Back Issue__ Marnie Stern: Ramen For The Underdog
Words: Mish Way
Photos: Marc Lemoine
Music critic darling, Marnie Stern tells us the difference between press and a paycheck.
It's scary how powerful of a source Pitchfork is to North American music. Nobody knows this better than the finger-tapping, guitar sensation Marnie Stern. The 35-year-old New Yorker has been praised time and time again by the critics at Pitchfork for not only her three EP's pressed on the celebrated indie label Kill Rock Stars but her unusual guitar technique and live performances. Pitchfork likes Marnie. They like her a lot. As musicians, rock journalists and avid readers have learned for over the past 15 years, Pitchfork likes you and the crowd will follow. But Marnie has yet to benefit from this modern day, one-plus-one-equals-done-success formula.
"The amount of press I get compared to the people who actually listen, like really care about my music, is so weird," Marnie admits between puffs of a cigarette followed by laughter. "It's, like, five thousand to one."
Of course Marnie is exaggerating and she'll be the first to admit it. As a self-proclaimed "negative Jewish girl", Marnie talks fast, sarcastic and loud. She's putting herself down, cackling about it and casually listing her latest accomplishment all in the same sentence. She's complaining about how boring her home life is between weeks off from constant touring and then sighing relentlessly about the fact that she has to lug "all her shit" (her guitar, her suitcase and her dog) to the airport tomorrow to embark on another US musical jaunt.
Since Kill Rock Stars released her debut EP "An Advance For A Broken Arm" in 2007, Marnie has been touring all over North America and Europe to support the buzz of her complicated career. After The New York Times called her debut “The year's most exciting rock 'n' roll album," and Pitchfork followed suit with familiar praise, the press was on her tail. Not only was her unique style of guitar playing and shrewdly sweet vocals talked about constantly, but her intricate, math rock-inspired approach to song assembly was recognized with enthusiasm. People were noticing. Marnie was named one of the "Greatest Female Guitarists of All Time" in the spring issue of Venus Zine while Plug Music nominated her for punk album of the year. After toiling away with new riffs in her rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment, Marnie soon released her follow-up album This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It is It and That is That, which gained praise as well landing at number 44 on Pitchfork's highly acclaimed "50 Best Albums of 2008" list. Marnie and her infectious, oddball songs were popping up everywhere from The Fader to Chart Attack to The New Yorker to Stereogum. It seemed every journalism source worth their salt was talking about Marnie. Then came her latest 2010 record, simply self-titled, chalk full of catchy pop melodies soothing deeply personal issues of death and getting dumped all the while wildly swimming beneath her signature finger-tapping.
"The last record was more buzz popular and the audience was the Pitchfork crowd," Marnie says. "They came [to my show] because it was a hip record. They didn't seem to like it or get it."
Growing up in New York City, Marnie attended "a B-tier, Gossip Girl" private school on the Upper East Side, where she recalls creativity was stunted and careers in finance were praised. She spent her youth partying in the city, mingling amongst celebrities and living the bratty New York existence. Her main source of music came from the radio. "To me, Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots were the same thing. I didn't know anything." She took a few guitar lessons at the impressionable age of fifteen, mastered the essential chords and played around with "Joe Lies When He Cries" girlish melodies, never taking any of it too seriously.
Marnie graduated from college with a new perspective on art and music. She discovered bands like Hella, Pony Tail, Battles and Deerhoof and became inspired by their mathematic guitar playing. She spent her days working 9-5 as a secretary while burning every night away working on guitar.
"It took me so many years to even begin to figure out what I wanted to do. The neighbor used to say, ‘Tell Sheryl Crow to pipe down,'" Marnie laughs.
Still feeling lost and a stranger to the competitive New York music scene, she felt captive to the rules of song construction until receiving some life changing advice from a friend. "Just put a shit load of layers on it."
"I was like, 'You can't do that!' and he said, 'You can do whatever the fuck you want.' So, I did. It wasn't until 2006 when I got a home computer and Pro Tools that I started to multi-track and that changed everything."
Marnie started playing around the city, just her and her iPod as a backing band. She handed out her demos to promoters and record labels she adored but was reluctant about the whole process.
"My music was so weird and it didn't make much sense," she remembers. "I played to nobody for years. Thinking back it was awful. I was stuck in this purgatory world, but I was getting better at writing music."
Then, came her lucky moment. After ten years of playing to nobody, Kill Rock Stars responded to her demo tape and wanted to put out her record. Even though they were weary about her age—like the world of sports, female solo artists are as good as dead at thirty—they went for it. "After a decade of shit it was all so amazing. I was so sure that I would just be writing songs in my bedroom forever, for no one."
After three successful records, a whirlwind of unexpected but well-earned media attention and countless tours, Marnie is in now back in purgatory. Struggling to write her fourth album, possibly cutting ties from Kill Rock Stars and switching over to new management, she is in limbo.
"I'm getting muddled into that fucked up world where I feel like I should be making money off [music] to live and that really ruins creativity," Marnie tells me. "But I can't help it. What am I supposed to do? Eat ramen? Forever?"
Marnie's press attention seems grandiose compared to the actuality of her income and record sales. Oddly enough, she's vocal about it. While most artists wouldn't dare admitting their troubles to the press, Marnie spills her heart as though we have been friends for years. Having lived her life as the underdog whether it was as the poor girl at a rich school or the only girl playing math rock or the only math-rock nerd left standing in a musical landscape of lo-fi garage bands, Marnie isn't afraid of her position. She's refreshing and honest, even if she thinks she is flailing.
"The way the music business is now...well, there are just so many bands," she exasperates. "No one is critical. It's all about having as much music as possible. Nobody listens to anything for more than 30 seconds." For someone that can spend up to "five fucking hours" perfecting one simple guitar riff, this change in the musical landscape is frustrating. Bands Marnie once looked up to and adored like Hella (whose drummer now plays with her), Ponytail and Battles aren't on the forefront of the scene. A new crew has taken over. "I don't hear any [new music] that gets me excited," she complains. "That is the worst part. I like that healthy sense of competition. It's what I thrive from and it's gone."
Beyond her frustration is a mature musician who is still toiling with ideas. Even though today feels like everything is bad tomorrow she will be on a plane to Los Angeles to embark on a full US tour. She'll return home to old New York, wait a week and then be back on the road except this time in Europe. Her original demo tapes she sent to Kill Rock Stars in 2006 will be released and then, Pitchfork will write about how great they are. Things will look up.
"I never want to become that bitter musician who is pissed but there is a part of me that is just like, Motherfucker! Put some effort into it!" She says. "I want to hear effort. You can tell when something has been slapped together in five minutes."
Marnie sighs and let's out an "Oh God" so nasal and drawn-out she sounds like Fran Drescher. "I'm very comfortable in the underdog position," she sheepishly admits. "I don't know how to be anything else."