As Sleater-Kinney's fearless guitarist and TV comedy's foremost female, Carrie Brownstein is a pop cultural polymath. She talks her new memoir, the pitfalls of nostalgia and why "capital-R rock" is a thing of the past
“I love Miguel,” says Carrie Brownstein eagerly over the phone from her hotel room in New York. As the searing guitarist of Sleater-Kinney, co-creator of sketch comedy Portlandia, and now the author of an incendiary, heartfelt memoir, Brownstein has based her career on not giving people what they expect. Her manner is friendly and disarming, but somewhat inscrutable. Here is a woman with the credentials to be one of rock’n’roll’s sworded gatekeepers, essentially fangirling over Miguel’s new album. “It’s a great guitar record. Most people might categorise it as R&B, but it’s a combination and coherence of styles.”
Brownstein sits on the trophy case of women in rock, nestled among Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Poly Styrene and a million other badass musicians. But what sets Brownstein apart is that her appeal lies in her subtlety. She doesn’t hide behind a carefully constructed persona or origin story to go along with the music. She’s not over the top or in your face and seems resolutely… normal. Press pictures usually capture her dressed in a plaid shirt, skinny jeans and berry lipstick – clean and put-together, but never particularly fashionable. Her cute face resembles Peppermint Patty from Peanuts and she could very well be the woman lingering over the rapini at your local Whole Foods rather than a venerated indie musician and TV star.
Despite going through a heavy riot-grrrl phase in my late teens, where I idolised basically every raging woman in a babydoll dress, I somehow failed to ‘get into’ Sleater-Kinney. Their sound was pure octane, marked by singer Corin Tucker’s powerful caterwaul, but something about their point of entry seemed too oblique. Perhaps I was intimidated by the sheer size of their discography, or their syncopated rhythms didn’t fit with my appetite for music that slices through chords with all the subtlety of a meat cleaver. But realistically, it’s because their music is filled with a sense of need, searching for the untenable. A single Sleater-Kinney guitar riff is like a tornado ripping the lid off an emotional cavity you thought was already filled with high-grade cement. If you’re even a little bit broken, listening to their music is like looking in a mirror and seeing your raw insides reflected back. It’s much easier to listen to music that obscures your needs rather than confronts you with them.
“Writing about some of the early Sleater-Kinney records... There was supposed to be a contrast between that glimmer of when we first started out, that then faded into something with inherently more realism and darkness” – Carrie Brownstein
That need comes to the fore in Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. The title is gleaned from the Sleater-Kinney song “Modern Girl” (from their 2005 album The Woods), but it may as well be a rallying cry for every young woman who has found herself wondering if she is impervious to joy or simply insatiable. “To me that song is about somebody that’s presenting happiness and falling short of it,” Brownstein says. “I wanted to use that as a title because it plays into scenes of the book, both literally in the case of my mother (whose battle with anorexia is chronicled) and metaphorically in the case of myself.”
Brownstein’s childhood was one filled with wanting. She grew up in dreary, suburban Redmond, Washington (now a bedroom community for Microsoft) and always hungered for recognition beyond what her distant family could provide. She was a performative kid, doing juggling acts to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” and dance routines to “Hang on Sloopy”. “My mother likened my melodrama to the silent film actress Sarah Bernhardt, as if my frustrations and feelings weren’t normal but calculated, contrived,” she writes. Meanwhile, Brownstein’s parents were reckoning with problems of their own – her mother never ate and eventually underwent treatment for anorexia; her father had a subscription to the International Male underwear catalog, and came out as gay when Brownstein was in her 20s. Her early life was marked by a “sense of invisibility and need for validation”, and upon reading those words I was struck with the horror of recognition – this is me, too, and so many others I know.
Accolades came Brownstein’s way after she moved to Olympia, Washington and formed the band Sleater-Kinney in 1994 with her friend and one-time girlfriend, Corin Tucker. Sleater-Kinney is always lumped in with riot grrrl bands, which on the surface makes sense – sure, they’re an “all-girl” band wailing unapologetically over heavy guitars – but the differences are multitudinous. Riot grrrl’s heyday was 1990-1993; Sleater-Kinney’s first album dropped in 1995. Most riot grrrl bands were short-lived political experiments; Sleater-Kinney were together for 12 years and released seven albums before their 2006 hiatus. And you sure as hell wouldn’t see any riot grrl band hailed as “The Best Band in the World”. In a 1999 Esquire story, critic Greil Marcus wrote of their song “Start Together”, “It’s impossible to imagine it on the radio, because it’s so strong. Like Sex Pistols records, which are almost never played on the radio, it might destroy whatever came before or after.”
Sleater-Kinney’s popularity eventually outgrew small-town Olympia, and Brownstein writes of never quite relating to the codified insularity of Olympia’s music scene. “Ambition itself seemed anathema, or at the very least drew scepticism,” she writes. She remembers being admonished by the PR committee of Ladyfest in 2000 for the outsize amount of press attention Sleater-Kinney was garnering. “I felt like I was being shamed for the relatively modest success I had achieved,” she writes. In a 2012 profile of Brownstein in The New Yorker, when her friend Miranda July was asked about why the two have stayed friends for the better part of two decades, the word that travelled from her brain to her mouth the fastest was “ambition”, until she balked and replaced it with the kinder, more July-like “a steady focus on what we are going to do next”.
The thing is, when you’re always thinking about what you’re going to do next, it can be difficult to look back. Brownstein once referred to nostalgia as “memory without the pain” in a 2014 interview with Stereogum. “I think the idea of memoir or autobiography inherently touches on nostalgia because it produces that feeling in other people,” she tells me. “It’s an unavoidable reaction to reading a book that might share a history with you. For people who were in high school in the 90s, of course it’s going to stoke the flames of nostalgia. But I tried to avoid overly romanticising or sentimentalising things unless it needed that. In writing about some of the early Sleater-Kinney records, those sections feel more golden than the later sections because there was supposed to be a contrast between that glimmer of when we first started out, that then faded into something with inherently more realism and darkness.”
Writing a memoir is a big deal for someone who keeps her cards so close to her chest. After she was outed by Spin magazine in the mid 90s, Brownstein has been fairly reticent about discussing her private life in public. She refuses to reveal who she is dating, and there’s always speculation into the romantic qualities of her joined-at-the-hip relationship with Portlandia co-star Fred Armisen. (“It kind of heightens the experiences and maintains a mythical quality to someone’s work, especially music, when I don’t know what they ate for lunch, who they’re dating, or what their favourite beer is,” she told Bust magazine in 2014.) When I ask her if writing a memoir felt too exposing, she answered, “It didn’t. But I was very intentional about what I included, and I wanted to make sure that (everything) served the story.”
Brownstein says she’s not into the “oversharing” so often facilitated by social media, but the book is generous with its insights into her somewhat opaque lifestyle. “It’s interesting,” she says, “because some people describe it as raw and honest and vulnerable. But on the other side, some people didn’t think it was raw enough. It’s almost like people just want you to bloodlet on to a page at this point. I think ‘Wow, there are some harrowing moments in here that feel very personal.’ But maybe they wanted graphic sex scenes,” she laughs.
Whatever Brownstein left out, she does manage to reveal the reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s mysterious, decade-long hiatus starting in 2006. Brownstein had become increasingly ill on The Woods tour, part of it psychosomatic. There were allergic reactions and constant panic attacks, culminating in a painful case of shingles. Feeling isolated and unhappy, she started to box herself in the face onstage before a concert in Brussels. “In a matter of minutes, Sleater-Kinney was gone. I had knocked its lights out. TKO,” she writes.
The end of Sleater-Kinney marked a new beginning for Brownstein, one that rests just beyond the peripheral vision of the book. With collaborator Fred Armisen, she created Portlandia, a sketch comedy skewering hipster culture in skits like “Feminist Bookstore” where Brownstein and Armisen play two be-wigged, kaftan-wearing bookstore employees given to spouting lines like, “Don’t point! Every time you point I see a penis.”
“Even the idea of genre is starting to disappear. Just as a category, the kind of sacredness that used to be applied to rock – that capital-‘R’ rock’n’roll – is starting to feel flimsier” – Carrie Brownstein
Today, Brownstein is a triple-threat in her own right – writer, actor and musician. If the combination seems a bit incredulous, she totally agrees. “I think people are always sceptical of those that are polymaths – (there’s) almost an expectation or an unconscious desire to have someone fail at something. I was just watching Trainwreck and thought, ‘Gosh, LeBron James is a good actor.’ It’s not that I wanted him to be bad. But he’s one of the greatest basketball players to have ever lived, how could he also be a natural actor? But he really is. I try to look at people who are autodidacts or polymaths with wonder, but I think there is always this inherent scepticism when you watch somebody leaping from one field to the next. Certainly, that pushes me to work harder, because I know those doubts exist.”
Perhaps if she were a bad writer, she would still be revered primarily as a musician. But her talent extends into every arena she enters. At times the prose dances off the page, and other times it punches you in the gut. For example, she describes Corin Tucker’s voice as “a wail not of mourning but of murder. And there was so much I wanted to destroy.” “In some ways (writing) is the commonality between all of my work in Sleater-Kinney and writing scripts for Portlandia,” she says. “I think sometimes that sliver of doubt, that shred of feeling like I don’t belong or haven’t earned something yet, helps me to strive. I remember looking at an interview with the writer George Saunders, whom I’m a huge fan of, and he talks about ways to pull the rug out from underneath yourself. It is hard to do, especially the more achievements you have. But at the same time it’s very crucial.”
“I feel like I struggle, as I think many people do, in terms of what looks good... In the last couple of years, I can finally can look at photos of myself and not think, ‘Wow! That was a horrible mistake’” – Carrie Brownstein
Some of the funniest parts of the book come when Brownstein holds her former fashion choices up to ridicule. She refers to her style early on as “Mick Jagger in sweatpants”, and later describes a photoshoot with Interview magazine where they dressed the band like “thrift-store couches covered up with clean, ill-fitting sheets in preparation for a parental visit.” When I ask her about her approach to fashion, she says, “I’m always envious of people with effortless style. As for myself, I feel like I struggle, as I think many people do, in terms of what looks good. My body has essentially been the same for many years at this point, so you’d think that I would have figured out proportion or colours. But sometimes I falter. I’m willing to admit that. But I’m getting better. I’m figuring it out slowly. In the last couple of years, I can finally can look at photos of myself and not think, ‘Wow! That was a horrible mistake.’” I tell her that she always looks very put-together in photographs, and she laughs, “Put-together is the highest compliment for me. I just want to look functional at this point.”
Just as Brownstein has managed to have a successful career by refusing to be pigeonholed into one discipline, she thinks that the most interesting work comes from people who break down barriers and make something that is completely their own. “I think even the idea of genre is starting to disappear. Just as a category, the kind of sacredness that used to be applied to rock – that capital-‘R’ rock’n’roll – is starting to feel flimsier. I think the most interesting, innovative artists in music right now are combining so many different media and styles that it feels very complex and dynamic.” Much like Brownstein herself.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir is out on November 5
Cover image courtesy of John Clark