Q&A: Marnie Stern on Free Shoes, Making Herself Vulnerable, and Girls on the Guitar


Q&A: Marnie Stern on Free Shoes, Making Herself Vulnerable, and Girls on the Guitar

  • Q&A: Marnie Stern on Free Shoes, Making Herself Vulnerable, and Girls on the Guitar

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    Marnie Stern will play the Vera Project with Witch Gardens on Saturday, November 6.
    I just got off the phone with Marnie Stern, Kill Rock Stars' girl-guitarist goddess, who last week released her third record, which I found to be an extraordinary piece of work. Marnie was at her NYC home in the Upper East Side ("it's not the trendy part of town," she says. "There's zero pressure with anything cool related.") She was ordering some new Converse shoes and then wandered off to Starbucks in her pajamas, all while talking to me about her guitar prowess and the candidness of her new record:

    So you're getting new shoes?

    My manager does these other two bands, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Surfer Blood, and I guess they get stuff, so sometimes I get luckily lumped in to the stuff category because of them. Usually I don't get anything.

    One time in Istanbul we played a show and Converse sponsored it, and I was so excited because it was the first time I was ever going to get shoes, and they were all like 6 sizes too big. And I wore them and flopped around like Ronald McDonald in Europe.

    What color should I get?

    I'm wearing the all-black ones right now. They're my favorite.

    Those are the cool ones! I want those! [She tells whoever she's talking to order those].

    So your new album just came out.

    Yeah, I've been feeling weird about it lately.


    Because it's emotional. I feel like some people might not like that. I felt like this was a big growth. And I hope other people will too. But you have no idea what any one thinks, the people listening, because records don't sell anymore, so there's no way to gauge in general, except at shows [if people like it].

    Are you nervous about that?

    Well, yeah. I'm such a vulnerable person.

    Why did you decide to write a more emotional album then?

    Because I didn't have a personal life before. I was literally in the house 24 hours a day working on songs. I had friends and stuff, but everything was pretty even in terms of, there was no real drama going on in my life. I made it that way, I was working on music and that's it, really. And then in the past two years I opened myself up to relationships, and it wasn't a very good idea. [She laughs]. Stuff happens, and then it was just coming out. The thing that I'm happy about is, I see it as growth in that the texture of the guitar, the style, was changing a little because I was sad! I'm always hopeful, dammit, I'm a fucking fighter. But I don't ever want to make the same record, so I was happy that because of all these different emotions, the direction of the songs was changing.

    You didn't have to write about things so closely connected to your personal life. Why did you decide to do that?

    The music and my life, there's no separation. It's all I have, it's all I do, it's my everything. I'm really honest with it. In general, it was an overriding feeling of frustration and disappointment, and still trying to fight through and be hopeful. Because what else can you do?

    What do you think are the rewards of laying yourself bare?

    I don't know yet! Hopefully if it moves anybody, makes anybody feel good, that would be the whole point. I feel like because I'm older it was easier for me to be more direct and not feel like I had to hold back.

    I really wanted to focus on writing a good song, which does not come naturally to me. None of it comes easily to me. For me, it's a lot of work. Hours and hours of sitting there, and then something hits, and then I go with that. But yeah, I figure if I'm here I might as well go for it as much as possible and be as truthful as possible and do the most I can, because I'm going to be dead at some point.

    Who taught you guitar?

    I taught myself. I took three lessons when I was 15, and then when I was 20 or 21 I just started playing all the time. I don't know why. I wasn't really a big music fan. I just wanted to do it. I think for the first two records there was a part of me that was trying to prove that I could play really well, because I'd spent so much time trying to figure out how to. And then this one was more trying to figure out how to write a song... I still don't think I've done it yet, but I want to write a song that people want to listen to not for a day, but for a long time. Like a classic, lasting song.

    And you don't think you've done that yet?

    No. And I don't know if that's just the human condition, my brain being like, 'no,' so that I can just keep keep keep forcing myself to work harder and harder. I know I'm very hard on myself. But I listen to a lot of classic rock, like the Boss and the Rolling Stones. And they write songs that are like, man. I like 'em. I want to write one like that.

    It seems like when you talk about guitarists who are really great, you're one of the only females mentioned. What other girl guitarists out there do you think are good?

    Amy Klein, from Titus Andronicus. She's good. Kaki King of course. Grass Widow, who's on KRS. These girls from the band Top Normal, who are a New York band.

    It certainly isn't as popular as, say, the bass or singing for women. It isn't. I think about this a lot because I get asked about it a lot. You would assume that because women are so good at multi-tasking, and playing the guitar is compartmentalizing your brain... and there are so many great women classic pianists... the only thing I can think of is, maybe they think it's dumb. Maybe they think it's tacky or showy or maybe macho.

    What guitarists did you look up do when you were learning?

    I really never focused on gender. I did an interview with Corin Tucker on the phone, and I think I never realized before then that the Riot Grrrl movement bridged the way for me not to think about it as much, or at all. When I was in my 20s I found Sleater-Kinney and I thought they were really cool. I like Heart, Nancy Wilson is a great guitar player. I liked Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. I liked the Allman Brothers because I liked the way they criss-crossed together, and I liked that they were loosey-goosey. And then Spencer from Hella, that crazy tapping. That was insane for me, just jealousy beyond. It's all different people, because it was a lot of years working on it, so it changed, went in and out of things.

    You're leaving on a tour soon, of the U.S. and Europe. Do you like touring?

    It's an escape. Lately, because in my personal life I've had such tough stuff emotionally, I like it because I can get it all out at night. Just sing and play my guts out.

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