Celebrated New York guitarist and songwriter Marnie Stern speaks out.
It’s 5pm and Marnie Stern is having her morning coffee. ‘I’ve been a little nocturnal lately,’ she says. It’s not such a strange thing for a musician to stay up late and sleep all day. What’s weird is that Stern’s sipping a latte and smoking a cigarette outside her building on the expensive Upper East Side of New York. It’s the last place you’d expect to meet an artist signed to Kill Rock Stars, the leftist record label that grew up with ferociously subversive bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile in the ’90s. The setting is even stranger considering the 32-year-old is known as a groundbreaking guitarist who plows into erudite art-thrash territory with Eddie Van Halen-level virtuosity on her recent, unconventionally titled album, This Is It And I Am It And You Are It And So Is That And He Is It And She Is It And It Is It And That Is That.
But here she is, blonde hair pulled up in a ponytail, chatting incessantly from behind tortoiseshell Wayfarer sunglasses and a pink scarf, with a tiny Yorkshire terrier-mix wrapped in a little fall-weather jacket on her lap. ‘I grew up here and went to an all-girls school a couple of blocks away,’ Stern says, which doesn’t explain why as an adult indie-rock musician she wouldn’t migrate to the more fashionable Brooklyn, or at least downtown. ‘I did that for a while, but I moved back up here seven years ago so I could focus,’ she adds. ‘I don’t need to be in a place where you have to get dressed up to go to the deli.’
In fact, Stern doesn’t go out much at all. She prefers to stay holed up in her apartment, working for days on end on the intricate guitar parts that are the foundation of her music. Her fast, thrilling sound is based on unconventional techniques; when she plays live, her fingers look like spiders crawling frantically up and down the fretboard. ‘I don’t think I’m a virtuoso or a shredder or any of that,’ she says, contradicting much of what critics have stated in praise of her technique. ‘I have my own style and I’m proud of that, but that whole ‘guitar hero’ concept drives me crazy. I’m just not that. I would rather strip things down to make the song better.’
Which leads us to another surprising thing about Stern: she started out as a coffee shop singer-songwriter, cooing poetry over acoustic guitar at open mics around the city. ‘I was doing really sappy relationship stuff,’ she recalls. ‘I’d be practising and my neighbour would say, ‘Hey, Sheryl Crow, pipe down!’ ’ She snorts in spite of herself, then explains that once she came across bands with more intricate guitar work, it changed her whole focus. ‘I listened to Sleater-Kinney and heard those two guitar lines, and that’s where I got the idea to play like that,’ she recalls. Soon, Stern discovered challenging instrumental math-rock groups like Don Caballero and Hella, the band that eventually lent her a drummer and producer, Zach Hill. A well-known talent in the experimental rock world, Hill was instantly drawn to Stern’s demos.‘ The music was really progressive and honest, which is kind of a rare combination,’ he says.
Hill agrees that the most remarkable thing about Stern, aside from being a woman playing a genre of music dominated by men, is the way she weaves singer-songwriter-style vocals into the traditionally instrumental experimental-rock idiom. ‘Writing great songs with vibrant themes is hard to do in the context of progressive, complex music,’ Hill explains to us. ‘Finding the balance of pushing things further while maintaining pop songcraft is very exciting. It’s not something you can force.’
It takes only a cup of coffee with Stern to realise she’s not putting on airs. Her lyrical themes, for one thing, come directly from her manic existence. ‘I just write these little zippy things to get me through the day,’ she says, ‘even if they’re clichéd. I don’t care.’ She says she’d love to write storytelling songs about American life, Springsteen-style, but instead, her caffeinated manner takes over. ‘I have not slept for nights,’ she sings breathlessly on ‘Ruler’, a single from This Is It….‘I look back over my shoulder just once /That is right, nothing can hold me down.’