Or at least, it's mostly a bummer. Don't get me wrong, I genuinely want to meet Marnie Stern – she's my favourite living songwriter, after all and her music gave me a kick up the arse in 2007 without which I probably wouldn't be writing this now - but as the realisation that the interview isn't going to happen sinks in the disappointment gives way to another feeling: relief.
And the sky and the trees were falling out of place
David Allison: On record, your songs are really intricately layered – does it ever give you a headache trying to work out how to play them live?
Marnie Stern: YES!!!!! This last record is the simplest in terms of layering, so that was at least a relief. But some of the others, boy! What a pain in the ass! Sometimes when I'm writing I think, “How the hell am I gonna play this live?”, but I usually manage to figure something out.
DA: One of the things I love about your music is the way that it plays with and against your lyrics – when you’re writing the songs, do you compose words and music simultaneously or is the process a bit more fragmented than that?
MS: More fragmented. Sometimes I write down words and sentences while I'm reading. That way, when I sit down and come up with a guitar part, I'll have something to try and sing. Most of the time though, because the guitar parts are kind of precise, the cadence doesn't fit properly and I have to sit there and try and come up with more lyrics. Sometimes when I do it that way, I find that the lyrics end up fitting the mood of the guitar sounds better than I would have expected because I am tapped into the emotion of the song.
DA: You’ve talked a bit about how you want to write a classic rock song without resorting to cliché. I think you’ve got a good run of cliché-free classics behind you now, but do you feel like you’ve managed it yet?
MS: Certain parts of songs yes, but as a complete whole song, no. Some of the classic rock songs have been such staples in my life that I often wonder if I really have any clear perspective at all on them. I wonder if I had heard 'Gimme Shelter' by The Stones when it came out, if I'd think it was as precious as I do now.
- For Ash
- Nothing Left
- Transparency is the New Mystery
- Risky Biz
- Female Guitar Players are the New Black
- Cinco De Mayo
- Building a Body
- Her Confidence
- The Things You Notice
DA: I loved your second album, This Is It…, right away, but on the first listen through I thought The Crippled Jazzer was the least exciting track on there. Since this is 100% backwards, I was wondering if I’m actually the stupidest man on the planet?
MS: That is a fun song to play live, but I can see how it can come across as pretty monotone and boring. It's pretty much straight up rock, with the exception of a few time changes, but for some reason when I play it live I never get sick of it. So I'm 100% with you on that one!!
DA: Your new self-titled album rocks harder and looser than the two before it without sacrificing any of the complexity. Was this something you were consciously pushing for?
MS: Yeah. I was trying to make it looser so that there was more breathing room, but I find it hard to keep the quality and integrity of the parts intact when I'm trying that. The biggest lesson I've learned from songwriting is that space is so important to let the song grow.
DA: Marnie Stern is also probably your most overwhelmingly emotional album so far. Which… describing it that way makes it sound like a Korn album or something, but it’s really kicked my arse this year. Did you feel self-conscious, putting some of those feelings across so openly?
MS: After I had healed a bit from what I was going through emotionally and looked back at what I had put down, I sure was embarrassed. But in the end, I could never put anything down that wasn't honest to what I was feeling, so I think it turned out alright.
“What kills me about “Risky Biz” is that it mostly sounds optimistic. She’s singing about knowing that she’ll have to give up, she’s singing about how whatever she does is not enough, but despite miserable chances, she’s holding on to the hope that things will turn out right. Why? Because he outshines them all, duh. And so the anxiety is somehow worth it, even when it’s so obvious that she’s giving up too much of herself, and she should just let go, cut her losses, move on. It’s so sad, and so sweet. The longing comes through in every note she plays, every aching syllable she sings, but most especially in that fragile, wordless backing vocal that punctuates the verses. That’s the pain, hidden deep below the surface, but totally obvious all along.”
DA: You made a video for ‘Ruler’ that was a Rocky pastiche, and you did a cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ that made the song sound good to my jaded ears. I was wondering if these playful retro riffs were just a goof, or if they were actually a slightly different attempt at getting at some of your usual themes?
MS: Actually, The Journey song was done originally as a demo for the Shrek 3 soundtrack. I knew they wouldn't pick me, but I wanted to give it a go anyway because it seemed like fun. Rocky is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love sports movies that revolve around an underdog, because I feel I can relate. There are plenty of those movies ,but Rocky is my favorite one. Both those themes happen to be based in the 70's/80's, but that was a coincidence.
DA: There’s a really strong personality to your music – since your mid-set banter and blog posts are so crude and funny, I was wondering how much you filter these parts of your personality out when you’re writing your music, and how much these elements just end up downplaying themselves?
MS: I never put the silly, banter side into my songs. I don't know why really. Sometimes I'll throw in some funny singing part that is really goofy, but it always ends up sounding so incredibly silly, that I take it out. I guess because I spend so much time on the songs, they end up being of the more serious nature. Good question though! I need to think about that!
At first the blast of drums and guitars and vocals that makes up your typical Marnie Stern song might sound like an explosion in a music shop, but don't run for cover right away. Pay attention to the virtuoso fragments as they whiz past your ears and you'll realise that that songs such as 'Vibrational Match' and 'Plato's Fucked Up Cave' contain beautiful melodies in their jagged tangents. What does it sound like? Like Sleater Kinney blasted into a million art rock pieces, all intricate guitar parts and songs that combust and re-combust as they go on.
Forget such easy comparisons and throw yourself into the heart of the album and you'll discover the greater purpose of this musical shrapnel. It's there in the lyrics and song titles, which read like frantic notes to self: "Keep on! Keep at it! Keep on! Keep at it!", 'Put All Your Eggs In One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!', 'Every Single Line Means Something'.
This is music that constantly challenges itself to get better, more imaginative. It'd sound hectoring if there wasn't so much going on, if every song weren't a firecracker full of ideas, just waiting to seen, heard, described, imitated, and dreamed of. On album closer 'Patterns of aDiamond Ceiling', Stern describes her method while she demonstrates it. "The picture in my head is my reward" she says, and you believe her, but you know that the picture wouldn't be half so valuable if there weren't listeners to misinterpret it for themselves. By the time all of the elements in the song have been brought together to ignite, you've learned Stern's methods, and it's time to burn your own picture into the sky. You've got the tools, you've got the know-how: go!
DA: I’ve read that you used to practice for a scary 6-8 hours a day, but that you now spend the time working on your songs. Is it important for you to always be working towards something? This theme runs through songs like The Crippled Jazzer and Logical Volume, and for a lazy schlub like me it’s both kinda scary and inspirational at the same time!
MS: Yes. I think I always have to have some kind of goal ahead of me, some kind of drive to get better and keep going. It's actually kind of sick though, because I can never seem to just stop and enjoy the moment I'm in! In other area of life, I am EXTREMELY lazy, and I have no idea why working on music is a different story for me.