My Songwriting Adventure With Marnie Stern

Channeling exuberance and battling self-doubt on the Upper East Side

And it's not just her vocal style, either. Lyrics, for as long as Stern has been recording, have been problematic. "I know that they're kind of abstract and just sort of inspirational-type things," she says. (From This Is It single "Ruler": "There are things to find/Chaos is a friend of mine.") "I've been wondering if that's been a way for me to not have to get too personal. See, I think this may be the most fucked-up thing, but I really feel that as a woman, when I get very personal with lyrics, it tends to come off in that Alanis Morissette, angsty vein."

At this point, I put down the light and point at the engine to say that, in fact, her lyrics are personal.

"They are," she says, "but they're not."

"They're so personal that nobody can figure out what you're talking about," I offer.

Stern agrees. "And so it's safer. It's safe for me. I would like to try and go further, but any time I try . . . maybe I'm just not that good at lyrics, because when I try, they are . . ."

"Hilarious" is the word that crawls halfway out of Stern's mouth before stopping.

"They're just so clichéd and ridiculous," she finishes.

So perhaps solace and security lie not within the minuscule and beribboned Fig (who shares Stern's chair throughout our session), but in Stern's outsized ability to play the guitar, possibly to the detriment of her other gifts. "I'm in this weird mental thing now where I worked so long and so hard to find my own style, like with the tapping and stuff, but I don't want to get stuck," she laments. "You know, you want to grow and change, so I'm not doing tapping as much."

Stern is also "trying to get away from power chords," but unfortunately, when she begins a song, like the one we're attempting today, she often starts with those two layers of guitar "patterns": one employing tapping; the other, power chords. "Which leaves me with nothing," she says with a laugh.

Nothing except for an unwieldy album concept: Stern would like her next record to reflect current best-loved bands like Ponytail ("Cheery and uplifting") and U.S. Maple ("One of my favorite bands ever. You know, there's like a lot of dissonance going on. I'd like to go back to dissonance. I feel like the first record had a lot more dissonance"). But that's not all. "I don't know how I'm going to execute it, but it's a sci-fi record. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure record. It happens to coincide with the fact that kids don't listen to a full album and it's all about the MP3. But I did like Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was growing up, so I thought, you know, you would go to different tracks for different types of stories. And I thought that that would be really fun. Mood, theme, everything.

"I don't want it to be, like, gimmicky, do you know what I mean? Like, say, the kissing booth. [Don't ask.] But in 'Transformer,' there's a part where I say, 'The future's yours, so fill this part in.' I wish that there was a way that the audience could participate in the songs. I mean, it sounds crazy, or maybe not, but I wanted it to be a way where there would be silence, and the listener would try and sing something in there, but I didn't really know how to do it. I don't know if that's realistic. But with the sci-fi, it becomes difficult, because I feel I have to write the lyrics first."

Which, of course, falls well outside Stern's normal methodology. "I know the way to figure it out is just to sit down and do it, but it's much easier for me when I have, like, a tiny little operation," she says. "This just seems very broad, and I get overwhelmed and confused, even though I really do like the idea."

Unfortunately, it's a serious problem when no concept, no matter how inspired, can remain organically fresh to its own creator long enough to escape the Delete key on an aging Apple. Back at home, I spend another hour and a half (without the benefit of canine company) researching characteristics of the plant Venus and turning it back into a human story. I replace indistinct syllables with words that, in my head, at least, I can hear Marnie Stern singing. I write about jealousy between sisters while successfully dodging any Alanis-esque angst. But I only have 47 seconds of an intro to work with, and more layers, more rhythm changes are coming. Or not.

"I overthink everything, of course," she'd told me. "Because it's my only focus."

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