Marnie Stern Gets Personal
It's when Marnie Stern, bundled in a gold puffer jacket, steps away from the Starbucks counter that I see she's covered from waist down in day-glo, neon lemon shoes sticking out from electric cerulean pants declaring her the brightest person on the Upper East Side before she's even opened her mouth. It's not like she needs the color to stick out, either. Her music sounds like no one else's, bending guitars around powerful emotions in a furiously delicate, delicately furious way that's pigeonholed her as a "shredder" in the past, though the label seems immensely antiquated upon listening to her newest album, The Chronicles of Marnia, which was released earlier this week and is her cleanest sounding record to date. She's been tired through the beginning of the press cycle, which technically continued from last week's South by Southwest festival where she burned through shows and topped it off with a birthday bender.
Marnia continues pushing through the thicket of collaged guitars and layered vocals she's buried her increasingly confessional songs behind over the years. Filled with blazingly optimistic songs about meeting the future head-on, it's streamlined her style of play even as she struggled against the gut instinct to further obfuscate her sound, relenting as her studio team kept insisting that the music only benefited by emphasizing her personality.
What a personality, too, warm and engaging and capable of magnetizing the room to her presence; a stranger inserts herself into our conversation, a familiar barista says hello, an eavesdropper tells me after the interview's conclusion, "I can't believe I was sitting next to Marnie Stern for 20 minutes!" It's a goofy title, but the album chronicles the experience of an artist finding her way, asking and answering how a person should be through a Valkyrie offensive of stabbing guitars and completely bitching drums that push you to feel and play air instruments at the same time. It's fantastic stuff, though she's still learning to accept that people seem to think so.
First off, I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.
Thank you! [very dryly] I'm 25.
It was last week, right? Did you do anything to celebrate?
Well, I'm still so exhausted from SXSW that I ordered sushi and watched a movie and it was very relaxed. I got back on Saturday night but we celebrated there on Friday night and... we really celebrated a lot, and I had to take two flights home the next day so I was just a wreck. I had all this stuff to ship out and all this stuff that I had to list. And it was really tiring. But I'm always tired, it doesn't matter. I could have nothing to do and say "I'm so stressed," and my sister is like "About what?" "About everything!"
Well, SXSW is a really hectic environment. How many times had you done it?
Three. Three other times. But we did four--twelve shows in four days, in the South by tent we did ten shows in three days. It's a lot!
This year had anything changed for you? How long ago did you do the first one?
2006, 2007. A while ago. And then I was by myself; I was on a tour and I flew in by myself and just played with my iPod, and then went back out to the tour. This, I was with a bunch of guys, so it was really fun and Shirley Braha from MTV Hive was following us around so we had to stay at the Omni Hotel, which was really nice. And I had my dog and she had her dog, which she named Marnie after me. So that made it extra fun, because we got to eat and go to dinner and it was really fun. Really fun.
And then you came back into this entire album cycle.
Yeah, and then we're going on a tour; we're trying to schedule what to do, and I think I have to go to L.A. for a couple of days to do something, and then I'm going to fly with the drummer to Chicago. We're going to practice in Chicago, play a show at Oberlin in Ohio and then come to New York and get it started.
When you say you're tired all the time, is that just how it is or does it get more intense during these cycles?
Yes, but I'm tired even when I'm not doing anything. So like, I don't know if it's real--I mean, it's real but I think when I quit my birthday I thought, "Oh, am I this...?" I don't know, I just wonder what the threshold is. I feel the same as I did, sort of, mentally I've been the same as when I was 20. So I wonder if you feel the same, if you can do all the same things, if your body can hold out.
On your last album you sang about building a body ["Building a Body"], and now you're losing faith in it.
That's exactly what we were just talking about. Just physically not feeling it, and coming to terms with certain things. You know, the inevitability of just time happening and not having a family and accepting just to do what I'm doing.
When you say not having a family...
Children. Marriage. Stuff like that. Doesn't really fit into the framework of what's been going on. I mean, we're going on this U.S. tour and then we're going to Europe, and then we're setting up the Asian tour and back to Australia and then probably another Europe tour, another U.S. tour. It's hard... but then, it ends. And then it ends for two years, and then it starts back up again. It's a strange cycle.
A lot of the songs seem to talk about this juncture, about asking these big questions--the point of continuing, or whether or not you can keep doing it for as long as you have been.
Well, the thing is you want to stay creative and you don't want to put stuff out that's not good, that's no longer relevant, or that doesn't--forget about how it's perceived when someone else listens to it, but for myself, how it sounds to me. I want it to stay interesting. And... [makes a tsking noise] that's just the struggle to keep pulling new ideas from myself, over and over. I feel really great and appreciative of everything that's happened; this is my fourth album, and that's great.
I'm sure you don't remember this, but a few years ago I interviewed you...
Where!? Was I drunk?
No. Well, maybe a little? It was at Molly's Pitcher, nearby.
[She begins to remember.] Oh yeeeeaaaaaah, yeah yeah yeah!
I didn't have glasses then, and my haircut was... worse.
[Still remembering.] Yeah, yeah yeah yeah!
Back then, you talked kind of frankly about the idea that--then, it was your third album--and what you described as having no money, and sort of struggling.
Yeah. That has not changed.
Some of the songs on the new album talk about self-doubt, and this artist's struggle of trying to find creativity while also figuring out the whole career thing. Have you found it any easier to deal with?
Yeah, a lot. In the past six months or year or so I've just started to focus on what I do have instead of what I don't have, and everything's gotten a whole lot easier. And also since things keep happening, I keep making records, and instead of thinking "Well, I'll make some money down the road," since I just forgot that and just accepted that's not going to happen or not expecting it to happen, it's easier as I get older. I just want to appreciate my life instead of worrying about what's going to happen next and how am I going to just realize that this is it?
In the last six months, what triggered this?
Fig. Fig, my dog, almost died and had this terrible accident. Another dog attacked her and almost killed her, and it just shuffled things around in my head and put them in perspective. It was so terrifying that now, I just--now that she's okay, everything's lighter and easier for me.