Channeling the Absurd
Star of hit TV show Portlandia and guitarist of the critically acclaimed band Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein has spent almost half of her life in show business. A self-described, "perennial seeker" Brownstein has now decided to put pen to paper, baring all in her recently released memoirs, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.
Behind all of the lights and attention experienced throughout her thriving career, there is a witty, intelligent, irascible and successful multi-tasker. Brownstein vacillates between TV/Film (a recurring role in Transaprent and a minor role in the recent film Carol), music and writing with apparent effortlessness, utilizing all three as creative forces of expression.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a confronting and intriguing read, undoubtedly her most confessional work. It’s all there – the self-combustion of the band (almost literally), the past loves, her mother’s battle with anorexia and her father’s “coming out”. But discussing this with Brownstein is a nerve-wracking task. She chooses her words carefully, speaking slowly, remaining guarded and never allowing you to feel comfortable enough for a natural conversational environment to create itself. That being said, at times her sharp firmness makes her all the more engaging, it’s a trait that commands respect. A modern girl? You bet.
There’s a lot of very specific details in the book. Were you keeping a diary during all those years that you were then able to go back to and pull these details from?
Yeah I did keep some tour diaries and I wrote a lot of letters in the early years of touring which I had my friends send back to me as a reference. But we each attach value to particular memories. I think with regards to the memoir it’s not about writing what you know but what you want to know. That’s why the first drafts are so important. Often in the early drafts you’re figuring out which memories can serve the narrative and help create an arc. It’s really about construction.
Was there an element of embellishment to the stories in the book at all?
No nothing like that. It was just about picking what I wanted to write about, picking out which instances have the most value and relevance.
Some parts of the book are very personal and raw. You write about your mother for instance and her struggle with anorexia. Were you apprehensive about revealing certain things like that to the rest of the world?
People tend to use words like catharsis and vulnerability when talking about memoir as a form, but during the process you view things more from an architectural point of view. I was worried about making good sentences and tempo and structure and creating an interesting narrative to the book. Of course there’s an emotional aspect to it but that often comes in retrospect. It’s a lot more of a fastidious process. It’s not just emoting onto a page.
"One of the things I really like about working in comedy is that sometimes when you look out into the world and sense the collective despair, the only way to really make sense of it is through the absurd."
I recently read Kim Gordon’s book, ‘Girl in a Band’ and I’m sure many people have referenced this in response to your own book. She said that memoirs are the new records. Do you agree with that sentiment?
I think I understand what she’s saying. But I see it as one form of expression among many.
I felt that there were parts of the book where you held back on comedy in favour of something more real. Was there an element of wanting to remove that veneer of the witty persona we see on TV and in interviews?
It was definitely an intentional creative choice. There are parts of the book that are humorous that then vacillate into a more serious tone. I think depending on the subject and the chapter there are different stylistic choices, but it was all very intentional.
It seems like you’ve undergone such a transformation from where you first began in Sleater-Kinney to where you are now. Is there anything you’d like to go back and tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to be less anxious and to enjoy it more.
But was the anxiety perhaps a part of your creative process? Did that feeling help you artistically at all?
I think an inherent restlessness leads me to be someone who is a perennial seeker. And I think that desire for possibility is married to creativity in some way and so yes, it has helped me in that way. And I enjoy the peripatetic nature of my life. I thrive as a multitasker. I think it’s my preferred way of being. If you can remove the acute anxiety then it’s quite fulfilling and exciting.
As a multitasker which medium would you say you feel most comfortable working within?
I think the common reliance is writing. I write in Sleater-Kinney and on Portlandia. I think the nexus of performing and writing is where I feel my strengths lie and where I feel happiest.
I was listening to an interview you did with Marc Maron and you said “I’m feisty sometimes but it’s a knee-jerk reaction, I still want to be liked.” Could elaborate on what you meant by that?
I suppose that I have a certain feistiness in terms of my work. I’m very interested in awkward moments and areas of discomfort and exploring those further. Portlandia is a lot about sitting within moments of friction and exploring that discomfort, whether it’s between two people or an environment or even within one divided self. So creatively I like those moments that contain dissonance. But personally of course I’m seeking something more harmonious. I think that’s what I meant.
Speaking of Portlandia, I’m a huge fan. Portland very much forms the inspiration for the show but at the same time it encompasses so many universal themes. At times I’ve watched it and felt as if the same parodies and clichés are visible in every city I’ve travelled to, that the humour is universal. The show seems to very deliberately touch on that homogenisation of culture. Would you agree with that?
One of the undercurrents of the show is definitely the examination of one’s relationships to place. And yeah we also have these characterial lives and spaces which often mimic the way we interact with our personal devices. We’re all kind of keeping out what we feel ambivalent towards and letting in what we like, we’re ignoring counter opinions. And I think people tend to gravitate physically towards similar environments. There is something slightly homogenous about these hyper curated sections of cities. I think part of Portlandia is questioning how sustainable that is or how interesting that is.
The show is very cleverly observant of our culture. You clearly have a skill for seeing into the aspects of what makes us behave in certain ways.
Yeah I think that’s a trait I’ve always possessed. A curiosity and a keen observation of things.
What do your parents make of the memoir? Was there anything they were uncomfortable with?
They’re really proud of me and they like the writing a lot. I think though my Dad was surprised at how squalid some of the places we stayed with the band were. He didn’t realise we were staying in such filthy houses on tour.
I was surprised to hear that the formation of the band happened in Australia. Do you have fond memories of your time there?
Yes and we’ve kept in touch with The Cannanes over the years, they were actually in Portland not too long ago.
I know you’re very passionate about the world around you and you’re an advocate for many causes. What are the issues that you’re most concerned about right now?
There’s still widespread inequality in the US. I think that’s the most striking and disheartening element of American society right now. People feeling disenfranchised. That’s something I think about a lot. I don’t think you can live in America and not have a growing awareness of the way that the gap between rich and poor is very pernicious and continues to weed people out.
But one of the things I really like about working in comedy is that sometimes when you look out into the world and sense the collective despair, the only way to really make sense of it is through the absurd. It’s so hard to comprehend the levels of violence and inequality and so I feel fortunate to have comedy as a way of channelling some of that absurdity. Because through comedy you can sometimes get to a certain truthful aspect. I think that both music and comedy can be ways of subtly touching on political topics. My work keeps me sane. I’m very fortunate to have those outlets.
What are you focusing on right now? And what’s next for you?
I’m going to be doing a little touring with Sleater-Kinney in December and early next year. I work on a show called Transparent and we’re shooting another season of that in February. And of course there’s another season of Portlandia as well.
Carrie Brownstein | Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl