Music

Carrie Brownstein's New Memoir Is a Mash Note to Her Band

Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

“It’s a love letter to music and a love letter to my bandmates,” Brownstein says of her book.

There’s a cliched arc to rock memoirs: the ambitious young man (almost always a man), the climb up the charts, the blinding success, the sex and drugs, then the crash and burn. Thankfully, that’s absent from the new book “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein, guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney.

“It’s a love letter to music and a love letter to my bandmates,” Brownstein says of her book. In the memoir, other relationships — with lovers, with her family — fall into the background: The deepest intimacies she shares are about Sleater-Kinney, its workings and its music.

If she had gone on to do nothing else, Brownstein would be known for her driving guitar and onstage rock antics in the indie/punk band that was dubbed “the best rock band in America” by critic Greil Marcus in 2001. But she has reinvented herself with a second, broader-reaching career as a comedic actress, co-creating and co-starring in the TV series “Portlandia” with “Saturday Night Live” alum Fred Armisen.

“All of my creative endeavors up until the memoir were collaborative, they were partnerships,” she says. “I see the common thread as writing, and that takes on different forms.”

But writing a book presented unique problems: “With music, I just don’t procrastinate. With writing, I was amazed at how multifaceted procrastinating could be. It was really amazing how many other things I could do instead of write on a given day,” she explains. “It required self-propulsion and diligence that I had never really come up against, because there’s just no one else in the room.”

Yet in the book, Brownstein has a gift for describing how collaboration works. She’s got a clear critical grasp of how the push and pull between her and vocalist-guitarist Corin Tucker and the essential talents of drummer Janet Weiss made the powerful, abrasive, addictive music of Sleater-Kinney. And to that she adds an important personal perspective.

“On the last day of mixing [1996’s] ‘Call the Doctor,’ Corin and I lay on the floor and listened while John played the album back in its entirety. I remembered thinking that we had made a decent record, that I hadn’t heard anything that sounded like this before. I don’t think I ever really felt that way again,” she writes. “‘Call the Doctor’ is not our best record, but it was the last one written before any sense of external identity or pressure. When I heard it back, it felt like anthems we’d written for ourselves.”

Brownstein, 41, grew up outside of Seattle. She dryly describes her showoff-y childhood, when she was delighted to perform anything for anyone. But there was a coldness in her family life that started to reveal itself by her adolescence: Her mother was hospitalized for anorexia, and her parents eventually divorced. (Years later, her father came out as gay). She became more unsettled, an uneasiness taking hold that would begin to be assuaged only when she went to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Olympia was about to have a moment: The Riot Grrrl movement sprang to life there alongside a flourishing music scene, a politically engaged, sexually open culture and a deeply anti-corporate ethos.

“I think it was special,” Brownstein says of Olympia in the 1990s. “Certainly, something was happening. We were on the map culturally, contributing collectively to a bigger movement, whether it was indie rock or Riot Grrrl or punk.”

But Brownstein, demonstrating the kind of perspective that surfaces in the humor of “Portlandia,” is quick to challenge that specialness. “It just seems so subjective,” she says. “Whether it was really magical, or it was just exciting because I was 20 and there. You know? I feel like every 20-year-old probably thinks what they’re doing and the city they live in is special in some way.”

Now it’s two decades later, and Brownstein has held onto the youthful creative longing that many leave behind. “A slight dissatisfaction, I think, is motivating, because it pushes you forward and makes you a seeker,” she says. “Something that I talk about in the book is this notion of curiosity, and being interested, being engaged. I try to seek out people that have endless curiosity about the world. I think that creates a feeling of being unsettled, and that is not a bad thing.”

The book opens with the moment that Brownstein, in 2006, decided to break up Sleater-Kinney; she says it was the hardest thing for her to write. “That was difficult, because the rhythm of it was very percussive, and it was matching a moment that was very chaotic and destructive,” she says.

What seemed like the end wasn’t, as we know. After side projects, the band re-formed and released “No Cities to Love” this year. Sleater-Kinney is about to finish another world tour — after Brownstein’s book tour is over.

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