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'A high-wire act': Carrie Brownstein on writing her memoir while recording with Sleater-Kinney

Melody Lau

Carrie Brownstein’s lengthy resumé suggests that she’s a veritable jack of all trades. Brownstein is a musician, a writer and a comedian but, most importantly, she’s an incredible storyteller. Whether she’s showing off her keen observations in her band Sleater-Kinney (she also performed in Wild Flag and Excuse 17) or in a satirical skit on the Peabody Award-winning TV series Portlandia, Brownstein has shown that she can craft a compelling narrative.

Brownstein’s latest project is her most important narrative yet. Her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, takes us through Brownstein’s journey through her years as a young music fan and details her decade-plus career with Sleater-Kinney. However, those milestone moments, which are fascinating and revealing in their own rights, provide a bigger vessel for Brownstein’s main objective, which was to explore the ideas of fandom and connectivity, the ability to discovery one’s self through music and be seen no matter how much one internally battles with that idea. It’s a brilliant read, one of the year’s best music memoirs in a year that has produced many outstanding reads by artists like Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, Viv Albertine of the Slits and Elvis Costello.

CBC Music caught up with Brownstein over the phone (as her plans to Canada were postponed at the last minute) to talk about her book, multitasking and her new favourite TV show.

So I must ask: why were the Toronto and Montreal book tour dates delayed?

I had a flight delay that then cancelled a subsequent flight, which made me miss the Montreal flight. Toronto became an impossible one-off to pull off once Montreal was out of the question so I was basically stuck in Amsterdam for two days. Apparently Montreal is not an easy city to get to. From Amsterdam, there’s only one flight out a day. But we’ll figure it out, we’re trying to reschedule right now.

(Both events have since been rescheduled: Brownstein will be in Montreal on Dec. 7 and Toronto on Dec. 17. )

Were you able to finish watching Master of None in that time, though?

Yes, I finished it in England. I loved it, definitely one of my current favourites.

Same! Before you wrote Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, you wrote a music column for NPR. How did that help shape your writing voice?

It definitely helped me in terms of realizing that putting myself in the centre of the narrative was what people were most interested in instead of approaching it from a theoretical perspective. I think I took away the notion of being a fan and how important that is in terms of a continuous engagement and dialogue of music, so the book has a lot of writing about fandom and technology and the ways that fans sort of experience the world.

What was the process of writing the book like? Where did you start?

I wrote the book in chunks, I didn’t write chronologically. I put it together as I went along. It was very intentional. I wanted to tell a story about embodiment and disembodiment, visibility and invisibility and I wanted to put that within the container of music and creativity so I filled in the story around that and pulled from various times in my life.

I find that many writers have someone they always trust to look at their work. Did you have a good friend or editor during this process?

I had my editor at Riverhead Books, Geoffrey Kloske and I also had a woman named Chelsey Johnson who is a trusted friend and reader of my work. I would send her sections and she would send me back copious notes about what to clarify or if she had any questions about sections. I had two trusted readers.

You’re also friends with some notable writers like Miranda July and Kim Gordon. Did you ever talk to them about the writing process?

Miranda’s one of my closest friends so we talk a lot about the work we do but I didn’t confer with them on this, no.

I was a huge fan of Kim Gordon’s book, Girl in a Band.

I thought her book was wonderful. I really loved the vivid details of the landscape of California and the way she wrote about the intersection of visual art and music.

You’ve mentioned that Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, was a great influence on your book. What did you like about his book?

I like that it was a memoir that takes you through the back corridors, the underbelly of what we knew about him and it ended in a place of recognition where the audience has the most awareness of him, which was at Saturday Night Live. It doesn’t even get there; it’s just a portrait of a young artist and I liked that as a template for my own book.

You wrote parts of the book while recording No Cities to Love with Sleater-Kinney. How was it to do both at the same time?

I think, for the writing of the book, it helped to be re-immersed in the world of Sleater-Kinney, particularly being in the recording studio with John Goodmanson who is someone I wrote about in the book. I had already written most of the book by the time we recorded No Cities, specifically sections about recording, but I was able to go back and add more detail to those parts and I think it was helpful to kind of insulate myself within the world of this band in order to clarify certain stories within the book. On a logistical aspect, it was helpful because you don’t normally start recording 'til noon or one and that allowed many hours in the morning to write. It was just multitasking.

Does multitasking ever become stressful or do you enjoy taking on so many different projects?

I think there is an element of stress in multitasking but it’s also a high-wire act that I really thrive on and as long as I’m not spreading myself too thin, I find it exhilarating to have multiple projects. I actually find that it creates a good balance.

Have you talked to Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss about the book since it came out?

Yeah, we’ve talked about it and they actually interviewed me onstage in Portland so we had a public discussion, which was fun. They are two of my closest friends so it was enjoyable to sit onstage and tell stories and talk about the band in front of an audience.

You’ve had/are going to have some esteemed writers and musicians interview you on this book tour, did you have a part in planning that out?

Yeah, I picked them. I wanted to put together a different group of people that might each have their own perspective or take on the material. Some of the people in the U.K. were journalists who I didn’t know, but I picked everyone in the U.S.

I really enjoyed your conversation with Questlove in Brooklyn.

He’s an awesome person. I had read his book a couple months after it came out and when he read mine, we sort of had the same feeling that we had similar takes on things and really similar experiences.

In your book, you talk about conducting mock interviews with the posters on your wall when you were younger. Specifically, you mentioned Madonna, who was also the first concert you went to, so I was wondering if you could ask her any question now what would you ask her?

What would I ask her … what she’s reading? What she eats for breakfast? I don’t know, I guess I don’t have a lot of questions for her!