When I was younger, my father, on occasion, would barge into my room and bark something along the lines of: “Get up. We’re going to work on the car.” At which point I would follow him down to the garage in order to hold, per his instruction, an exquisitely caged 100-watt bulb with a long, orange handle and cord. Regardless of exactly which part of the car cried out for my father’s attention—alternator, fan belt, radiator—my only job was to hold the light. I worked on cars a lot. I never learned anything about cars.
Fast-forward many, many years and a couple hundred thousand words of prose on musicians and the stuff they produce, and it occurs to me that in that same way, to really and truly learn about songwriting, it’s best done from the inside, where you can actually do something other than just hold the damn light.
Which is how, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I find myself on the Upper East Side, surrounded by three dogs in the affectionate care of Marnie Stern: her two Yorkies, Fig and Maeby (respectively adorned with pink and black ribbons), and Pooh, a visiting Chihuahua on a week-long play date. And soon, hunched over her patched-together Pro Tools setup in a bedroom full of equipment (I count a half-dozen guitars), Stern, a 32-year-old native New Yorker and manic-pop guitar heroine, has found an instrumental “pattern” she feels comfortable enough to record. Then, as is her normal wont, she adds another guitar layer on top.
Thirty minutes after that, she’s not so sure.
Stern has agreed to write a song with me, and she is taking it seriously.
Another thirty minutes later, I am on my way home, armed with 47 seconds of a guitar intro, accompanied by Stern’s scratch vocals (again layered), an agreed-upon lyrical theme (“Operation Venus,” per her designation), a delegation of responsibility (Stern = music; me = lyrics), and an agreement to chat at midnight via e-mail to compare our progress.
This is the last time I hear from Marnie Stern.
Five days from then, via e-mail, her manager explains that Stern’s schedule is a bit overwhelming, “hectic with foreign press,” and “she simply doesn’t feel comfortable releasing a song (collaborative or solo) without properly devoting the time and attention to it.” And suddenly, I feel a little like I’m shining a light on an ailing car engine, only no one else is in the garage.
Prior to my arrival, Marnie Stern and I have spoken exactly once, by phone, for less than 10 minutes. This is a setup, of course. A blind songwriting date. Kind of like they do it in Nashville. But I want to be prepared. I want to participate without getting in the way. So I’d spent that Sunday morning immersed in Stern’s 2006 debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, and this year’s rather elaborately titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, both produced by Hella drummer Zach Hill, an integral cog in their cartoonish and clattering rhythms. At this early hour, the effect is damn near dizzying. Though Stern’s sharp-edged speaking voice belies her neighborhood much more than the high-pitched innocence suggested by her singing, she is charmingly open and, like her music, bombastically exuberant.
But within that enthusiasm lurks a weary exasperation only partially explained by a recent month-long tour and an accompanying illness. “Well, everything’s broken, as you can see,” Stern declares, surveying her makeshift bedroom studio. “I’ve got to get the new fucking Pro Tools immediately. I can’t live like this.”
Later: “Can you believe I do this so many hours a day, and nothing works—ever?”
And still later: “Could I have anything that works in my life? Including my respiratory system?”
Stern, you may note, is on an album-a-year pace, and though she’s not yet in crisis mode re: the next record, her frustration is evident. “I have some sort of a weird problem,” she says, “where if the song doesn’t come together in a day or two, I don’t keep going with it. You know, I have such incredible ADD, or I’m insecure and I think people will get bored so quickly. I’m like, ‘That’s it. Song’s over.’ “
Upper East Side self-doubt is a powerful force. In the space of our hour and a half together, Stern plays bits of not-yet-deleted demos and alternately worries that one sounds too much like T. Rex, one too much like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and another too much like Sheryl Crow. These are all vocal comparisons, by the way. “Singing is the hardest part for me,” she says. “I do a lot of that, like, staccato singing, where’s it’s at the same pace and it’s not really melody, and I’ve been trying to get away from that. Finding melody is really the hardest thing, unless I’m singing to the note, so that’s something that takes me forever. And that’s also part of the problem, where I like the guitar part, but if I can’t find singing for it after, like, two hours, well, bye-bye.”
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.”