Carrie Brownstein on Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein goes beyond everyday musical memoir in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – as a biographical lyricist and writer on Portlandia she already has form in the art of storytelling. She talks to The Skinny about her literary intent
The return of Sleater-Kinney at the start of 2015 succeeded on so many levels, it gained near-mythical status. Released back in March, comeback album No Cities to Love squared up to the band's fearsome back catalogue and confirmed that, should anyone even consider doubting it, time away was no barrier to continuing the artful ambition and switched-on watchfulness that had defined the output of a band propelled from the launch pad of Riot Grrrl into the wider public consciousness.
Out-running a scene that had built a much-needed platform for agit feminism and literate, politicised debate was the natural consequence of that scene's most accomplished act. Sleater-Kinney were never a niche band and their talismanic guitarist operated from a manifesto far removed from rabble-rousing and workaday polemic.
Two decades since her band tore up a good chunk of the alt-rock rulebook, Carrie Brownstein's own back pages represent a healthy and divergent body of work: the musical side road that was Wild Flag, five series of the acclaimed sketch show Portlandia (with Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen) and a host of online and print work including three years of the Monitor Mix comment piece for NPR. That she'd been simultaneously working on her memoirs for several years was no secret, but this is no ordinary rock star biog. Eschewing a neat A-B linear methodology in favour of a more thematic process, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a fearless exercise in self-assessment and asks big questions about the challenges of family life, the notion of creativity and life in a band.
‘It's a story of finding yourself through creativity’
It's easy to cast the memoir as something built on a foundation of well-kept journals, unearthed and dusted down as the writer retreats to the garret and dips the quill. But the clue to Brownstein's methods are perhaps revealed in the book early on; she writes: 'Sometimes the dull detritus of our pasts become glaring strands once you realise they form a pattern, a lighted path to the present.' All you need to do, Brownstein seems to say, is look for and recognise the signs when you see them: your story is always there, always waiting to be re-assembled. And perhaps how you choose to see it and tell it is more valid and affirming than a hopeless quest in which the teller of the story assembles those strands searching for truth, an empirical defining of 'you'.
"Yeah, I think I wanted to write about the story of finding yourself," begins Brownstein when talking to The Skinny, "but more finding yourself through creativity, and I think much of that story, in terms of that being a substitute for family or constituting a place of belonging, was best told via Sleater-Kinney and also my youth. So I think I set out with that in mind, which was one of the reasons why the narrative has the shape that is does. It's a story of the first steps towards confidence via music and art. So, that decided the shape of things in many ways."
Brownstein, of course, has been indirectly writing about herself for a long time – through her contribution to the band's lyrics or her sidelong swipes in Portlandia (always sharp, never cruel) at the crazed characters who colour and shape her worldview. Was it a leap to now shift fully to the ultimate in first-person narrative?
"Yes and no," she says. "The process of writing long form and also not collaborating on something is very different from the other forms of writing I've done. So many of my projects are partnerships or collaborations and I'm reliant on other people and inspired by other people to augment and bolster my ideas, or challenge my ideas. And so I think the main difference was that even though the book is a continuation of writing I had already done or already begun in other mediums, I only really had myself to reply upon. You can be your own worst enemy in terms of procrastination and so I think the methodology, the rigour, was a lot different."
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl might not follow a clinical dot-to-dot trajectory but it does largely cover Brownstein's childhood through to the present (a powerful and overwhelming recount of the band's re-grouping in singer Corin Tucker's basement). Focusing on key events, and slim at just over 200 pages, the book is dense and rich with detail. It deals in gripping, low-key drama: Tucker is playing with her band Heavens to Betsy when the pair first meet. And when Brownstein shifts the narrative with no reference to how events later pan out, and Tucker is for the moment forgotten, it's like the best genre foreshadowing.
You could see how long-form fiction could be on the Brownstein to-do list. She appreciates the connection: "I certainly think, in terms of writing for television, or even film, that I would like to explore new ideas and stories, yes – it's definitely an interest of mine. I think that in writing for Portlandia, which is such succinct and truncated writing, and even though we have started to expand the writing in the show to make longer arcs instead of just sketches, it's still very short form. I do think I relish the idea of writing more long form so that the ideas have more breathing room and the characters have more space. So yeah, I think I would do that at some point."
At the Manchester date of her short reading tour, an audience member had asked her what she had been reading of late. Brownstein's answer was lengthy and impassioned. She was part way through Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life ("Though I'm taking a little break from it right now to recover a little") and also cited American writer Lorrie Moore as an ongoing inspiration. Much of the early section of the book draws parallels with Moore's work, in particular her unerring eye for detailing the minutiae of home and family life with elegant poetics and unflinching candour. "Well thanks for the confidence! I'll try to keep it in mind," she says today. "I definitely just want to keep improving. One thing I'm proud of with this book is that people's take on it seems to be that it works as a piece of writing; it works as a book and it doesn’t necessarily incline towards one's pre-conceived notions of a music memoir and so, yes, I'd like to keep challenging myself as a writer for sure."
The importance of dark humour
"Since the book has come out," says Brownstein, expanding upon the theme, "or even when it was only available in galley form and advance copies, there were people, including those at my publisher Riverhead in the US, who read it having no idea about Sleater-Kinney. And those people thought that it really functioned well and, in some ways, that was the greatest compliment. It's like when you’re watching a documentary about a subject you thought you didn’t care about, and yet you find yourself suddenly invested in the detail and the telling of it. I think achieving something like that is a challenge and, of course, the biggest challenge is writing about something as specific as music – you don’t want it to be wholly dependent on somebody's interest in, or liking of, your band."
Ultimately, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl delivers as a survivor's tale. From Brownstein's confession of her own part in the band's original demise ('I had dragged Sleater-Kinney into oblivion') to the family dysfunction that sees her father ask her 16-year-old sister to take their dog to be put down, darkness all but prevails. It's kept at arm's length by a humour equally black, and it's those moments that give the book life, body, heart. It needs the laughs.
"Yeah, you're right," says Brownstein. "I actually did have that intention, both stylistically and tonally. I think in some ways that mirrors my thoughts about Portlandia and why that part of my life has been very important to me in that so much of how I view the world, as someone who is quite sensitive to external influence, is through comedy. Sometimes the only way to view any of that is through the absurd. I wanted definitely to elucidate that in the book. But also for it to act, yes, as a form of relief in the prose. I think it adds to the tension: you take somebody to the edge of a cliff and then they realise that you’re not going to actually push them off and there's somebody there to help them."
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is out now, published by Virago, RRP £16.99