Guest of Honor

The Music and Moments That Made Carrie Brownstein

The Sleater-Kinney founder and "Portlandia" co-creator reflects in her new memoir on trying (and failing) to survive on rock and roll alone.

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Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde

Back in 1994, Carrie Brownstein co-founded Sleater-Kinney — a blazing all-woman rock trio that made a huge impact on critics and the indie rock scene. Their debut record, “Dig Me Out,” landed on Rolling Stone’s list of The Greatest Albums of All Time. Then, in 2006, Carrie left the group, and along with comedian Fred Armisen, went on to co-create the hit sketch-comedy show “Portlandia.”

She recently released a memoir called “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.” The title comes from one of her song lyrics. In fact, the whole book is filled with musical references. So when Brendan spoke with Carrie this week, he played her a few of the songs she mentions as influences, starting with this one:


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Carrie Brownstein: Madonna was my very first concert, in 1985, and she actually started the tour in Seattle, which is where I was living…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, wow.

Carrie Brownstein: …In the suburbs, and she did three shows, of which I saw the first. I asked my parents if I could wear a wedding dress to the show because that was what she’s wearing — I think, in that video.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: You know, which was sort of controversial at the time. And, anyway, my parents disallowed me from that option, which I’m now grateful for.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, the suburb you grew up in was Redmond, Washington, now famous for Microsoft. And it sounds like your parents supported you in your interest in music.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah. I don’t think they were worried that I was going to go down some dark path of being unethical.

Brendan Francis Newnam: A debauched, young kid.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, I was pretty square.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your parents also were dealing with their own stuff at the time, right? We learn in your book that they were attentive and loving to you, but they were each — in different ways — struggling with kind of identity issues. You talk, very openly, about your mother’s struggle with anorexia when you were a kid.

Carrie Brownstein: Everything kind of changed at the end of elementary school. So, everything leading up to that was actually sort of one version of my childhood, and kind of starting when I was 13 and 14, that’s when things started to change, and my mother’s illness, which we found out was anorexia — although empirically, we also could have determined that it was anorexia — that really shifted things in my family.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: Pretty drastically.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you talk in the book quite openly about how your mother’s hospitalization kind of gave you a sense of identity. You know, you received special treatment from your friend’s parents, and it kind of sounds like you became a little adult yourself.

Carrie Brownstein: Something about my mother being in the hospital, I kind of reached out to my friend’s parents. You know, I was sort of… it’s when I first began looking for what you might call “surrogates.” You know, just somebody else to kind of be my mentor or a guide, or just somebody that was paying attention to me because, of course, what starts to happen when you have a parent that is ill is that you’re kind of left alone in the world in some ways because they’re dealing with their own things. And then if you have both parents, usually the spouse is also dealing with that.

So, yeah, I would… my friends were not that interested in me as I was kind of drifting away from the kind of sporty, popular kids, but their moms, as I discuss in the book, really loved talking to me, and I was a very precocious — I mean, I would dare to say a little bit annoying — kid at that point.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, around that time, you also got into rock ‘n’ roll and punk rock, including this band, Bikini Kill, which was an all-woman band from the town of Olympia, Washington, which was just a couple hours south from where you grew up. Let’s hear a clip of that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So fierce.

Carrie Brownstein: It holds up so well!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. So, you talk about a lot of bands in this book, but Bikini Kill was special for you.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, I heard Bikini Kill when I was still in high school, and I first heard them on compilations. There was a label from Olympia called Kill Rock Stars, and they put out these comps. And I started to realize that there was this whole scene going on in Olympia called “riot grrrl.” It didn’t necessarily describe the music, but it described kind of a marriage of feminism, you know, within the context of this punk rock. And as someone that wasn’t studying feminism and didn’t really know about it through academia at the time — it’s not usually something taught in high school.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: Sometimes at college, of course, but that marriage was very powerful because it kind of took it out of the academic realm. It put it in plain language. It was very forceful. It allowed me, for the first time, to hear and experience that I felt but hadn’t yet been able to articulate. You know, when you just hear your own stories sung back to you, and there’s just the feeling of recognition that I think cannot be underestimated for making one feel whole.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: So, yeah, Bikini Kill, and then Heavens to Betsy, which Corin Tucker — who ends up being in Sleater-Kinney with me — that was her first band. They, I think, had some of the best songs and great, great singing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. I think what’s interesting about your story is you’re a kid. You are listening to this music. You’re enjoying it and following it in zines, but then you just willed yourself into that world. Not only do you end up moving to Olympia and getting to know these bands, you actually end up being in a band with one of the people you admire the most, and that band, of course, is Sleater-Kinney.

So, at that point, you know, you’d been playing in some bands. You’d toured the U.S. a couple times, but then this band takes off, becomes how we know you and introduces a new sound to the rock canon. Famously, Greil Marcus, in 2001, called you “America’s Greatest Rock Band.”

Carrie Brownstein: Much to everyone’s surprise at the time, in this very mainstream magazine, and as I mention Bryant Gumbel, who is the host of…

Brendan Francis Newnam: The “Today” show.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, he, the next day, he was talking about the issue, and just said, “Who the heck is this band?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah!

Carrie Brownstein: And that’s why Greil is so great. He was always championing the underdog.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But the media wasn’t always so nice to you. You write about your first coverage from Spin Magazine, which was kind of a painful moment that shows the dark side of breaking through.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, the very first article written about us — in, at the time, a very influential music publication. Spin Magazine, in the ’90s, was really kind of giving Rolling Stone a run for its money, you know.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: And anyway, we were very excited to… you know, we did a photo shoot for the magazine, did an interview, and this interview ended up essentially outing me. Very early on, when Corin and I started the band, we dated for about a year, and we had never… our friends knew, but we never talked about it with our families. We weren’t out to them as people that dated other women, as queer.

And I remember my dad calling me and saying he’d seen the article. This is pre-Internet, so you don’t get a preview of something. No one’s emailing you a JPEG, like, “This is coming out on Tuesday!” So, no warning.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, it just hits the stands.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah. My dad calls, says he’s read the article, and says, “Is there something you want to tell me?” I had no idea. I had not seen the article yet. So, essentially, without checking with Corin or I — and neither of us had discussed it in the interview — the writer mentioned that we had dated.

And so, yeah, it was, at the time, very disorienting to not be given the opportunity to author my own narrative, you know? To tell my parents about who I am on my own, and on my own terms. It was very unsettling.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And that wasn’t the only aspect of being in a band that was unsettling to you. Sleater-Kinney went on to produce, like, six albums and receive tons of accolades, and eventually, the touring life and the strain on personal relationships all became too much, and it seemed like it all reached a head for you at one particular show in Belgium in 2006. You talk about this moment in the book. Can you talk about it for us here?

Carrie Brownstein: Sure. I mean, it’s a dark moment for sure, and… I think so much of my book is about trying to assemble a version of family. You know, to transfer and substitute and find a sturdiness. Which I thought I sort of had with Sleater-Kinney, and in some ways I did… But at a certain point, I realized that it wasn’t enough, that I hadn’t quite built up the architecture that I needed to stand upon, that there was still such a fragility and vulnerability.

And it kind of all came to a head — a combination of physical illness and then just depression and anxiety — in Belgium, and I ended up basically hitting myself multiple times in front of my band-mates before our show.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Right before you were about to go on, yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, and it was an act of self-destruction and self-effacement. I wanted to erase myself, and I wanted to erase the pain that I felt, and the sadness, and the loss. And in that moment, I lost the band.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes; You returned to the States, and you had a couple of goodbye shows. You announced the hiatus. And then you took a really big break that lasted until just this January, nine years. So, what happened in the meantime that made you feel like you could return?

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, there was a big break, and I think, you know, the most sort of visible and obvious thing that I did was co-create “Portlandia” with Fred Armisen. And I think that helped me return to music and return to Sleater-Kinney because it allowed for a kind of creativity that had absurdism to it, that had levity, that was able to actually kind of look at some of the same kind of situations. I see the seeds for “Portlandia” in a lot of these stories about Olympia.

Portlandia - waiting at the airport recrop

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, yeah.

Carrie Brownstein: In the dogma, and in the kind of, you know, trying to assess how it felt to be part of a scene that espoused inclusion but felt very elite and exclusive. And I think, through that, I was able to return to music in a way that felt really holistic and just reinvigorated.

Brendan Francis Newnam: From punk rock to satire. Carrie Brownstein, thanks so much for coming by and chatting with us.

Carrie Brownstein: Thanks for having me. It’s nice to see you again.

Click the media player below to hear Brendan and Carrie talk about Pearl Jam’s “Alive” and how the band’s lead singer, Eddie Vedder, was an early Sleater-Kinney supporter.