Progress Report: Marnie Stern
NAME: Marnie Stern
PROGRESS REPORT: Waiting for the release of her third full-length album, recorded at Retrofit Recording in Sacramento, CA. Knitting.
Marnie Stern’s knitting is an important part of the progress report, because right now she really can’t think of much else to do. The followup to the excellent 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 was completed in December and is ready for mixing. And it feels too soon to start a new record, yet her next one still has a few months (August or September, she thinks) before it’ll be released. Stern says she doesn’t like to go for walks in the city. She hates the cold, and only goes out about once a month “for like five drinks then I pass out in a cab.” Her boyfriend lives in Calgary. She’s not very internet savvy. So for now she stays inside, knits, plays guitar, and hangs out with her dog. “My mom calls us Grey Gardens! We’re just in the bed all day long,” she says.
It sounds isolating, but Stern considers this the first time in years that she’s really had a personal life. After the end of her last long-term relationship, she went into hypermode, working hours a day at the guitar and polishing her songwriting skills. She didn’t date for six years. Normally personal details would seem irrelevant when talking about Stern’s music. But this is also the first time she’s used her relationships as inspiration. “So that stuff is all in there, whereas before I was so focused on just getting a record deal, and writing — just going, going, going. I hope that the songs are more relatable because they’re more human. It still sounds just like me, just maybe in a little bit more mature”
So the familiar elements are there, with some new twists: The album is introspective without being sad (one of Stern’s biggest music put-downs is calling a song ‘wussy’), there’s still plenty of her signature tapping technique. But Stern expanded her songwriting be more than “chords under tapping,” and her vocals are lower with less of her energetic yelping. “They all still have that energy, but it’s not as abrasive. It’s still my weird bluh! style but it feels tighter and stronger,” she says.
Her music and her personal life are, of course, already intertwined, but one part is actually responsible for the other. Her favorite song on the album is called “For Ash.” She wrote it after she found out that her ex-boyfriend had committed suicide. “The [breakup] with him really changed and focused of my entire life and pushed it towards music. I had already and always been doing [music], but that’s when I kind of went crazy…I was working eight hours a day every day for years,” she said. She was in a songwriting rut when she found out about his death. The news shook her into overdrive. “I wasn’t thinking about myself, I was thinking about him. I stayed up for like three days working on that song. And it was sort of… I mean, I’m no hippie, but it was kind of like a trance-like thing. It was so upsetting and so powerful,” she says. But the song itself isn’t dark, or slow, so she doesn’t see a problem playing it live someday. “I guess I feel like I cared about this person so incredibly much, that I wish I had a hundred songs that I could sing every night about him.”
Stern says she’s a perfectionist — for example, one song on her album is still called “24,” named for the Pro Tools file name. She discarded the previous 23 songs. She even has to email potential album tracks to friend and bandmate Zach Hill because she’ll often trash songs out of frustration, leaving Hill with the only copy. After the writing and demoing, recording was easy. She and Hill, along with Women bassist Matt Flagel, met at Retrofit Recording (where she’s recorded her previous albums), to record in December. Stern was impressed by how smoothly the sessions went — the band finished everything (Stern keeps her Pro Tools recordings in the mix, but re-records her guitar and vocals) in just a couple of weeks. Even the few bumps were more funny than damaging — like Stern’s habit of drifting in and out of time when she’s demoing. “My favorite thing is for [Zach] to go in and be like, ‘Fuck, what the fuck?’ while he’s playing. ‘Who doesn’t fucking play to a click track, what the fuck?!'” she laughs. “I just think that he’s the fucking greatest.”
I asked Stern about how she can write and demo for almost 24 hours at a time. Turns out it’s closely tied to her well-documented Starbucks addiction. Here’s the Marnie Stern schedule for when she’s working obsessively on a song:
“This is what I have to do. I drink the huge Starbucks. I drink another coffee, then I’ll smoke so many cigarettes that my body’s going ‘wuhwuhwuwhwuhwuh.’ I’ll have the beer at 2 or 3 in the morning, then keep going, keep going. I watch the sunrise every morning. At 6 a.m., guess what opens? The ‘Bucks! I go downstairs, get another one, come up. I work until about 4 p.m. in the afternoon. And then I’m like, ‘I really don’t feel so good.’ So then I’ll have another beer and go to bed.”
[Photo by Amrit Singh]
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