Marnie Stern Gets Personal
It's when Marnie Stern, bundled in a gold puffer jacket, steps away from the Starbucks counter that I see she's covered from waist down in day-glo, neon lemon shoes sticking out from electric cerulean pants declaring her the brightest person on the Upper East Side before she's even opened her mouth. It's not like she needs the color to stick out, either. Her music sounds like no one else's, bending guitars around powerful emotions in a furiously delicate, delicately furious way that's pigeonholed her as a "shredder" in the past, though the label seems immensely antiquated upon listening to her newest album, The Chronicles of Marnia, which was released earlier this week and is her cleanest sounding record to date. She's been tired through the beginning of the press cycle, which technically continued from last week's South by Southwest festival where she burned through shows and topped it off with a birthday bender.
Marnia continues pushing through the thicket of collaged guitars and layered vocals she's buried her increasingly confessional songs behind over the years. Filled with blazingly optimistic songs about meeting the future head-on, it's streamlined her style of play even as she struggled against the gut instinct to further obfuscate her sound, relenting as her studio team kept insisting that the music only benefited by emphasizing her personality.
What a personality, too, warm and engaging and capable of magnetizing the room to her presence; a stranger inserts herself into our conversation, a familiar barista says hello, an eavesdropper tells me after the interview's conclusion, "I can't believe I was sitting next to Marnie Stern for 20 minutes!" It's a goofy title, but the album chronicles the experience of an artist finding her way, asking and answering how a person should be through a Valkyrie offensive of stabbing guitars and completely bitching drums that push you to feel and play air instruments at the same time. It's fantastic stuff, though she's still learning to accept that people seem to think so.
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First off, I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. Thank you! [very dryly] I'm 25.
It was last week, right? Did you do anything to celebrate? Well, I'm still so exhausted from SXSW that I ordered sushi and watched a movie and it was very relaxed. I got back on Saturday night but we celebrated there on Friday night and... we really celebrated a lot, and I had to take two flights home the next day so I was just a wreck. I had all this stuff to ship out and all this stuff that I had to list. And it was really tiring. But I'm always tired, it doesn't matter. I could have nothing to do and say "I'm so stressed," and my sister is like "About what?" "About everything!"
Well, SXSW is a really hectic environment. How many times had you done it? Three. Three other times. But we did four--twelve shows in four days, in the South by tent we did ten shows in three days. It's a lot!
This year had anything changed for you? How long ago did you do the first one? 2006, 2007. A while ago. And then I was by myself; I was on a tour and I flew in by myself and just played with my iPod, and then went back out to the tour. This, I was with a bunch of guys, so it was really fun and Shirley Braha from MTV Hive was following us around so we had to stay at the Omni Hotel, which was really nice. And I had my dog and she had her dog, which she named Marnie after me. So that made it extra fun, because we got to eat and go to dinner and it was really fun. Really fun.
And then you came back into this entire album cycle. Yeah, and then we're going on a tour; we're trying to schedule what to do, and I think I have to go to L.A. for a couple of days to do something, and then I'm going to fly with the drummer to Chicago. We're going to practice in Chicago, play a show at Oberlin in Ohio and then come to New York and get it started.
When you say you're tired all the time, is that just how it is or does it get more intense during these cycles? Yes, but I'm tired even when I'm not doing anything. So like, I don't know if it's real--I mean, it's real but I think when I quit my birthday I thought, "Oh, am I this...?" I don't know, I just wonder what the threshold is. I feel the same as I did, sort of, mentally I've been the same as when I was 20. So I wonder if you feel the same, if you can do all the same things, if your body can hold out.
On your last album you sang about building a body ["Building a Body"], and now you're losing faith in it. That's exactly what we were just talking about. Just physically not feeling it, and coming to terms with certain things. You know, the inevitability of just time happening and not having a family and accepting just to do what I'm doing.
When you say not having a family... Children. Marriage. Stuff like that. Doesn't really fit into the framework of what's been going on. I mean, we're going on this U.S. tour and then we're going to Europe, and then we're setting up the Asian tour and back to Australia and then probably another Europe tour, another U.S. tour. It's hard... but then, it ends. And then it ends for two years, and then it starts back up again. It's a strange cycle.
A lot of the songs seem to talk about this juncture, about asking these big questions--the point of continuing, or whether or not you can keep doing it for as long as you have been. Well, the thing is you want to stay creative and you don't want to put stuff out that's not good, that's no longer relevant, or that doesn't--forget about how it's perceived when someone else listens to it, but for myself, how it sounds to me. I want it to stay interesting. And... [makes a tsking noise] that's just the struggle to keep pulling new ideas from myself, over and over. I feel really great and appreciative of everything that's happened; this is my fourth album, and that's great.
I'm sure you don't remember this, but a few years ago I interviewed you... Where!? Was I drunk?
No. Well, maybe a little? It was at Molly's Pitcher, nearby. [She begins to remember.] Oh yeeeeaaaaaah, yeah yeah yeah!
I didn't have glasses then, and my haircut was... worse. [Still remembering.] Yeah, yeah yeah yeah!
Back then, you talked kind of frankly about the idea that--then, it was your third album--and what you described as having no money, and sort of struggling. Yeah. That has not changed.
Some of the songs on the new album talk about self-doubt, and this artist's struggle of trying to find creativity while also figuring out the whole career thing. Have you found it any easier to deal with? Yeah, a lot. In the past six months or year or so I've just started to focus on what I do have instead of what I don't have, and everything's gotten a whole lot easier. And also since things keep happening, I keep making records, and instead of thinking "Well, I'll make some money down the road," since I just forgot that and just accepted that's not going to happen or not expecting it to happen, it's easier as I get older. I just want to appreciate my life instead of worrying about what's going to happen next and how am I going to just realize that this is it?
In the last six months, what triggered this? Fig. Fig, my dog, almost died and had this terrible accident. Another dog attacked her and almost killed her, and it just shuffled things around in my head and put them in perspective. It was so terrifying that now, I just--now that she's okay, everything's lighter and easier for me.
Chronicles of Marnia
Were there songs you'd written before this perspective that you found yourself having to scrap? A lot of the record was almost boring to me. When you don't want to repeat yourself, you just have to move away from the things I'd enjoyed doing because that's my go-to, my usual way of doing things when I'm writing. When I'm writing I have a natural tendency toward a style of writing a song that's fun for me. So this was more difficult because I had to stop myself and try and get out of that groove of what I'm so used to. It's so repetitive and so redundant that I imagine what a lot of artists go through when they know their way of doing things.
So that was--not boring, but tedious, almost, like the way when you're first learning to play the guitar and you just practice and practice and it's frustrating, it's not what you want. But yes, the whole time... it was a longer process, and I just kept writing little pieces and putting them together, and then I was just... once every few months, a small piece would come up and I'd think, "My God!" And then it would be less tedious. The intention was always earnest, but it was a little less carefree than the other ones.
You were working with a new producer, Nicolas Vernhes. Was this the first time you'd done stuff with him? Yeah.
And he pushed you in a different way. That's something that's happened along your other albums, a steady curve of pushing the noise away to reveal more and more within. Yes. And I do not like it.
How come? I thought that I had stylistically on my own gone far enough with paring back. I thought the material I'd brought in was different, much sparser. And I had a boyfriend at the time who kept telling me to "take that out, take that out"; then I went into the studio and they said, "Take that too, take this out too." So both of them were against it, and then the bass player was there too and he agreed, and so for a while I was arguing with the three of them and then they'd say we were wasting time here, and then I would argue back, and they would say, "If you want to make the same record, go right ahead." And so in the end, I gave in but I was very difficult about it. It was like giving up a piece of yourself. But! I also recognized that my tastes are based upon all of my musical influences, a lot of which are abrasive and weird and a lot of people don't listen to that. I mean, I could never listen to my records again.
One of the things I noticed was, a lot of the lyrics were--again, following this linear curve of your other albums and becoming increasingly less abstract and more toward a personal side. There's only one song, "Immortals," on the album that doesn't seem to come from a personal narrator. That was--I was listening--someone had sent me--I was giving a guitar lesson and that lesson gave me a link to a recording, a woman who'd written this big play, I'm trying to remember... that wasn't the important part, the important part is that she was talking about influences and how Greeks have their influences in the deities, they thought that someone came down and touched them and gave them the gift of whatever and then went away. So that way became less personal and not as... if it didn't happen for them they'd say, "Well, now I wasn't visited by the creator God today." Whereas we don't do that today; we put everything on ourselves, and if we're not making anything we think it's personal and we take it very personally. I watched that and then I started thinking about all my influences and how much they meant to me and how they have stayed with me, and how a lot of them are bands that never became very popular and how I want them to be remembered. You know?
That was another thing; I kept on writing down the names of different prog rock bands as I was going through the album. Is that a period--that 70's stuff--that influenced this? That's always been there. I was listening to a lot of ELO when I made the record, always still a lot of David Bowie which I didn't really love until the last few years, which is sort of strange. Him and David Byrne... I wonder if there's more of these people who seem to be so in touch with what's hip and I don't know about that. I mean, there's something strange about a 60 year old man who knows the hip underground bands. Is that an identity? What is that? I don't know if I necessarily want to be... in some ways I read that as an insecurity, and I'm sure I could be wrong about that. I would identify more with a Bruce Springsteen, someone who's been doing what he's been doing forever. I don't really like any of his stuff, but it stays--it doesn't seem to me, he doesn't know about the new indie rock record.
What about Bowie hit you in the last few years? Every song I listened to is brilliant structurally. His vocal, his singing style was terrific. I don't know; we all make judgments and in my mind, that's some kind of judgment. I can't really articulate it, but there's something phony there, somewhere.
So in 25, 30 years you would hope you're not listening to new bands? I stopped listening to new music a long time ago. [laughs] I listen to NPR and TV, or the radio. Classic rock, which is what I've been doing for years, but when I was at SXSW it was sad, every musician I came across that I talked to, maybe 30 people, and every single one of them said, "Ugh, I don't listen to music! I hate music now!" Because it's just too much, and we just don't want to hear it anymore. It's everywhere all the time, and especially when you're on tour and you have a record out and you just hear band after band after band every night and you're not inspired by it, and it's just exhausting.
You came to this realization after you'd started making records? I think I stopped really paying attention--I think I paid attention a lot until my second record, but that was a function of the bands I liked stopping. My scene died; the scene of music that I liked, they stopped making records. That was part of it. I mean, sure, there are some things I like or older stuff people send me, I'll listen to it and get into it. But it used to be--I used to sit, when I worked in an office or at home, playing card games and listening to music all day. But I wasn't going on tour, or seeing new bands every night... it was different.
Switching back to the album, the first song is called "Year of the Glad." I read somewhere that you'd never read Infinite Jest; that you'd started and given up? Yeah, I started it--and I read a ton!--but I only read a couple pages. My girlfriend was like, "You should read this" and then I went back and I went back and then I said, "Eh," and switched to something else.
You know what's crazy is that I'm forgetting everything all of the time when we're on tour. It's not funny! All of the song titles, there are obvious places where I got them from and when I play them for someone else I say, "Yeah, that's..." But there was something else called Year of the Glad, too; it was both. I'd written it down, and I can't tell you what the other thing was but there was something else that was Year of the Glad, and I was like, "Okay." But what was the other thing? I don't know. From another book. This was maybe a year later, and I'd already written down Year of the Glad and then I saw it again and was like, "What?"
I thought it was a happy coincidence because in the book, the Year of the Glad is where the book starts after all the action has happened. Everything that's going to happen has already taken place and the hero is trying to start a new life but literally no one can understand him. You have this album that brings your voice forward like never before; was that a struggle to write, those confessional lyrics? Not confessional, no. Because each record I'd inched closer. I'd become less of this abstract lyricist and gone a bit more confessional, just baby stepping away. But the clean vocals, the stripped down stuff, was really hard for me to do. I mean, I haven't been able to listen to it, and whenever we're practicing--we were playing in Chicago for the tour, we heard a piece of it and we had to play parts of it to learn how we played it, and I was like, "Uhhh!" Because I take those vocals and it sounds commercial... it's not that it's commercial, I have no problem with commercial, but maybe it's just that I don't like my voice. Maybe that's why I'd always done so many things to mess with it. The producer said, "You sing the note and you either go right over it or right below it," and I said, "Yeah, on purpose!" "Well, just go to the note." "No, no, I don't want to do that." And I'd say we'd layer it and he'd say, "No, no, no," and you know, I like it when it's like--Whoo!--and all these paths. But I think part of this could be when I started music I had the worst voice in the history of time, and by trying to make these parts not match it would give them its own heft and weight. That's why this one was tough... it wasn't layering all these different wrong pieces, but just pushing forward with the right pieces and that was difficult.
At the end of the album, you've got a song like "Proof of Life." Now that was just like any other one of my songs, with guitar, drums, yelling, singing high and everything an octave up. And the producer was like, "How about we take this away and do something that's bare?" And I said, okay. I was singing and starting to do something high, and he said, "Well, try to sing it low." I said, "Well, this is my normal register for singing. It's very low." So I did it and was so tired of singing because it was a lot more personal...
It's heavy! I wrote a note about that song: "very emotionally heavy." Especially because all the singing is more stripped down. Yeah. That was a much more spontaneous, in the studio thing. As opposed to--that wasn't how I thought the song was going to do. I'm happy--I mean, I haven't listened to it--but I'm happy with the way we did it.
And then it flips from a song where you're asking questions about the meaning of things into the ending song, "Hell Yes," which just punches the hell out of you. That song, with the time signatures and the looping and the guitar and that's what I like best. I thought it was very clever. [laughs] And that was one of the first songs I wrote for the record. I think it was the first song, and that it had been like a year since I'd written anything I'd like.
When did you come up with the album title? I think I was in Florida, and I think--I'd have to come up with so many titles because there's so many songs that don't get used, and I think I just came up with it and sent it to somebody and he said, "No, you should name that the record." And then I sent it to a couple other people and they said you should name the record, ha ha ha! I said, "Am I allowed to do that?" And then we did! Except my boyfriend at the same time said that was the stupidest thing, and if you name it that record I will be so mad because it is so dumb, and I was like I'm definitely doing that.
I guess he just hadn't read the books. [laughs]
Were you a fan of them? No. I just remember laughing at the Saturday Night Live sketch with Andy Samberg.
It's funny you mention that because I feel like a lot of songwriters, when they make specific allusions they're intentionally meant to have some kind of meaning. But you've collected these things for the sound of them. Is that true? I think I'll probably go back to the more conceptual way of thinking for the next one, but for this record I was tired of analyzing everything and over thinking everything. I draw a lot of satisfaction from conceptualizing ideas for songs, like "Building a Body," that type of thing, and for this record I just kind of chucked it all out the window. The record doesn't sound silly, but the titles--I wasn't second guessing. Something would come into my head and then I would say, "Okay!" Even in the studio, same thing, I would argue a little bit and then I'd say alright, as opposed to holding onto it for dear life. But when I was talking to Zach Hill the other day, he said, "Oh, I miss the conceptual stuff." And I said, "Yeah, me too." And I do; that was so fun.
It worked out this time, though. Isn't that funny? It has. I'm not comfortable with it, but it has. All I did was worry, worry, worry, worry that it was too simplified, then I got to the point where I said, "Okay, I'm not going to complain anymore." It is a little bit frustrating but it did put less, I don't know, maybe it's a Jewish thing but in my mind if you worry more about something... Part of me feels like if you overthink it, or if you worry about it, that means you're really, I don't know, putting out all this energy towards it. With this I was more laid back, but I guess it doesn't matter. I feel a little guilty, I guess. No, I shouldn't feel guilty--I put so many hundreds of hours... [slightly sardonic tone] I feel so proud of myself.
Well, not to sit here and blow smoke up your ass, but the only reactions I've heard have been overwhelming positive. I just can't believe it. What's weird about this one is that I decided that with the last one, I read reviews, I read press stuff. Not a good idea. Because when it's really good then you get pressure, and when it's bad you feel bad about yourself and it's also bad for me because it puts me in a bubble of thinking about myself which is, who wants to do that? So I stopped and like I said, I'm just enjoying stuff. But then everyone I talk to says it's a good thing so I don't have to read any of this. And that's all you need. That's what you want to hear. The publicist is like, "Oh, yeah, I've talked to a bunch of people who like it," and my mom is like, "Oh!"
You've been in New York your entire life, and one of the songs ["Still Moving"] talks about the city staying true through everything. "Year of the Glad" is about L.A. and wanting to like it and I just can't... my best friend lived there, and I had a lot of friends who moved there and I wanted to move there, and I kept trying it out and there's just something that wasn't happening. My old boyfriend and I were going to move there. He lived in San Jose and I lived in NYC and we were going to move there. Very good thing we didn't, but we didn't because I chickened out and I stayed here and so, a little bit of that song is feeling stuck here. I'm telling you, when we were in Austin we all said, "Maybe Austin! It's so warm!" I mean, there are a lot of dreads and stuff, but otherwise...
It used to be middle class, and that's changed. My building used to be middle class. I lived in the East Village for a really long time and that's changed, but not too much. But I finished college and still nobody lived in Brooklyn. So I have a hard time with that--just, "Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn." But I miss the days when people lived in the city. Or, they're all style and no substance and they live in Manhattan.
But this [the Upper East Side] isn't the city. This is like the suburbs. I grew up a couple blocks away, and then when I was 17 I moved downtown and lived in the East Village for 10 years, and then I moved back up here. But what's crazy is when I first moved back up here is that I didn't like the people; I thought it was so posh and terrible and I don't even notice it anymore. Which is nuts, because it's so suburban but I think from traveling so much I like it. I usually go to Florida for a few months so I would say I'm not here as much as I would be. If I wasn't traveling as much I probably wouldn't like it. But I would like to change; I think, creatively, it's hard being in the same place doing the same thing. A move would really jolt my creative energy in a good way. So, I don't know.
You held a dating contest before the album came out, and now you're going on three dates. Was this your idea? No. But I'm all for it. My publicist came up with it, because I'd just broken up with my boyfriend and was like, "Ucch, I'm going to be alone and die." She said, [adopting shrill voice], "Oh my God, please let me find you somebody with a date thing! Please you're the only person who would let me do that!" So yeah, I did. Tonight's the first one and I'm so tired that I'm not going to be a good date, and it's not just one but I have to go on three dates, and be lively before I go to L.A. and finish all the interviews and blah blah. But yeah, tonight's the first one. I'm nervous because I want the guy to feel comfortable that it's a regular thing, but also, last Friday night in Texas I drank like 20 million drinks and I haven't drank since then because it almost killed me, and so now I realize that I'm going to have a cocktail; I can't go on the date without having a drink. But it'll be interesting.
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