By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Marnie Stern is in a hotel room in Berlin, Germany, having just arrived to the country via ferry from Sweden, where she—no shit—played a high school graduation party at a swank country club in front of 1,000 blond and completely wasted could-be supermodels who'd never heard of her. She's been in Europe for weeks, and in that time has brought her mathematical and precise finger-tapping guitar mastery across the northwest of the continent, from Oslo to London and every quaint hamlet and bankrupt city in between. After Germany she decamps to Switzerland, then Italy, then France. Summer in Europe. Sounds idyllic.
"It's always cold here," says Stern. "A constant 50 degrees. Wet. And dark. The U.K.—everyone loves the U.K. I can't stand it. I mean, I like London, but—the weather, the food . . . I just can't."
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Mind you, Stern, 37, isn't complaining. She's just not one to keep the many thoughts percolating in her brain from escaping through her mouth. She will tell you what she's thinking and what she's feeling. And she thinks and feels a lot.
Typical New Yorker, basically.
"My whole personality comes from here," she says. "I was born here, and I've lived here all my life. I feel pretty certain I'll always be here."
That wasn't always the case. Not too long ago, feeling bludgeoned by the city, as everyone here occasionally does, she tried to follow friends and a now-ex en masse to sunny Los Angeles. "I lasted a couple months. I crashed a car, lost my driver's license—it was a disaster. "
Back then, "the predictability of New York was really getting me down," she says. "Just—the seasons. Everything felt very much like a cycle that couldn't be escaped."
Raised on the Upper East Side, Stern majored in journalism at New York University. While there she moved to the East Village to both enrich the college experience and ease the commute. She stayed in the neighborhood 10 years, but over time, after working the odd temp job proofreading at Columbia House ("Ten CDs for a penny! Remember that?") and Playboy, trekked back uptown into the family's rent-controlled apartment when her mother moved to Hollywood, Florida.
"It's all families up here," she says. "The East Village started to change a lot while I lived there. There were so many artists and musicians. It was Brooklyn before Brooklyn became Brooklyn."
Living among the families and serenity of the "very suburban" UES allows Stern to, she says, labor under the delusion that she's not just like every kid in the world with stars in their eyes and music in their hearts. Thing is, she really isn't.
Over the past six years and four phenomenal records for Olympia, Washington, label Kill Rock Stars, she's carved quite a musical niche with her speedy arpeggios and songs as densely packed with emotion as they are with sharp guitar notes. On her latest, The Chronicles of Marnia, she's grown, and songs like "Year of the Glad," "Hell Yes" and "Nothing is Easy" soar with confidence and simmer with complexity. No one making music sounds like Stern, who has taken tiny bits and microscopic pieces of bands like Hella, Meta-Matics, and Don Cab, mashed them through her ears and into her brain, filtered them through her own neuroses, and reinterpreted them with her fingertips.
Her songs are mostly high-speed chases, rife with thorny valleys and glorious, uplifting peaks. One of the best tracks on Marnia, "East Side Glory," is about her hometown. They're back on good terms.
"This thing has happened, this shift," says Stern. "I no longer look at New York as predictable. I think of it as reliable. Especially since I'm on the road all the time now, it feels like an anchor."
Welcome home, Marnie. New York is happy to have you back.
Marnie Stern plays 4Knots Music Festival on Saturday, June 29.
Flesh wound or tattoo? #4knots