By the third page of her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein seems to say it all. "My story starts as a fan," she writes. "And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved." Anyone who has devoted a life to worshipping at the altar of sound could be moved to tears by the thought. Hunger is full of empathic observations like this, where Brownstein uses her tales—from birth through Sleater-Kinney's hiatus in 2006—to shine a light on some undersung truth about what it means to live and die for music. Her writing is sharp, erudite, and witty, and it makes Hunger my favorite music memoir since Just Kids.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl arrives at a moment of unprecented reverence for the feminist rock memoir. It follows celebrated recent books by Kim Gordon, Viv Albertine of the Slits, and Patti herself (whose successes, once again, may be responsible for sparking this new wave). Memoirs always beg particular questions: Why do we read these? What does biographical information really teach? Are the riffs and lyrics and beats implanted in our minds not enough? If, like Hunger, these books are done right, they respond in sublime ways. They transform us as much as the songs do. In advance of Hunger—which is out today—I met Brownstein at her Manhattan hotel room to discuss hunger, Olympia punk, the virtues of ugliness, coping with depression, Shamir, and more.
Sleater-Kinney: "Bury Our Friends" (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork: What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?
Carrie Brownstein: Gosh... It's very common to think that we're always evolving, that we've changed so much from our younger selves, that within decades we've transformed into these different people. We like to think that. I find so many commonalities, really. I feel in some ways that I am still so much my younger self. That there are certain innate qualities that I've always possessed. And the more I was writing about my younger self... I really wonder how much I've changed. There are ways that I'm different: I feel like I'm wiser and kinder. But I think a lot of the impulses are still the same. I learned that.
Pitchfork: What are some of those innate qualities? I'm curious as to how you feel your involvement in the Olympia punk scene permanently changed you.
CB: I think I still walk around with an irascibility. And I would not call myself an optimist, even though I would aspire to be. I am innately a skeptic. There's kind of an incessant dissatisfaction that I have, that I'm always trying to either expose or fight against or wrestle with. A little bit of that came out of Olympia—kind of an irreverence that I really have never been able to put behind me. Problems with authority. A real mistrust of the mainstream. A mistrust of conformity, normality.
I've always been interested in queerness and underground and fringe and periphery, and who and what flourishes in those spaces. Those spaces that are darker and dingier and more dangerous, more lonely. What comes out of there, to me, is the life force. I'm excited when the center reaches over to those places and pulls inspiration from them, and translates it for a lot of people. I'm not saying that shouldn't happen; that's a really exciting moment. But I'm interested in the crevices, and the grotesque, and the unsavory. That started out when I was young and was really nurtured and fostered in Olympia. I've never quite been able to shake that.
Pitchfork: When Sleater-Kinney headlined Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, you made an interesting comment on-stage about the music: "This stuff isn't pretty." And in the book, you write about how Sleater-Kinney didn't want to do anything benign or pretty. For you, what are the virtues of ugliness?
CB: It has to do with a relationship, first and foremost, to nature. The natural world operates by its own set of rules. The animal world, all the places that are feral and ungovernable, that's where I find a lot of inspiration. There is just as much beauty there, but there is also decay and violence. I've been reading a lot of Joy Williams. I've been reading a lot about the idea of extinction. And conservation in America and the world. Fire. I'm really drawn to the uncompromising realness of natural process: It's unadorned. It's not very pretty.
To me, the grotesque is like a sonic manifestation of reality. I don't know how you could look out onto our world and see only beauty. And I like beautiful things. I like the aesthetically harmonious. But I am much more attracted to something that is off-kilter. It is a truer reflection of not only nature, but the human spirit—the state of the world. I just think everything feels a little off. So I'm much more attracted to that artistically.
I was talking to someone the other day about people doing impressions of politicians. We were talking about various actors for that role. I was like, "You know what's so great about Amy Sedaris?" In Strangers With Candy, there's a grotesqueness to her impersonation of someone. To me, that ugliness, that grotesqueness—that's the essence. That's where you realize, it's not about all the consonance and the harmony. It's all the parts that are wrong that help explain why we're drawn to something—what the mystery is—just as much as the beautiful things.
Pitchfork: You write that so much of songwriting for you is about voicing this dissatisfaction—how music is a celebration, but also an act of defiance. Where does your dissatisfaction come from today? What do you feel like you're defying now?
CB: It's really hard to be of this world right now and not feel a slow, creeping despair. I wonder if people have always felt like this. Even if, personally, I'm in a place of contentment or solidity, I feel like it's hard not to look out into American culture and see vast inequity, widespread institutionalized violence and racism and transphobia and environmental destruction. It's hard to be in this world and feel a sense of innate satisfaction at all. There's plenty of things to feel unsettled about. At the same time, I try to… meditate and do other things so that I'm not freaking out about everything.
Pitchfork: One of my favorite parts of the book is when you describe Corin's apartment in Olympia in the 90s. She would print out words with a labelmaker and put them around on household objects—you mention how she marked a can of baking powder as "RACIST" and wrote "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL" over a mirror. And this was a way of questioning and confronting every aspect of daily life head-on. Do you feel like Sleater-Kinney absorbed those labels, and that direct approach to dissecting the world?
CB: We were a band in dialogue with ourselves. There was a constant awareness of a label. We were looking at things and labeling in this slightly reductive way, and then we were being looked at and labeled in a slightly reductive way. But it definitely informed the way we operated at the beginning. It felt really normal to see the world almost from a semiotics perspective: "What does that mean? What does that signify? This is a guitar, but what does it signify?" Everything just felt so symbolic. And that's arduous. You feel like you're inside this cubist painting and you're like, "Ahh! I can't make any sense of this! Please can we animate this and just move to something with more fluidity."
It seems like we've come back to that now—this hyper-critical, sometimes knee-jerk criticism, with lots of labeling of actions and words. Twitter is sort of that version of labeling, except with 140 characters instead of a labelmaker. It's that way of calling things out for what they are, wearing these badges. Twitter is like the new Scarlet Letter.
Pitchfork: You tweet about new music fairly often. What do you value most in new music today?
CB: Strangeness, oddity. Passion. And humor. I listen to a lot of hip-hop because it combines so many things like that. I loved the Kendrick Lamar record. And, it's not hip-hip, but I loved the Miguel record. I thought that record was so cool and weird. I'm excited for the Joanna Newsom record. I really like the Kurt Vile record. I was kind of surprised. I've always liked him, but not passionately. There's some good lyrics on there. Do you like Shamir? At Pitchfork [Festival] when we were side-stage, he looked over at me and Corin and he was like, "I love you!" I was so psyched. You never know who listens to your music. I listened to Shamir a lot on the air-stream while we shot "Portlandia" this year. It's good hype music.
Pitchfork: The book's title references the lyrics to "Modern Girl", and hunger factors into the narrative in a few ways. There is your mother's physical hunger as a woman living with anorexia. And there's the creative hunger that most artists live with. You also talk about drawing inspiration from Bikini Kill's "Feels Blind", and Kathleen Hanna sings about hunger on that song. How is the title emblematic of what you wanted your story to say?
CB: It's what you've hinted at. So much of the book is about trying to compensate for lacking. Feeling a sense of emptiness and looking for a way to fill it, and a way to find wholeness. Wholeness is sort of a dubious concept. Because in terms of the human body and literal wholeness and structures, you think: "here are the structures that help make me whole." Family, or school, or the city I live in. When those structures are dysfunctional or decaying, you end up kind of Frankensteining pieces from everywhere in order to make yourself sated and comfortable and alive. I thought the title really worked—it's a journey towards trying to find stability in structures that one thinks they can count on, but really, for a lot of people, have kind of let them down.
Pitchfork: In terms of creative hunger, it made me think—do you want to be insatiable forever? Would you actually want to be full ever?
CB: From an artistic standpoint, that's tricky. Because I feel like—no. We've all seen work where you just think, "Ahh! You have nothing to paint about or write about anymore." You do have to live through things, and to live through things is to observe want, and to observe lacking. Even if the hunger is a curiosity. To me, curiosity is married to optimism. And that's where a lot of my motivation comes from. A lot of my way out of depression and anxiety is that intersection between optimism and curiosity. Because it means taking a step forward with the hope that there will be discovery. I think that is really important. I strive for that all the time.
Pitchfork: Are there any other ways in which growing up with an anorexic mother changed how you thought about the world?
CB: It definitely did. I actually see it a lot with "Portlandia". And the ways that people want their special needs to be met, whether it's their food allergies or their special lotions or shoes. Or the ways that people want their neighborhoods and restaurants curated in a way that's really tailored to them. Growing up with someone who was living by these very strict, repressive rules for themselves—it made me very allergic to the idea of denial. I'm like really sensitive to vegans... Are you a vegan?
Pitchfork: [hides face behind notebook]
CB: You are. It's given me compassion, but it also definitely created a sense of wariness and sadness about the ways that people annihilate themselves on a daily basis. And the ways that women especially hate themselves to the point of wanting to disappear. The idea of self-effacement, the idea that you feel so powerless that the only tiny morsel of power you have is over your own ability to deny yourself food—that to me is a very profound and sad methodology and indicator of how powerless a lot of people feel in this world. That they will turn that onto themselves until they are physically smaller. I think it's affected my worldview a lot—just being sensitive and empathetic towards the ways people want to be small. I don't wish smallness for anyone. No matter what they're struggling with, or based on whatever. Sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, size. I don't wish smallness for anyone. It's a terrible place to live.
Pitchfork: "Modern Girl" captures the sadness of that completely. Speaking of "Modern Girl", I was recently thinking about how prophetic it is that you sing the line "TV brings me closer to the world." Does that feel eerie now?
CB: Yeah, actually. On the tour for No Cities, I thought, "Is that going to sound tongue-in-cheek?" Like all of a sudden, 10 years after writing this song, I have willed myself into... now there's a different definition. When I wrote it, it was about feeling lonely and watching television for the sake of feeling connected to the outside world. Now it's like I'm inside that world, looking out. It's a strange confluence. In that sense, I still feel like it's about me looking for connectivity from the outside. Not as an insider. [laughs]
Pitchfork: You write that playing music has offered you an opportunity to engage with something ineffable. But then, you wrote 244 pages about it. How did it feel to verbalize something that can seem beyond words?
CB: Towards the end of the book, I say, "We can't name it, but we can sing along." That is my ultimate relationship to any art form, but especially music. Obviously people have spent millennia or at least centuries and thousands and thousands of words trying to explain what music is, but… I don't really know. I can only write about my own experience. I don't know if I'm getting any closer to what someone else's experience is. There's still part of it that I can't name. I'm just sort of along for the ride.
Pitchfork: What is the most essential thing you wanted to say about fandom?
CB: To be a fan is to be curious, and to be curious is to have openness. I think closing-off is the most detrimental thing we can do as people. Also, the idea of not judging oneself. Part of being a fan is to allow 360 degress of experience—to immerse without judgment. It's like a really fearless step forward into new experience. There's something that feels very timeless about fandom. It feels like the thing that's carrying the flag of enthusiasm. It's where I sense the most optimism. I think it's why I sometimes posit myself as a fan. So many things can be filtered through fandom—joy, compassion, love. It is just allowing yourself to be receptive. That's like the basis for half the things you're supposed to do everyday.
Pitchfork: Everything you're talking about—these are social experiences. But then, as someone who creates so much work, it must require a lot of time alone.
CB: Oh my gosh, I'm such a loner.
Pitchfork: Does it ever feel weird?
CB: Aside from the book, a lot of my creative endeavors are with other people. "Portlandia" is a writer's room. "Transparent" is a cast. Sleater-Kinney is obviously a group of people. But I'm kind of a hermit. It's almost easier for me to write about connection than to actually connect. [laughs] I love my friends, but I feel pretty autonomous. I like to connect with people through my work. That's my favorite way—meetings of the minds, fans at a show. Those are nice mediated ways of hanging out. Then I just like hike alone with my dogs.
Pitchfork: You write about your own anxiety, depression, and stresses. You mentioned meditation—how else do you cope with that now?
CB: Sometimes I feel like it's a lifelong struggle. I have started to meditate. I exercise, but not at a gym. I get out. I've been reading a lot. I've been trying to immerse myself in the narratives of other people. I try to not isolate myself as much. It is really hard. People that are sensitive, you just feel too porous sometimes. There's this inertia that sets in and it's hard to get out of bed. I think knowing that other people go through it is really reassuring. Some of my most motivated, brilliant friends, when they tell me that they're sad, it's like, I'm sad for them, and then I'm relieved for the world. I'm like: "See: we all feel like this."
I don't mean to make light of it. Even I myself, there are some really dark moments. When I read about someone hurting themselves or ending their life, it's devastating to me. I feel like I understand that pathway to darkness. If there is even some little bit of the book where someone feels understood or seen, that's an important thing. When I read other people writing about that stuff, even in fiction, that moment of feeling recognized is so crucial.
Pitchfork: Is there any particular moment in the book where you look back, and think, "I was so empowered at that time" or "I was especially strong"?
CB: Those shows with Pearl Jam, and writing The Woods. Getting on stage before those guys was one of the hardest things we've ever done. It was definitely a turning point for the band. And that tour when Janet first joined the band, those CMJ shows, really feeling like we had found our third member. And also towards the end—I think grief is a step towards strength because it allows you to be porous and take everything in, and have it transform you. What will sit within you is despairing, but at least it's feeling. You're not numb. Grief is sort of the allowance of feeling. When I finally came to terms with the disillusion of the band the first time, that felt like strength. Because for Sleater-Kinney it allowed the next chapter to happen.