'll veer away from the previous acid-drenched incarnation and head down a more pop-based road. More practically, there are plans for Abaton to remix and flesh out Afraid of Me into an album-length CD, with a bunch of new songs including one about Hunter S. Thompson. In the best case scenario, Nowottny will hook up with a sympathetic producer, one who will realize all her remarkable ideas into some extraordinary music, the likes of which we've never heard before. In the worst, she'll go blazing into mainstream rock history the way of Smashing Pumpkins and Led Zeppelin. Either way, you've only just heard the beginning of this story.


(Marianne Nowottny can be found daily after school at the Burger King in Sparta, N.J. Her CD can be purchased at Other Music or ordered directly from Abaton Books, 116 Spring St., Newton, N.J. 07860, tel. 973-300-9886 / fax 973-300-0714)

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