“I’m Neither a Subject Nor a Provider of Beef”

A conversation with Carrie Brownstein.

Carrie Brownstein.
Carrie Brownstein.

Courtesy of Autumn de Wilde/Riverhead Books

We live in a golden age of the rock memoir, in which a quick trip to the bookstore can yield a toteful: Kim Gordon’s elegiac Girl in a Band, Grace Jones’ spiritual/political/aesthetic manifesto I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, and Chrissie Hynde’s brash and brassy Reckless. Maybe it’s nostalgia or Gen X finally taking control of the media’s wheel. Maybe it’s a long-overdue recognition that people who read (mostly women) really are interested in women who do interesting things. Maybe it’s that we’re so accustomed to online oversharing that an old-fashioned autobiography feels somehow fresh now. Whatever—it’s never been a better time for a woman to write about life on stage.

Even in this crowded field, though, the musician and actor Carrie Brownstein’s new Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl stands out. Before this, Brownstein made at least two careers out of collaboration. With her bands Excuse 17, Sleater-Kinney, and Wild Flag, she built queer and feminist communities from the ground up—communities that she and Fred Armisen gently lampoon in their TV show Portlandia, and that she probes with a more jaundice eye as a cast member of Transparent. But present in all her work is a fearless execution of polyphonic narratives, the way her voice and guitar intertwine with Corin Tucker’s in Sleater-Kinney, for example, until four stories are being simultaneously told.

Hunger, though, is hers and hers alone, tracing her roots as a wired and ambitious kid in Olympia, Washington, with an anorexic mom and closeted dad through Sleater-Kinney’s triumph, self-destruction, and return in 2014. It settles a few scores in a generous spirit and owns up to her mistakes without self-pity or grandeur. We sat over coffee one blustery day in New York City and talked about being a rock star.

You write a lot about day-to-day life in Sleater-Kinney, and how despite what looked like major success, the three of you were still carrying your own equipment and crashing on strangers’ floors. 

The stage is elevated for a reason. When someone is on a platform, she’s larger than life, and in that scenario we imagine there’s an economic ease. It’s a romantic notion, being in a band. We were very lucky to make a living wage for many years. But actually living in the fanciful way we imagine … it’s pretty rare. Really rare.

In a band, the concert venue is your workplace. Artists like Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry have spoke out against the misogyny and violence, not just online but at their jobs. Have you seen changes in the office over the years?

For the most part, there’s a tacit agreement in our audience to be polite. People are there to see the band, and I found them to be focused and effusive. It was funny, though, and sort of charming, to see people crowd-surfing. I was like, Good luck, hope someone catches you when you fall! And meanwhile everyone around is like, I did not sign up for this, get your foot out of my face!

Is playing festivals different?

It’s more about the whole Dionysian experience there. People perform as an audience. There are expectations. People think a festival fan is looser and more out of control and should create an experience separate from the music. It’s interesting to gleam sound and visuals and atmosphere all at once, but I like a singular concert that’s distinct. Indistinct is how I feel about most festivals.

You really emphasize the hard work it takes, the pride of the hard work.

There’s a mystery to the writing process, and in recording there are all these ineffable traits. But a lot of it is just putting in the time. No matter how big the light show is, how fantastical the production design is, a group of people is getting on stage and doing the same thing the smallest bar band does. Underneath the smoke and mirrors, there’s the work.

How was the work of writing the book?

It was terrible! There are so many means of procrastination. You can really surprise yourself in dark pathways on the Internet. I don’t mean insidious topics; I mean embarrassing tangents. The history of a kind of fabric. Petfinder. When you collaborate, the pride is shared. I was pretty pleased with myself on a good day of writing, but then also you’re celebrating by yourself. High-fiving yourself!

Did you worry about including more painful or private aspects of your life, especially considering how people are always looking for drama?

I left out things that weren’t necessary. But really there was no salacious story about the band to omit. Unfortunately! We just didn’t have that Behind the Music moment.

There’s still time.

People are always looking for the bitchfest. It’s all about boredom and clickbait. I’m neither a subject nor a provider of beef.

You don’t shy away from talking about your private life, though—your relationship with Corin and its impact on the music, your dad coming out, and your own experience being outed.

Most people’s journeys are internal and submerged, even though right now [being queer] feels public and in dialogue with culture and history. My father was not thinking about the big political picture of society. He was thinking about his own happiness and his desire to be a fully formed human. I feel a lot of tenderness towards him. But I have a more public life than him, so I can see how it’s more politicized by default. It can be viewed as a statement. For him it was about living wonderfully, and he got there before I did. Words like brave couch it in a political context. But for him it was just a kind of … unfurling.

His father withheld affection from everyone but his dog. After Sleater-Kinney broke up, you began volunteering at an animal rescue.

It’s a thread. But what I loved was the sense of purpose and duty. Realizing how complicated human needs seem, and reminding myself there are simpler ways of being. It was an intense reset but a nice reset. I really did win a volunteer of the year award.

You either do something all the way, or you don’t bother with it.

I’m a heat-seeking missile.

There’s a devastating moment in Brussels as the band is breaking up, where you’re literally punching yourself, punishing your body as your life is going wrong. It made me think of your mother and her own battles with her body.

I think it’s a very common way that people deal with a lack of control. You have your own body and your own person. It’s the one thing you think you can manage. I don’t draw a lot of parallels between my mother’s illness and my own moments of self-harm, but I can see how you would. There’s a battle waged on the body in this book. It’s about being both bodied and disembodied.

You’re punching yourself, not punching others—

That would have been a totally different book! It’s weird. As traumatic and heart-breaking as it is to think about people hurting themselves, there’s a totally different stigma attached to hurting someone else—then you’re a monster, like if I had punched Corin or Janet [Weiss, Sleater-Kinney’s drummer]. But violence is violence. It’s thorny.

Is our reaction to it gendered?

Like Mick Jagger punching Keith Richards? Or even One Direction, can you imagine? “And then Harry went and hit Liam…”

Or Harry’s in the mirror punching himself?

And the world is like, “What a pussy.” Plenty of men hurt themselves. For me, it was much easier to make myself the enemy than to project it out. It seemed healthier in the most unhealthy way.

What’s next?

Well Portlandia just wrapped Season 6, and then we’ll do two more and call it. It’s good to have it as a finite world. I finished the second season of Transparent and was able this time to work with Judith Light and Jeffrey Tambour. Both things happened this summer, and I just feel so lucky to have these two wonderful family situations. And there’s less pressure for Sleater-Kinney to get on the hamster wheel of writing/recording/touring. There can be space between those three things. I’m really fond of No Cities to Love, though. And there’s more for us to say.

The book starts with an end to Sleater-Kinney and is being published after its reunion.

Fortuitously it did give me an end to the book, but I assure you I wasn’t like, C’mon guys, we gotta make another record because I really need a good ending and then we can break up again, I promise! You’ll never have to see me again!