'Modern Girl' Carrie Brownstein Describes Finding (And Hiding) Herself In Music
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Carrie Brownstein, co-founded the band Sleater-Kinney and is the co-creator and co-star with Fred Armisen of the IFC TV comedy series "Portlandia." In her new memoir, "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl," Brownstein tries to reconcile the uncertain, anxious person she often was offstage with the defiant, kinetic guitarist and singer she was on stage. Her band, a trio of women, was considered part of the riot grrrl music scene of women performers who defied or commented on female stereotypes and played powerful music. Brownstein says she sometimes found that label limiting. Here's a Sleater-Kinney song, "Burn Don't Freeze," from their 1999 album, "The Hot Rock."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURN DON'T FREEZE")
SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) I'd set your heart on fire but arson is no way to make a love burn brighter. Always thought that the devil was the only one who knew the ins and the outs of the ways of love. So I sold off my heart to see how this would end. Now I can't move an inch for fear it will begin.
GROSS: The theme in Brownstein's new memoir is her search for identity after growing up with parents who had identity issues of their own. Her mother was anorexic. Her father came out as gay in his mid-50s. Brownstein's memoir is also about life in a band and the ways in which her band did and didn't become family.
Carrie Brownstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You bought your first guitar at a suburban instrument store. You write it's the kind of store you go to with your parents that smelled of antiseptic, where everything was shiny and glistening with newness, where other parents are renting saxophones or clarinets for their kid to play in a school jazz band. Did it bother you, at the time, that your guitar had such a suburban pedigree?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: (Laughter) Well, I suppose. Although, you know, when you grow up in the suburbs - I mean, yes, you sort of look at the city like this sort of urbane, like, sibling that you only sort of know. Like, maybe like a step-sibling that's, like, a little bit cooler than you and somehow escaped. But I also - I saw the guitar as my way out of the suburbs. So it was sort of an aspirational purchase. But, yes, there's always a little bit of embarrassment, I think, when you know that everything cooler and hipper seems to be happening, you know, in some center that you're not really a part of yet.
GROSS: And when you started performing, did you want to, like, erase your suburban background and end up erasing part of yourself?
BROWNSTEIN: I don't know if I wanted to erase my suburban background. I think, more so as a teenager, you know, one tends to be sort of derisive of that kind of locale, where later you realize, you know, the ways it's informed you. And it gives you kind of a point of view that can be interesting or at least, you know, you're more willing to embrace it for sort of the weirdness that the suburbs can sometimes possess. But I think I definitely was engaged in a lot of self-effacement or desire for erasure as a teenager as just a means of escape or of trying to kind of make myself into something that I could be more comfortable with 'cause I was very awkward.
GROSS: Yeah, well, you say that at night, you'd often wake up terrified of death or disease and that your brain rarely quieted. What were you afraid of? What were those fears that haunted you in the middle of the night or during the day, for that matter?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I was growing up in a fairly unstable household with a mother whose encroaching illness was very much permeating the landscape of my psyche and also of the family. And so these fears were somewhat amorphous, but I just had a kind of general anxiety and sense of unease. So, I would wake up scared of fire, that all my hair was falling out, and I would actually go down the hall and sleep on the floor of my parents' room or go and try to sneak into my sister's room, where she would usually kick me out. I think later I was just trying to tether myself. I wanted to kind of form a closeness with this family that I could sense was kind of dissipating.
GROSS: You mentioned your mother's encroaching illness. Your mother was anorexic, and when you were 14, she checked herself into a clinic. You write that her hair had become thin and brittle and had been falling out. Her eyes and cheeks were hollow. She was somewhere between rotting and a fossil. When did you realize she had an eating disorder? Did you know that before she acknowledged it?
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, I did. Although, there's a passage in the book where I hear the term anorexia for the first time and describe it. It's like a prize I'd won sort of in a drawing that I didn't even know I entered. I was so relieved to realize that there was a term for this, which I witnessed every day, every - you know, meals and eating, and that sort of ritual of gathering at a table is such a part of childhood. And that was such a strange moment. I - it made me nervous to watch my mom cook for us and then not engage in the act of eating with us. And it was so - it was almost like a performance to witness the way she would avoid eating food.
GROSS: What was the theater of her not eating? You said it was like a performance. What would she do to make it seem like she had a reason to not eat?
BROWNSTEIN: Cooking, I think, is one way of sort of surrounding yourself - immersing yourself - in cuisine, in food, in process, and it gives you a relationship to it. But that relationship has nothing to do with sustenance or nutrition or ingestion. So there was always this appearance that food was available, that there was this sensory nature of food. There was the smell of it. There was the taste of it, the appearance of it. So there was that performance of the actual cooking, the sort of enjoyment of providing for the family. But then when it got to sitting at the table, there was all these weird, compensatory gestures like - so much lettuce. I'd never seen so much lettuce piled up on top of an actual protein. So just - it looked like this tower of food but probably had, like, 50 calories or just sort of pushing things around the plate without ever eating. So just the pacing of it, you know, it's - it's just - it's very - very calculated. But we all knew it was happening. We just didn't really discuss it.
GROSS: You didn't know it at the time, but your father was gay. He didn't come out until he was 55, and you were probably in your 20s by then. Do you think he knew at the time, when you were in your teens and living at home with your parents? You think he knew he was gay?
BROWNSTEIN: Wow, that - that's sort of the million dollar question in our family. I think deep down he did. I think he would say that now. He does sort of say that now. But it was very buried. It was subconscious and unconscious. He really did not know. I think he and I and anyone in our family can look back and see signs or see hints, but only in retrospect. At the time, no, I would have to just say no.
GROSS: When he came out at the age of 55, you say you were thankful that he was happy. And you say now there's someone to know. Did you feel like there was no one present when you were growing up, that your father was - that he didn't know who he was, therefore you didn't know who he was?
BROWNSTEIN: Definitely. My dad, as I describe in the book, he was sort of this series of signifiers - a generic office building in the suburbs, a three-piece suit, a soccer coach, a clean-cut, you know, haircut and clean-shaven. And he interacted with my sister and I through activities and much less so with emotions. And he really only ever had one story from his childhood. There was just this blankness that was very difficult to penetrate. I always felt very close to him but just almost this sort of - by default. And I really just didn't know him. I think none of us did. So, yeah, when he came out, it was like this moment where something goes from black and white into the realm of color. There was just this brightening, this sense of illumination, and within that gleaming came feeling. It just seeped into him and into all of his relationships. And it was - it was very enlightening.
GROSS: So growing up in the house that you did, with a father who didn't acknowledge to other people, or maybe even to himself, he was gay and a mother who was anorexic, I could see how music would be an especially nice place to live away from that.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, first and foremost, it provided a sense of community. And I think when people grow up with a family characterized by chaos and uncertainty and fragility, you know, you look for substitution for that. And music was a means through which I could meet people and begin the process of exploring who I was or who I could be, trying on roles that just allowed a means of escape or expression that I really hadn't been able to possess or, you know, aim for. And it was very freeing. It took a while, you know, but just even listening to music with a group of people and going to shows, you know, that really was a pathway towards getting out of some of that darkness.
GROSS: The first song you wrote lyrics for was called "You Annoy Me." Can you sing or recite (laughter) your words to it?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, first of all, I should let you know that the first song I wrote technically was "Buffy Is Fluffy" about our dog (laughter).
BROWNSTEIN: Which I don't go into in the book. When people are saying, wow, what a revealing book. Nope, not true, didn't even mention "Buffy Is Fluffy" in the book.
GROSS: (Laughter) Are you saying you'd rather - prefer to recite the lyrics to "Buffy Is Fluffy?"
BROWNSTEIN: Well, those are the lyrics, Terry.
GROSS: OH, those are the lyrics. That's - that's a short...
BROWNSTEIN: So you got a twofer there. Here's "You Annoy Me." I will not sing it, but I think the gist of the lyrics are, the way you look really annoys me. The way you talk really bores me. You think that you are always right. You keep me awake at night. Don't bother me. Don't talk to me. Don't talk, talk, talk, talk to me. (Laughter) That's basically - that's a verse and a chorus. And through the use of repetition, I'm really driving the point home (laughter). And I should add that that's - that song, I wrote as a teenager, not yesterday. So just - let's - have some - be forgiving.
GROSS: Were you dedicating that, mentally, to someone in particular?
BROWNSTEIN: (Laughter) I don't think so. I mean, that seems like a very typical teenage angst recitation. The whole world was kind of driving me crazy at that point, as it's apt to do when you're young. Although sometimes I think that even with more sophisticated and nuanced songwriting in Sleater-Kinney, that I was essentially kind of going over the same theme, just in a...
BROWNSTEIN: (Laughter) ...in a slightly different way.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Carrie Brownstein. She's co-founder of the band Sleater-Kinney and co-creator and co-star of the IFC TV series "Portlandia." Now she has a new memoir called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more with Carrie Brownstein. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you are just joining us, my guest is Carrie Brownstein. She's the cofounder of the band Sleater-Kinney and co-creator and star of the IFC TV series "Portlandia." Now she's written a new memoir called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." What was it like when you first started hearing bands that were all young women of your age playing music that you liked? Did it open up ideas for you?
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. When I was 16, 17 years old, I became aware of music coming out of Olympia, Wash., which is the state capital and about an hour south of Seattle. And there were bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile them real and Heavens to Betsy. And for the first time, I heard my story being explained to me, being sung to me. And there is such an inarticulateness that I possessed in some ways. And I just felt so inchoate as a person. And I felt like things were being filled in for me, that all of the elements in my life that couldn't be explained that I didn't have the words for were suddenly given a shape, that I had a soundtrack, that I was being seen. And that sense of being recognized was so crucial to me. And I think it's crucial for a lot of people when people that don't see themselves being represented in culture as a whole to finally recognize yourself in the world. It gives you a place to go. It's like you have a direction, and you can start moving towards that.
GROSS: Well, you founded Sleater-Kinney with Corin Tucker, and then eventually Janet Weiss joined as the drummer. I want to play a track called "Dig Me Out," which is built - as you say in your book - which is built around your guitar riff. And I think - you know, you mentioned fearlessness, I think the guitar sound that you developed has a very fearless sound to it and a very aggressive sound. And do you want to describe what you felt at the time you were striving for, the kind of sound and meaning that you wanted as a guitarist?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I'm a self-taught musician, and I write in the book about how Corin and I sort of learned to play guitar in relation to each other. And I wanted the guitar to feel weaponized. I wanted it to be analogous to a voice that I didn't yet have and may never have, which is to harness volume and a sense of the caustic and power and to interweave that occasionally with melody so that it's something people can latch onto or be carried away by, that it could tell stories and sing on my behalf. And I wanted it to be trenchant, also a little scary. So yeah, that - I guess that's the sound I was going for. I don't usually have to describe it, but that's my attempt to.
GROSS: Well, let's hear "Dig Me Out." And this is Sleater-Kinney. It's your third album, right? And also, "Dig Me Out" is the first thing that Carrie Brownstein had tattooed. And if you see her book "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl," you will see a picture of that tattoo (laughter). So...
GROSS: ...One of the joys of having the actual book (laughter).
BROWNSTEIN: That's a real selling point.
BROWNSTEIN: So salacious - guess where that tattoo is? You won't know until you read the book.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so here's "Dig Me Out."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIG ME OUT")
SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Dig me out, dig me in, out of this mess, baby, out of my head. What do you want? What do you know? One to get started, three 'till we go. Dig me out, dig me in, out of this mess, baby, out of my head. Dig me out, dig me in, out of my body, out of my skin. You got me, for now. I'm here, for now...
GROSS: So that's "Dig Me Out," that's Sleater-Kinney, and my guest Carrie Brownstein co-founded Sleater-Kinney and co-created and stars in the TV series "Portlandia." Now she has a new memoir called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." So in case the lyric was hard to make out - forgive me, I'm going to recite some of it. Sorry if I ruin the...
BROWNSTEIN: Sing it, Terry, just sing it.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, right.
BROWNSTEIN: It's easier, OK.
GROSS: Yeah, right. So it's dig me out, dig me in, out of this mess, baby, out of my head. Dig me out, dig me in, out of my body, out of my skin. I don't know if you wrote that part of the lyric or not, but it certainly sounds like the you that I met in the book because you write about how often you felt, like, trapped in your head. And then you also write about how so many tours you would end up in the emergency room because you'd have so many, like, things going wrong or mishaps. So it just seems to fit a bit, you know, your life, yes?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I should point out that's actually Corin Tucker singing that song and her lyrics. But it speaks I suppose - I mean, if - I see myself in that song. And I guess it speaks to the sort of synchronicity and symbiotic nature that Corin and I have as co-writers. But yeah, I certainly relate to those lyrics.
GROSS: My guest is Carrie Brownstein. She's written a new memoir called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." After we take a short break, she'll compare the often defiant music she plays with her band Sleater-Kinney with the comedy on "Portlandia," the IFC TV series she co-founded and co-stars in with Fred Armisen. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Carrie Brownstein, co-founder of the band Sleater-Kinney and co-creator and co-star with Fred Armisen of the IFC comedy series "Portlandia." She's written a new memoir called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl" about finding her identity as a performer and person and about life in the band. She loves performing but tours have been grueling.
It was just interesting to read about the - just physical problems you had on tours - you hurt your back, you were - had severe allergic reactions to soy. You broke out into shingles, you know, toward the end of your touring years before reuniting with Sleater-Kinney. And it's just interesting because your music is so powerful and, you know, aggressive, and you say caustic, but beneath that is this, like, vulnerability.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, well, I think one thing that is such a relief about art and creativity is the allowance of that as a shape in which to exist. That can be bigger than oneself. That can act as proxy to our own feelings - and speak to our own feelings and vulnerabilities while also elevating oneself - and hopefully the listener - to a place that transcends those feelings and fragility. So yeah, the music was like a cloak, and performance did involve persona, which I think allows me to step away from a sense of uncertainty and move towards solidity. But of course there's a contrast between what one projects and what one actually is. And eventually that disparity was too great, and, as I describe in the book, I sort of crumbled beneath and within that disconnect. It was too much.
GROSS: So in your memoir you write about how - I think you were in your 20s and Sleater-Kinney was starting to be written about in major music magazines. And one of the early articles about you outed you as having formerly dated Corin Tucker, your co-founder of the band. And you must've been pretty angry - I mean, that you weren't out about it to your family, or to some other people, and you didn't talk about this with whoever was writing the article. I'm wondering - was it fact checked? Do - you know, did they call you and say, is that true, before printing it and are you comfortable with us saying it before printing it?
BROWNSTEIN: It wasn't fact checked through me or Corin, and I don't know if someone corroborated that outside of the two of us. But it was a surprise to me when it was published as well as a surprise to my family.
GROSS: Just as an example of the larger impact of being outed, what was the impact on your life?
BROWNSTEIN: It's hard for me to not think about it in today's terms and just be relieved that essentially it was a conversation between me and my family or just put me in dialogue with myself - that there wasn't the chorus of opinions on social media that I had to reconcile with. So in some ways, I feel very grateful for that. But it was very disorienting at the time.
GROSS: When you were outed your father didn't yet acknowledge that he was gay. And I keep wondering what it must've been like for him to read about you and to continue to repress for a longer time - or at least not acknowledge to others for a longer time - his own sexual orientation.
BROWNSTEIN: I mean, repression and denial are powerful. I mean, those are very, you know, deep-rooted states of existence. And I think it's so easy to compartmentalize. We do it all the time. I think it never touched on his own self or sexuality. It really was just completely separate for him. He was - after my - he and my mother divorced, he dated women. I mean, there were - it was just - there wasn't - you know, it's a very - it was a long process for him to come to terms with his own sexuality.
GROSS: So it sounds like one of the things that really broke up the band in 2006 was that you were on the road and you got a really bad case of shingles, which are, you know, like - it looks like a rash of blisters. And it affects the nerves. It can be very painful or very itchy. It was driving you crazy. I think you had more pain than itch. You were in Germany when it was diagnosed. The doctor didn't even speak English. It sounds like he had to show you illustrations of what was going on. And there was an incident, like, before a show when you were punching yourself in the face repeatedly while you had the shingles. What was going on?
BROWNSTEIN: I mean, there - a writer I really like, Charles D'Ambrosio, he's an essayist - in an interview, he talks about writing as the dream of making the distance go away. And I think I had spent a long time in that dream, assembling it through music and through Sleater-Kinney. The distance - it's - there's a safety to it, but ultimately, you come to realize that distance creates loss and longing. And I think that moment was realizing that I couldn't make the distance go away - that I was a divided self that had - through many compensatory measures had aimed for wholeness, but had failed. And - so yeah, I took that out on myself in that moment.
GROSS: I think about, you know, "Portlandia," the comedy series you do with Fred Armisen on IFC...
BROWNSTEIN: Which people are probably like, what? This is the same person that does "Portlandia"? This is such a serious interview.
GROSS: No, but that's the thing, like, the sensibility in Portlandia - it's a comedy. It mocks, like, political correctness, and, you know, people who are very righteous in their diets or their clothing or, you know, whatever. And it's so different from the kind of, like, fearlessness and power and caustic energy that you wanted to project on stage as a guitarist. And I'm trying to bridge that gap. I guess, like, is that two different sides of you? Is it just, like, getting older and having your sensibility naturally change a little bit, though you're still playing music with Sleater-Kinney?
BROWNSTEIN: I mean, I think that sensibility was always there and the ability to observe and to see contradictions and to see hypocrisy within myself but also in the people and situations around me. I feel like Portlandia is so much in the subtext of this book in particular. So many of the early situations and these, you know, punk and indie rock communities, which espouse inclusiveness, but feel very elite and exclusive and possess very labyrinthine rules that are hard to follow and that you feel terrible for messing up. And, you know, I think a lot of that ends up in Portlandia in the way that we exist in relation to our cities and our neighborhoods. So yeah, it doesn't feel like a separate part of myself. It feels like another means of communicating ideas within a very different vernacular and with a little more levity. And I like absurdity. So many things feel, and are best sort of characterized by absurdity, best explained by absurdity, that I like the way Portlandia allows for that. It's a conversation in the same way Sleater-Kinney is. It's just - elicits very different emotions, I think. I assume.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Carrie Brownstein. She's written a memoir, "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." Carrie Brownstein is co-founder of the band Sleater-Kinney and co-creator and co-star of the IFC TV series "Portlandia." Let's take a short break, Carrie, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Carrie Brownstein co-founder of the band Sleater-Kinney, co-creator the IFC TV series "Portlandia," in which she stars with Fred Armisen. Now she's written a new memoir called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." There was a period in between Sleater-Kinney and "Portlandia" when you were trying to figure out who you are outside of the band. And you spent a while volunteering at the Oregon Humane Society and spent so many hours with it, you became, like, the volunteer of the year (laughter), which I think is great. And you write about your animals. There was a period when you had two dogs and two cats. And there's a day you come home from whatever you were doing, and you open the door. And instead of your dogs being there, like, all excited and going, yay, she's home, things don't look right. You go upstairs, and one of your cats is dead. What happened?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, my dogs had killed that cat. Yeah, it was a horrible, horrible incident. And I put it in the book partially because it's so hard to explain how I felt after Sleater-Kinney broke up. And in the trajectory of the narrative and in creating this story about seeking family and belonging and looking for a sense of visibility, I didn't want to just say, yeah, I was pretty sad (laughter) once this version of family ended. So instead, I tell this story which was horrific for me because it really so perfectly expresses the way that I had tried to assemble a family - that it could be this collection of love and comfort. And I had done that again through first the band and then these animals, but that proved very volatile.
GROSS: Since that incident had so much with your desire to create, you know, like a family of choice, is it OK if I ask, like, what kind of family would you like to have in your life? Your own family when you were growing up had serious problems. Your family was a band for a while, but there were issues with that, too. And then, you know, there were your pets. Do you have any interest in like a nuclear family kind of family? I hope you don't mind my asking, but I think it's a question so many people who don't have one ask themselves. Like, do I want one? And if I choose not to have one, what does that mean and what does life look like without one? 'Cause there's not - there's not a whole lot of people - there hasn't been that much time that's elapsed when people have been able to make that kind of choice without being a social outcast or seem pitiable.
BROWNSTEIN: (Laugher) Right...
GROSS: So I'd really like to hear what people have to say about it.
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean - the idea of a nuclear family to me is so illusory and foreign. But at the same time, I'm not someone who feels lonely. I see family as a constellation of friends or lovers or people who embody compassion, kindness, openness and allowance for faults and contradictions. And I guess, you know, just through various means provide a sense of belonging. I think that can look a lot of different ways. And I think the reality for most people is that family looks and feels differently from the one we grew up with. For some people, that's a huge relief. And I think acknowledging that that's a relief helps kind of normalize difference, so yeah. I mean, it's something to strive for, but I think I found it.
GROSS: An alternate way of living.
BROWNSTEIN: Sure, yeah. I mean, I don't really think of it as alternate. And I think a lot of people wouldn't consider, you know, if - there's a lot of sort of baggage that comes with, you know, the idea of a nuclear family only because I think a lot of people feel alienated from that very idea of normativity. That, you know - it's the - the more examples we have of configuring family in a different way, I think the more people feel a sense of being found. It's so easy to feel lost in your own family. That's the worst kind of loneliness - is to be with someone or to be with people and feel alone. So you have to find people with whom you feel seen, and that's what family is to me, I guess, is being around people who make you feel seen.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
BROWNSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me on, Terry.
GROSS: Carrie Brownstein's new memoir is called "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl." Her band, Sleater-Kinney, released an album this year called "No Cities To Love." Coming up, rock historian, Ed Ward, plays some of the multiracial, multicultural music made on San Antonio's West Side in the '60s and '70s. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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