A 2005 live video for the Sleater-Kinney song “Modern Girl” opens with a shot of guitarist Carrie Brownstein, gritting her teeth, clenching her jaw, and launching into the track’s singsong-y melody in a voice that ripples with discontent. “My baby loves me/I’m so happy,” she spits, looking quite the opposite. At some point Brownstein whispers to bandmate Corin Tucker, and Tucker smiles. It’s the only moment of sunniness in a song that repeats and ends with the (seemingly ironic) assertion: “My whole life/looks like a picture of a sunny day.” As her words trail off, the shot holds on a stormy-looking Brownstein, shifting in front of the camera defiantly, waiting for the inevitable fade to black.
On the one hand, this was kind of Sleater-Kinney’s shtick: “So much of my intention with songs is to voice a continual dissatisfaction, or at least to claw my way out of it,” Brownstein writes early in her soul-searching, self-deprecating new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, which takes its title from another lyric in the same song.
On the other hand, it was telling. “Modern Girl” was the fifth track on Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 album, The Woods, their seventh studio release and their first after leaving their longtime label Kill Rock Stars to sign with Sub Pop. Soon after this video was filmed, Brownstein, as she relates in the prologue to her book, would find herself on tour in Brussels, Belgium, miserable, lonely, homesick, and contemplating breaking her own fingers, willing a fade to black on the band she’d spent her entire adult life nurturing.
Brownstein is now best known to many as the cocreator of Portlandia, and probably to some as the woman whom Taylor Schilling may or may not be dating. But for 12 years in the ’90s and early aughts, she was one-third (with Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss) of one of the most righteous and renowned indie rock bands of its day. And that’s the experience Brownstein hones in on in her memoir, which takes her from her hyper childhood in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington, to the demise of the band that had thus far defined her. (Then there’s an epilogue that flashes forward to Sleater-Kinney’s surprise reunion last year.)
“Modern Girl” is a perfect reference for a book about its author’s long, arduous journey toward building a life that works, one that’s genuinely, not just superficially, happy. And the line Brownstein uses for her title resonates in particular, given the circumstances she was born into, the daughter of two parents suppressing and repressing two very different kinds of hunger: her father a closeted gay man; her mother an anorexic who eventually starved herself into the hospital and out of the lives of her family for a time.
“She was retreating from the world, a slow-motion magic trick,” writes Brownstein of her mother. “Meanwhile, I was getting louder, angrier, wilder. I experimented with early forms of my own amplification—of self, of voice, of fury—while my mother’s volume was turned down lower and lower.” Self-abnegating parents bred a daughter of appetites—for music, for attention, for experience (though not, until later, for sex). In high school, Brownstein began to consume the records made by riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy, in whose wake Sleater-Kinney would soon follow. When it came time for college, Brownstein swiftly dropped out of Western Washington University to enroll at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, ground zero for the music scene she desperately wanted to join. “Everyone, it seemed, was not in one band, but in two or three” in Olympia in the early ’90s. “It would have been easier to count the people not in bands.” Brownstein formed her own, a threesome called Excuse 17, who eventually booked a tour opening for Heavens to Betsy, helmed by Corin Tucker.
Tucker and Brownstein, who is bisexual, soon became involved both musically and romantically. And though the romance ultimately imploded—one of the band’s best songs, “One More Hour,” off their third album, Dig Me Out, is famously about the breakup—the pair’s crackling chemistry helped differentiate Sleater-Kinney from the scores of Olympia bands who never made it out of the Pacific Northwest.
Two records in, their sound cohered further when Tucker and Brownstein finally found in Janet Weiss a drummer who could keep pace. The albums kept coming. Their stars were on the rise. Greil Marcus declared Sleater-Kinney the best rock band in America. Touring was a constant way of life—and a growing problem for Brownstein. Her mental and physical health began to fray. The road became a nightmarish fever dream, each tour diminished or derailed by an array of new afflictions: back troubles, dangerous allergic reactions, panic attacks, and finally the shingles incident that Brownstein revisits toward the end of the book, and which concludes differently, though equally violently, from how the prologue portends.
The question for Brownstein was always just how much of her life should belong to Sleater-Kinney, and her Renaissance woman–like success in the near 10 years since the band’s breakup makes clear that music was never going to be the whole story for her. But after more than a decade on the road, the problem wasn’t only the intensity of touring life, it was also the shapelessness and aimlessness of life at home. During breaks in the band’s schedule, Brownstein flailed, trying on different identities: substitute teacher; research assistant to a sociolinguist; film production assistant; MFA candidate. Her romantic relationships, territory where she treads lightly and vaguely, failed for any number of reasons. When Sleater-Kinney was officially over, Brownstein threw her energy into volunteering at Portland’s Humane Society. The lives of animals offered something like a beginner’s manual to being a normal human being, or so she thought. “They lived in the moment, grateful for the interaction, and so was I. I had a purpose, even if part of that purpose was hosing down feces-covered kennels. The dogs’ needs seemed simple, and I required simple needs: to have somewhere to be. It’s easy to feel sated when all you’re asking for in life is food, water, and some gentle petting.”
She eventually adopted a menagerie of cats and dogs, “one for each of my limbs. Enough of them so that I could evenly disperse my worries and obsessions among them. . . . They were my family.” It was only when the fragility of that animal cocoon became clear that Brownstein was forced to face the depth of her own sadness, a darkness, often tempered by humor, that afflicts the entirety of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. One day she returned home to discover that the dogs had turned on the cats, killing Hector, her oldest and most beloved companion. “Now finally I was sad,” she writes. “Here it was, that shadow that forms on your insides, a dark pooling, the grief. Everything I had was gone.”
But tearing her life down to its foundation offered the opportunity to rebuild. Anyone who’s followed Carrie Brownstein’s career knows how things worked out. Five years after the end of Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and her platonic soul mate, Fred Armisen, came out with Portlandia, their hilarious Emmy-winning sketch comedy show. Brownstein has also written a culture blog for NPR, scored a major role in Transparent, and started another band, the currently on-hiatus Wild Flag. And last year, Sleater-Kinney reunited, releasing an eighth album, No Cities to Love, to another critical standing ovation.
So perhaps it should come as little surprise to see that Brownstein is as nimble, articulate, and honest a writer of literary nonfiction as she is a musician, actress, and cultural critic. She got on the phone with Vogue.com to talk about writing, reading, pets, and living in Los Angeles.
This is a such a personal project, and quite dark. Does it make you nervous to have it out? Or are you purely psyched?
I should go back and think how many times in my life I’ve been purely psyched about anything. [laughs] I don’t think my excitement is tempered per se. But I have gone through multiple stages of fear and anxiety, which I think at this point have passed. Enough people have read it and I sense a general fondness and enthusiasm for the book, which of course is not the only thing that matters. But with something so tied to myself, it would be difficult to have even just people close to me not like it. So I feel like I’ve come out the other side of that stage of fear and now am looking forward to it being out in the world, and going on the book tour and reading and being interviewed in front of audiences. I think that will be quite enjoyable actually.
I’m interested in the incident you open with, this story about the prelude to your lowest moment on tour and the breakup of the band, when you discovered you had shingles. I can relate! I’ve had shingles twice. It’s horrible!
I assume you’re not 60 or 80 years old. Supposedly this is a fairly new phenomenon, that young people are getting stress-related shingles. It used to be an illness pretty much just relegated to the elderly. So congratulations to you and me!
I feel so honored. Maybe we have old souls.
Yes, I hope that’s what it was.
Why start there, in your lowest moment? Did you write that first?
It was actually one of the last things that I wrote. I wanted to start the book in a way that was suspenseful, just in terms of the structure and story. It felt like a good way to start the book; it kind of leaves the reader seeking the second half, the conclusion to that moment. Originally the book started with the line, “I’ve always felt unclaimed,” which is also, I thought, a fine start. But it really had to do with making the narrative more suspenseful. I wrote that scene in one sitting, and then split it up, putting the second half where it fit chronologically in the story. Thematically the book has to do with the instability of structures and families, so I think it was a better decision to do it like that.
There’s an even darker moment that happened in Brussels that you don’t reveal until the end, so I won’t give it away. You write in the book that you haven’t discussed it with your bandmates since it happened. Now that you’ve written about it, has it sparked conversation?
Not yet! I mean, in a technical sense we haven’t talked about that incident. We have talked about many things, otherwise we wouldn’t be a band today. The three of us are very close friends, and it’s such a familial-like relationship, that certainly the underlying causes have been discussed. Collectively, of course, we talk about our fears and anxieties or our happiness. It’s all sort of on the table. But we really haven’t . . . It was a very dark night.
Was it cathartic to write about? Tough to write about?
Yes and no. As you know, as a writer, you’re often thinking more about the architecture than you are about the emotional tenor of something. It really sometimes is boiling down to syntax, tempo, tone. Only later, when I was taping my audio book, did the collective emotional landscape of the book become more cohesive and clear to me. I wrote it in sections. It was so much about writing and editing and restructuring and retooling, the craft of it. It wasn’t like writing a diary entry, where it is just all emotion. It’s so much more intentional.
Well then, reading the audio book, was there a moment where you took a step back and thought, Oh, man, this is sad!
Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to sound like a sociopath, because obviously I read the book many times in my own rewriting process. But reading it as a whole and reading it out loud, it’s a different way of hearing material and internalizing it. That can heighten the senses. It was a retelling of the book for me, and yeah, that was intense.
In my experience, any distance from your writing reveals it to be a completely different thing than what you thought it was when you were immersed in it.
A friend of mine is a creative writing professor, so she brings authors to her university all the time. She says she’s seen well-renowned published authors changing things that are already published before they get up and read them. It’s hard not to continually want to edit and fix and tinker. When you read something out loud, you are aware. Some things are better served by orality. I remember my editor just said, “That’s it! No more!” I don’t know how much you do that with your articles. It can get very obsessive.
I try not to reread them.
Per your Instagram it seems you’ve been reading a lot of memoirs. Were there any in particular that helped you through this, that were particularly instructive, or that helped you escape your own story?
Structurally, I was most inspired by Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, which is a slim memoir that chronicles his life and creative journey up until Saturday Night Live. So it sort of leads you to this precipice upon which we are already familiar with him. He’s filling in what’s beneath the surface. I really liked that. So I thought, Okay, I’ll go up until Sleater-Kinney. The story of Sleater-Kinney served the themes better. I loved Just Kids by Patti Smith. I love James Baldwin’s autobiographical writing. Maxine Hong Kingston wrote this book called The Woman Warrior. Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain.
I guess I probably read a memoir once a year. A lot of time I was not reading memoirs. I love Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, such great short-story writers. Miranda July, who’s a friend of mine, but I’ve always been so admiring of her writing. Trying to have moments of humor, too. Balancing out the seriousness is always good.
I loved Miranda July’s novel [The First Bad Man].
Me too. I thought it was her best piece of writing.
So you mentioned that your book charts your course up until the end of Sleater-Kinney. But then, at the end, you offer this very violent story about your pets that takes place after the breakup of the band. There’s so many places you don’t go. Why did you go there?
In a story that has a lot to do with substitution in terms of family and intimacy, I liked it as a part of that. It also served to encompass the ways I felt lost and aimless after the breakup of the band. That story helped elucidate how tenuous these structures, this shoddy amalgamation of family and steadiness, really was. And so I liked it as a companion to grief and loss. It seemed to just be this searing example of chaos and crumbling. It was in some ways the easiest way to describe what it felt like for the band to break up without writing about what it felt like to have the band break up. It functioned metaphorically.
Were you able to forgive your dogs in the aftermath?
Well, one of the dogs I had to put down, because she had terrible epilepsy. She was having five grand mal seizures a week, despite being on a lot of medication to suppress them. It wasn’t working. She was gone. But pets are animals, and we forget that all the time. Animals don’t exist in a world of apologies and forgiveness. Of course I forgave them for their own nature and instinct. Between that and working and volunteering at the humane society, it kind of lessens the tendency toward anthropomorphizing behavior. Which we all do all the time. Nature is very brutal. It was a stark reminder. So I forgave them. But weirdly, the one that actually killed the cat, she’s the one that’s not around. So maybe in some ways that’s easier?
You write a lot about how you were flailing during breaks the band took over the years. And obviously when the band broke up, it was tough to figure out what your life was going to look like. But now, from very afar, it looks like you’ve really figured it out!
When did things start to coalesce for you?
Definitely after Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus. I was able to sort of reconfigure my life in a way that wasn’t dependent on touring, which was a difficult lifestyle for me. But I think I just have a better sense of balance and fulfillment. It started with Portlandia, having a different outlet for my creativity, a new partner with whom to work. Now I feel great. I have a wonderful balance and work life. And I’ve figured out ways of managing and mitigating anxiety, not letting it be permeating and obfuscating, which it can be, you know? And debilitating. It removes the color from any situation. So even though Sleater-Kinney is playing again, it’s part of a bigger landscape and picture. It feels more integrated. It doesn’t feel like something that’s monolithic, that’s blocking my view to the rest of my life.
Was any part of your decision to end the book where you do leaving room for your next memoir?
No. I want to do more writing. It will likely be nonfiction or creative nonfiction. But I don’t know if it will be autobiographical. I also need to give myself some time to live more of my life. And you know, to me, Portlandia is so in the subtext of this book. When I recount moments from Olympia, and indie rock, that have so much to do with exclusion versus inclusion, codified rules that are labyrinthine and difficult to follow and somewhat contrarian—I see the seeds to Portlandia. All over this book.
You write a little bit about how in the ’90s, the Pacific Northwest felt heavy—the fact that people went there to disappear, the weather, the buildings, it didn’t reflect much optimism or wealth. I’ve been recently, and it feels quite different to me. Do you like the way it’s changed?
Portland to me is like the embodiment of a shrug. There’s this casualness, and casualness and cynicism sort of don’t go together. There’s this unwavering optimism that I think is embodied in both Seattle and Portland. Certainly the tech industry has transformed the cities and brought an influx of people. It does feel different. The economics have changed drastically. That’s good and bad. The only thing I don’t like about it is that the version of newness that is taking over Portland, there’s this homogeneity to newness, the way that these multiuse buildings all look the same. It starts to feel like a replica of another city. There is something generic about gentrification, the way it supplants a community, it sometimes takes away a lot of the uniqueness. But there’s a lot of great food in Portland now! I guess the quickest way for me to answer this is that I’m living in Los Angeles now. There used to be such a differentiation between the cities on the West Coast, in this almost antagonistic, maybe faux-antagonistic way. For me, Portland, Seattle, L.A., San Francisco—they are so similar now. The things people used to malign about Los Angeles, they exist everywhere now. That’s interesting to me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The post Carrie Brownstein on Writing Her Beautiful New Memoir appeared first on Vogue.
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