Marnie Stern is alone. She’s alone a lot, in an Upper East Side apartment her mom lived in before moving to Florida. Or she’s not completely alone: Her dog, Fig, a Morkie, one of those tiny mutant miracles, is there, too, barking. Most nights, Stern stays up until sunrise trying to write songs, scrapping things she’s written, knitting, watching action and sci-fi movies, catching up on Mad Men, drinking Starbucks, drinking a beer, playing short-attention-span games on the Internet, reading books, and, finally, at the edge of exhaustion, listening to audiobooks. “I get the book and I read the book, and when my eyes are closing and I don’t want to stop—because I’m so compulsive—I put on the audiobook, and it just keeps on going,” she explains. Right now, it’s something by Jonathan “Safranwhat’shisface.” She thinks the voice actors are ridiculous.
For some artists, solitude is a place to develop clarity and understanding. For Stern, it’s an incubator for life at its most unclear but most intensely felt. Her songs usually start as single finger-tapped guitar lines. Then she layers. Then she cross-hatches. Then she layers again. Eventually, she sings—high-pitched mantras more often than not concerned with whether or not she’ll be able to fully express herself through music at all.
It’s unhinged but meticulous, music as invested in obsessive order as emotional breakdown. Sobbing fits where tears fall in geometric patterns. Tidy packages of fire. Even the finger-tapping is a metaphor: It gives her guitar melodies a continuous, liberated sound, but it’s also a gesture of anxiety. You tap your fingers when you’re waiting. Marnie taps with both hands at once and sings about heartbreak while she does it.
Her records don’t sit comfortably among their peers. They’re noisy but not noise-rock. They’re intimate work mostly by one person, but I find it hard to think of her as a singer-songwriter in that soft-focus, dear-diary sense of the term. She’s Rocky at dawn. She loves the Who and Steve Miller. She loves technique fetishists like Barr and Hella (whose drummer, Zach Hill, has played on all her records)—bands whose complexity and precision sound like a rebellion against the mess of being human.
And though she has expressed her love for Sleater-Kinney and Helium on several occasions, Stern downplays her own womanhood, in part because that discussion is always couched in socially retarded and quasi-Victorian questions like, “What is it like to be a woman who shreds?,” as if guitar playing of such volume and ferocity would disrupt the ovarian cycle. She’s essentially less interested in having been born a woman than in having been born a volatile, neurotic, and sensitive person—a gender-neutral condition. At one point, she describes her mental feedback loop as “the Jew thing,” as in, “And then I start doing the Jew thing.” But for her, neuroses are as much a burden as a driving force. The process of making a record becomes a devotional one—it exhausts her. She tells me that she almost doesn’t care about her albums when they come out because her satisfaction has already come and gone.
Her new one—her third—is called Marnie Stern, which might make it sound like it’s more about her, but it’s not. Or it’s no more about her than the last two, one of which (her 2007 debut In Advance of the Broken Arm) was named after a piece of conceptual art, the other (2008’s 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) referencing part of a lecture by the British religious philosopher Alan Watts. (Though she also considered calling it Marry Me, after a pretty funny Arrested Development gag, cult comedy and philosophy lectures being two possible ends of the spectrum she exists on.)
As for this one, “The whole record, I was all personal and—oy,” Stern explains. “I let it all in, I mean, on the thing, as opposed to being abstract. And I know it’s OK, but I feel embarrassed, a little.” But on the other side of her embarrassment is the compulsion to talk about what bothers her. She fell in love for the first time at 25, nearly 10 years ago, with a guy named Ash. In mid-2009, Ash killed himself. He hadn’t answered her e-mails in years. Two of the songs here—”For Ash” and “Cinco De Mayo”—were rushed out after his funeral. The album’s last song, “The Things You Notice,” was written for someone who has since dumped her. “We were doing really great,” she says, “so one day, I just said, ‘I’m going to write you a song!’ “
I’ve always thought the saddest music would just sound like someone sobbing, and the happiest music like someone laughing. Raw, non-narrative chunks of emotions that exist without insight or detachment. Parts of Marnie Stern are like that. The weight of her emotions are, at times, almost proved by how simply she sums them up, and how ferociously she sings them. On the page, lyrics like, “I hope you see God” are a bear—they’re the kind of artless honesty that can be almost hard to listen to. But in the context of music so precise, her vulnerability seems radical and thrillingly inappropriate. Stern and Zach Hill gel more each record, and each record it sounds like she’s coming further and further apart.
She tells me she worries that all the recording, writing, interviewing, and touring is just vanity. I suggest she try volunteering. Then I stop and wonder if you can even call it vanity if it makes other people feel good. There’s nobody making music like her; there just isn’t. And I say she’s alone, but I know she’s not. Like Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes; unlike Walt Whitman, they are all sleepless, shrieking versions of herself.
Marnie Stern plays the Rock Shop October 5