There’s A New Marnie Stern Album(!) And She Told Us All About It
The math-rock guitar wizard on reclaiming her individuality amidst the parenthood grind, leaving Seth Meyers, and The Comeback Kid, her first album in 10 years
Last we heard from Marnie Stern, the indie-rock shredder was questioning the viability of her career as a recording artist. “The plan was to do this forever/ Can I still?” she asked on her 2013 album The Chronicles Of Marnia. When a decade passed without any sign of new music, it seemed like she’d offered her answer.
Unlike some artists on hiatus, Stern never disappeared. For eight years, she was on network TV five nights a week, showing off her guitar heroics in much more measured bursts as a member of the house band for Late Night With Seth Meyers. She describes that unlikely gig as a double-edged sword: It was cool work playing music every night, just not her own music. Between the obligations of raising two kids and working her first real 9-to-5 job, her creative output fell to the back burner. “Of course, I was missing it like crazy, but at the same time, the itch was getting scratched because I was still performing every night, so it took me a lot longer to realize, ‘Wait, I need to do this,'” Stern explains of the 10-year gap between records.
Eventually, she concluded her window was closing. “I realized I’d better do it if I’m going to, because this is it. I can’t go too much longer before the ship has sailed.”‘ She expected that all the time away from writing would change her approach, that all the years she’d spent playing different styles would bleed its way into her new material. But to her pleasant surprise, it didn’t. Instead, the only meaningful musical reference points on Stern’s new album The Comeback Kid, out Nov. 3 on Joyful Noise, are Stern’s previous albums.
Recorded with Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara — who, it turns out, is a powerhouse math-rock drummer — the new record is a pick-me-up paced like a particularly satisfying aerobics class. Fleet and as generous as ever with Stern’s glittering guitars, it distills her sound down to its most ebullient essence, toning down the pangs of sadness that tugged at Marnia and her 2010 self-titled album in favor of infectious affirmations. “When you’re tired/ Don’t back down/ Don’t bow out,” she chants over a headbanging riff on “Believing Is Seeing.” Every Marnie Stern album is a triumph of the can-do spirit, this one even more so than most.
Chatting earlier this month ahead of her first concert in nine years — her children darting around the next room, occasionally peaking in on her Zoom call — Stern discussed her comeback, her stint on Seth Meyers, and the satisfaction of doing something for herself again. Below, hear the new album’s lead single “Plain Speak” and read our conversation.
Was there ever a moment when it seemed like you just might not do another album?
MARNIE STERN: Yeah. When the kids were very little, I just thought there was no way I would ever have enough energy to be able to sit and have any time for myself to do anything at all ever again. But as they got a little bit older, I was able to take more time to do it.
On your last album, you wrestled with whether music was something you could do in perpetuity. So when you went so many years without new music, from the outside, it really did seem like the end.
STERN: Well, it’s true: You sure can’t make a living at it — now more than ever. And also I’m very hard on myself, so when you’re going for like a decade of writing, touring, writing, touring, it started to become hard to come up with stuff because there was so much pressure to constantly be churning out more songs. But after the break, and probably also after playing with different people for so long and not feeling the pressure of it being like a career, just something I like to do, not even thinking about making an album, these songs kind of came out a little easy.
You say no pressure, but doesn’t the time between albums create its own pressure? Isn’t there an expectation that when an artist comes back after such a long hiatus that it has to be monumental or different or new?
STERN: I wasn’t even thinking a single person would hear it, really. So I really wasn’t even worried about it, honestly. Everything to me seemed so depressing with the music industry. It’s not great times. So I felt zero pressure. I felt like, “I’m just gonna make what I like to make.” I mean, I felt some pressure to change and grow, but oddly, over the 10-year period, the thing I wanted to do more than anything was kind of just rock out, like make a ripping song.
It’s ironic that on this album you sing a lot about moving forward, not looking back, and the importance of change. But of course, your style hasn’t changed much at all. Is that a point of pride for you?
STERN: Yeah, I think so. Especially being able to have a little distance from it, I like that I have my own style that’s unique. I really didn’t have a chance to explore that when I was playing every night, but I wasn’t playing anything that I would naturally gravitate towards. So that is part of why I went so back into my style. Also it’s hard when, in any sort of life or job situation, you’re not a priority. When you’re taking care of kids, they’re the priority. Of course, you want them to be the priority. I’m not saying at all that you don’t, but there is like a tiny kernel of, “Oh, okay, this is my life.” And to be able to sit down and write songs that kind of brings you back into yourself a little bit more. You get really get out of yourself when you’re in the workforce, when you’re with your kids, and you lose your sense of individuality a little bit.
Whenever musicians disappear from the public eye, I’m always worried that there’s going to be some dark or awful story behind their absence, because that happens a lot. But you’ve come back with a new record that’s so joyful and reassuring. There’s something very comforting about that.
STERN: Yes, thank you. I’m glad. That is my intention, too. And also, I feel like I’m always talking in my songs to my friends, too. I’m serving as a cheerleader to my friend as they go through their stuff. I’m not a good cheerleader somehow in life as much as I am through my songs, but when I’m working on my songs, I am thinking of all those people: you know, my family, my friends. Like, as the kids say today, “You got this.”
Your songs definitely have a motivational quality. A lot of the lyrics read like mantras. How much of that is meant for others and how much of that is for you to pump up yourself?
STERN: It’s for both, but it’s what I would wanna hear myself. I think of myself getting dressed, listening to the radio when I was a teenager, and the songs that were talking to me, I would pretend that they were me and they would motivate me. And that was originally where the idea struck to try and be a motivator, because I remember it being so impactful.
The trajectory of your albums, at least the last few, has been your embrace of transparency. Each album seemed more purposefully personal than the last. Do you see The Comeback Kid as a continuation of that transparency, or has your songwriting aim changed a bit?
STERN: Well, romantically, I have less drama now than I’m settled and have kids and everything. So I think probably a lot of the transparency had to do with being very lonely. I was very, very lonely for I would say like a 15-year period of my life. I was alone 90% of the time. So I’m very fortunate not to have that now. But I still of course have all of these other things that come out of the music. No one wants to feel like their arc in life is over or they’re irrelevant.
Are you insecure about that? I feel that tradeoff in my own life, which is objectively better than it was when I was younger, but also so much less exciting. Now people ask me what I’m up to and the honest answer is so dull that unless I’m talking to another parent, I can’t even come up with a response.
STERN: Yes. Same. Exact same. And of course I was worried about it. Of course. That’s why I was glad to have the period where I started writing again, because for a long time that was sort of part of why I wasn’t, because there wasn’t any impetus. I had nothing. I was happy and busy with the kids and working and stuff like that. But it did feel really, really, really good to be creative again. Like shockingly good. It just brings back some tiny piece of your individuality as a person.
You open the song “Working Memory” by singing, “Someone in the seat belt on fire, all day.” Is that song about parenting?
STERN: Yes. It’s about parenting, and just being in the middle of it feeling like you’re gonna explode, you know what I mean? Like, there gets to be a point when they’re little, where you’re like, “I can’t do it, I’m going absolutely crazy,” but you gotta hold it in because you can’t yell at them, you’ve just got to get through it.
The seatbelt for me is an apt metaphor for parenthood, because as a parent even just getting in the car is an enormous ordeal. Just buckling seatbelts takes so much physical and mental energy.
STERN: Did you ever see that Jim Gaffigan special? He said, going on vacation with his family, the only vacation that he ever had was when they got in the car, then he walked from shutting his door to going around back to the driver’s seat. That was the only vacation he had. It’s so true.
May I ask why you left Seth Meyers?
STERN: I was just ready for a change. It was great, but it was a very crazy job. Like, a ton of pressure. You know, a great gig, but on a show date, you couldn’t be sick, you just had to be there, you know what I mean? So I have so many memories of both pregnancies being so nauseous and trying to find a point to stare at or else I was gonna throw up. Like crazy stuff.
Is it hard to leave a job like that behind? There’s glamour to it. Obviously, it’s not yours in the sense that your albums and tours are, but you’re still on TV, and you’re seeing famous people every day.
STERN: Yes. But it’s not yours at all. And you’re just a small component that makes up something that’s about somebody else. The whole thing’s 100% for somebody else, which is great, but after almost 10 years, it wasn’t hard in the end. You feel like, “I’ve done this for a really long time, I’m ready.”
You’re a very individualistic musician, and then every night you’re up there playing house band music. Did that feel like a disconnect?
STERN: Yes, although I didn’t always realize it. When I sat down to do these songs, I thought I was gonna bring all of that style with me. And I think I was so disconnected from that world that when I sat down, none of it came through because none of it was my personality, or my style, or me. I think that’s what I was after. Practicing every day, writing the songs every day and going and playing on stage every day for that long, and then sitting down, none of it stuck.
I think that might be a good thing. The Roots became Jimmy Fallon’s band then spent night after night playing with all these different artists, and it did filter into some of their music from those early years. They recorded an album with a bunch of indie musicians on it, and it was really awful. They lost something on that record.
STERN: I know. Because you have to play the most planned stuff, you know. But it was very good for other things. It was good for being able to play under pressure in front of a lot of people with the camera in your face. And it was fun to stand and listen, you know? It was great. It was great. But anything after a certain amount of time in anything… So I was very surprised when I sat down. Because I hadn’t played my own type of songs, I hadn’t done it in so long that I expected it, and I just went right back to before.
That must be so satisfying, just knowing that that part of you is still there.
STERN: Bizarre. It was bizarre after so long. But I think also there was a tiny part of me that, I don’t know, I didn’t want to: I kind of wanted to keep things as they were going, or else I think I was afraid I would miss it so much. And knowing that because of the newborn kids, and because I had to be up and be at the show, I didn’t wanna bring that individuality back into my life because then I would be resentful that maybe that I couldn’t do it.
Are you planning on continuing to write more now that you’ve gotten back into it?
STERN: Oh yeah. The muscles are back.
01 “Plain Speak”
02 “Believing Is Seeing”
03 “The Natural”
04 “Oh Are They”
06 “Working Memory”
07 “Il Girotondo Della Note”
08 “Til It’s Over”
10 “Earth Eater”
11 “Get It Good”
12 “One And The Same”
The Comeback Kid is out 11/3 on Joyful Noise.