Karen Marks on creative integrity, her first-ever live show and how punk changed everything

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Karen Marks on creative integrity, her first-ever live show and how punk changed everything

Words by Isabella Venutti

Looking back at her live performance at the Melbourne Town Hall, underground hero Karen Marks sat down with Mixdown to chat about her remarkable journey.

The name Karen Marks, particularly within Melbourne’s independent music community, isn’t one that tends to elicit a lukewarm reaction among those acquainted with her work. “Melbourne underground legend”, “Minimal Wave hero” and “a total enigma” are just some descriptions I’ve heard thrown around in vehement adoration. Before she performed here in 2023, we had the chance to chat to the Melbourne legend.

Read up on all the latest interviews here.

Should you be unacquainted, in the year 2024, a quick google search will show you that Karen’s most famous song ‘Cold Café’ has hundreds of thousands of streams on Spotify; that her debut EP, and the cult compilation that she features on, Sky Girl, are completely sold out on vinyl. You’ll also find a perplexing lack of recorded live performances, limited interviews – one might wonder why the singer’s soaring, crystalline vocals and elegantly sparse synthesiser accompaniments can only be found on a handful of recordings from the 1980s. 

The answer to these queries, is that before 2015, in Karen’s own words, her recordings were “sitting in a draw.”

Karen’s story, although not entirely uncommon in the age of digital crate-digging and ardent online fandoms, is a remarkable one – it’s a testament to creative integrity, and the profoundly timeless art it can engender. 

The collective online and IRL culture that has widely disseminated ‘Cold Café’ is the same one that has brought 90s icons Pavement out of effective retirement for a world tour; that has introduced 11 million listeners to Glasgow Post-Punks Life Without Buildings’ debut record more than 20 years after its initial release. Though it can be hard not to see the internet as dizzying cesspool at times, its ability to connect Millennial and Gen Z listeners with rare finds of decades past is something undeniably beautiful and true.

Though Karen wasn’t actively trying to forge a music career for herself when she recorded ‘Cold Café’ and its accompanying tracks all those years ago, having cut her teeth on the other side of the curtain managing former Nick Cave outfit The Boys Next Door, punk rockers JAB and Models, she tells me that songwriting is something she’s always been drawn to.

I was always musical growing up… and I think I always did want to perform myself. I’ll never forget Kevin Borich once saying to me, you don’t just want to be here with us – because I was always hanging around, all the boyfriends I had were musicians – you don’t want to be here for us, you want to be doing what we’re doing… and I thought it was quite a perceptive comment. He realised that my interest in music stemmed from wanting to be doing it, rather than just wanting to hang out with them, because they were, you know, boys and musicians. I’ve always remembered that.”

While Karen describes the 70s/80s Melbourne music scene of her youth as a “a big family” – a scintillating melting pot of industry heavyweights and bohemian layabouts who would drive up and down Punt Road twice in one night to gig hop from the Kingston Hotel in Richmond, to The Tiger Lounge, to Martini’s in Carlton, to the Crystal Ballroom – it wasn’t necessarily an environment in which a young woman could casually swagger up onto a stage just like one of the boys. For Karen, it was punk that changed that:

“I remember speaking at this event at the M Pavilion called ‘Why Punk?’… the speaker before me said that she thought that the punk movement was really sexist, and always about boys. Well, I didn’t say it at the time, but I thought about what she said, and I wish I had said it when I got up to speak… I actually totally disagree with that, because I think it was actually the first time that girls were allowed to play.

There were girls in all these punk bands, this is when the acceptance of girls in bands became a reality… Think about all of the girls that suddenly picked up a musical instrument, because you only needed to know two or three chords. I thought it was actually quite refreshing… the fact that you were allowed to do it, was the thing that changed everything. Before that, you had girl singers… now, there’s girls in all the bands, I mean it’s a given thing, it’s not that unusual. I think punk started that, I really do.”

It was amidst the Australian punk revolution, which saw a mass of musically ambitious, black-leather clad scoundrels migrate from Adelaide to Melbourne, that Karen met lifelong friend and collaborator Ash Wednesday (of JAB, Models and Einstürzende Neubauten), with whom she wrote and recorded her songs, and with whom she played them on stage.

Ash and Karen’s collaboration was set into motion by their joint decision to leave the original iteration of the band Models, which Karen had managed, and Ash was a founding member of.

“When we left [Models], we used to sit up in Ash’s Warehouse and just sort of tinker around, Ash had a bit of a jamming thing going, and had recorded a few things with Bobby Kretschmer (of Icehouse) and Rick Hawkins, who will be drumming in our concert, and they were called the Funny Guitars… we just started mucking around with synthesisers, and we came up with my songs.”

‘Cold Café’ was warmly received at the time of its release, reaching number one on 3RRR and Triple J, and yet, at the time the alternative industry was a great deal smaller than it is now, and with the synth-heavy sound Karen and Ash had cultivated having fallen outside of the realms of what was considered quintessentially ‘Australian indie’ at the time, its success was short-lived.

However everything changed three decades later, when Michael Kucyk, head of Melbourne independent record label Efficient Space and DIY 80s/90s savant, approached Karen asking whether she would contribute a track to Sky Girl, a compilation curated by French record collectors Julien Dechery and DJ Sundae. The track became immensely popularity online, accruing a cult following. In the follow up, Karen released an EP, featuring two more of her and Ash’s recordings from those sessions, one of which, ‘You Bring These Things’, was written by Paul Kelly.

“That’s really what relaunched me, I mean it was huge everywhere in the world, I remember being in Paris with my son, because I knew that they were selling it in Collette in Paris, a very, very famous department store that’s now closed, and I said to the boys, let’s go and see if they’ve got me there, and if they want me to sign them I’ll sign them. We went in, and the guy said to me, ‘it’s all sold out!’ I’ve never really heard my sons say wow like that, ‘wow Mum!’”… Without Michael and this new generation of record collectors, record fanatics … record companies – and they’re all from the generations after me – my song wouldn’t have had this new life… without Michael, the record would be sitting in a draw.”

Speaking to Karen, I’m moved by her intuitive, joy-fuelled approach to music and creativity more broadly. Though she’s never stopped song-writing, she doesn’t force it if the mood doesn’t strike. And she applies this same ethos to the opportunities that continue to come along following the success of her music, which she sees as cherries on top of the deep validation that she has felt from it finally being recognised thirty years after its release.

“This concert has come about because Miles Brown who runs the musical instruments side of the Melbourne Town Hall, the organ, for the City of Melbourne, is a huge fan of Ash’s and mine. We said – wow, do you really think that there’d be enough interest? And everybody seems to think so. We’ve never played these songs with a band, so we thought, we’ll get a band together, go into Bakehouse and we’ll see how it goes. We did the first rehearsal, and it was fantastic, it took the songs into a whole different world, and we’re using the Town Hall organ, too.”

“To not have compromised and not have changed, and just have my song, which I now know has got a lot of credibility because I didn’t compromise, and to finally find out that I was right not to because somebody’s discovered at 30 years later is incredible… I’m thrilled that people really love the song you don’t just I never imagined that it was going to to be what it is today. And these young support bands (YL Hooi and Modal Melodies)… I’m so thrilled to be a kind of mentor for them, it’s great… it’s how it should be, it’s wonderful, we’re all together, and we’re not in the mainstream record industry.”

Speaking to fellow friends and peers who will be attending Karen’s show – the excitement is palpable. Though Karen is quick to emphasise how thrilled she is by the support the younger generations have shown her music, it’s clear that her fans, young and older, are equally thrilled by the prospect of seeing her songs, of hearing her voice, which has transcended time and place, live for the very first time.

Keep up with Karen here.