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'Modern Girl' Carrie Brownstein Describes Finding (And Hiding) Herself In Music

Carrie Brownstein is the co-creator and co-star of the TV series <em>Portlandia.</em>
Autumn de Wilde
Riverhead Books
Carrie Brownstein is the co-creator and co-star of the TV series Portlandia.

Guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein is known for her defiant, kinetic performances in the band Sleater-Kinney. But she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that it was vulnerability that initially drew her to the music world.

"When people grow up with a family characterized by chaos and uncertainty and fragility, you look for a substitution for that," she says. "Music was a means through which I could meet people and sort of begin the process of exploring who I was or who I could be."

The child of an anorexic mother and a father who came out as gay in his 50s, Brownstein was an anxious, uncertain youth. She describes her search for identity and the sense of belonging she found in music in her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl.

"It took a while, but just even listening to music with a group of people and going to shows, that really was a pathway towards getting out of some of that darkness," she says. "All of the elements of my life that couldn't be explained, that I didn't have the words for, were suddenly given a shape. ... I had a soundtrack."

Interview Highlights

On her mother's anorexia

Meals and eating and that sort of ritual of gathering at a table is such a part of childhood, and that was such a strange moment. It made me nervous to watch my mom cook for us and then not engage in the act of eating with us. It was almost like a performance to witness the ways she would avoid eating food and so ... I constantly was listening to music, and I would rewrite the lyrics to address her eating disorder. It was my way of dealing with it to bring humor or levity, or talk about it in a way that made it less about illness and more about this kind of phenomenon that we didn't really know what to call it. ...

There was a Duran Duran song that I changed the lyrics ... to something like "One more step away to an anorexic day." It was almost like a taunt ... in this very unsophisticated and childlike way. [I] just did not know how to process something like this, so I just kind of made light of it.

On her father coming out as gay at 55

My dad, as I describe in the book, he was sort of this series of signifiers — a generic office building in the suburbs, a three-piece suit, a soccer coach, a clean-cut haircut and clean-shaven, and he interacted with my sister and I through activities and much less so with emotions, and he really only ever had one story from his childhood. And there was just this blankness that was very difficult to penetrate. I always felt very close to him, but just almost sort of by default, and I really didn't know him. I think none of us did. So, yeah, when he came out, it was like this moment where something goes from black-and-white into the realm of color. There was just this brightening, this sense of illumination. And within that gleaming came feeling. It just seeped into him, and into all of his relationships, and it was very enlightening.

On finding the riot grrrl music scene in Olympia, Wash.

When I was 16, 17 years old, I became aware of music coming out of Olympia, Wash., which is the state capitol, and about an hour south of Seattle. And there were bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy, and for the first time I heard my story being explained to me, being sung to me. And there is such an inarticulateness that I possessed in some ways, and I just felt so inchoate as a person. And I felt like things were being filled in for me ... that I was being seen, and that sense of being recognized was so crucial to me. And I think it's crucial to finally recognize yourself in the world. It gives you a place to go. It's like you have a direction, and you can start moving towards that.

On what she wanted the Sleater-Kinney sound to be

I'm a self-taught musician and I write in the book about how Corin [Tucker] and I sort of learned to play guitar in relation to each other. And I wanted the guitar to feel weaponized; I wanted it to be analogous to a voice that I didn't yet have and may never have — which is to harness volume and a sense of the caustic and power, and to interweave that occasionally with melody, so that it's something people can latch onto or be carried away by; that it could tell stories and sing on my behalf. I wanted it to be trenchant, also a little scary. I guess that's the sound I was going for.

The music was like a cloak ... which, I think, allows me to step away from a sense of uncertainty and move toward solidity. But, of course, there's a contrast between what one projects and what one actually is, and eventually that disparity was too great.

On the disparity between her onstage persona and her true self

One thing that is such a relief about art and creativity is the allowance of that as a shape in which to exist, that can be bigger than oneself, that can act as proxy to our own failings and speak to our own failings and vulnerabilities --while also elevating oneself, and hopefully the listener, to a place that transcends those failings and fragilities. So, yeah, the music was like a cloak, and performance did involve persona, which, I think, allows me to step away from a sense of uncertainty and move toward solidity. But, of course, there's a contrast between what one projects and what one actually is, and eventually that disparity was too great. And, as I describe in the book, I sort of crumbled beneath and within that disconnect. It was too much.

On Portlandia

I feel like Portlandia is so much in the subtext of this book in particular, so many of the early situations in these punk and indie-rock communities, which espouse inclusiveness but feel very elite and exclusive and possess very labyrinthine rules that are hard to follow, and that you feel terrible for messing up in... I think a lot of that ends up in Portlandia in the way that we exist in relation to our cities and our neighborhoods. So, yeah, it doesn't feel like a separate part of myself. It feels like another means of communicating ideas within a very different vernacular, and with a little more levity, and I like absurdity. So many things feel and are best sort of characterized by absurdity, best explained by absurdity, and I like the way Portlandia allows for that. It's a conversation in the same way Sleater-Kinney is; it just elicits very different emotions. I think. I assume.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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