Interview with Marnie Stern: On A Tightrope

When Marnie Stern fidgets with the neck of her electric guitar sparks fly off her fingertips. A native New Yorker who still calls Manhattan home, the slim blonde-haired, green-eyed lass attended prestigious downtown college, NYU, graduating with a journalism degree, then spending a few years as an unfulfilled working stiff. But against all odds, she turned a bedroom hobby into a career, learning the six-string on the side before trying her hand at making music for a living. Even though her closest friends thought she was crazy and she only knew a few rudimentary open chords, Stern took a chance, earning her stripes along the way.

Initially, Stern faced formidable residential resistance when her caterwauling groans and nimble noodling infiltrated the apartment complex she resided in. “The neighbors would say, ‘tell Sheryl Crow to pipe down,” she claims. I lived in the Village and worked at it all day. I got a job as a secretary in an ad agency for six years.”

At age 30, Stern quit the agency gig and within four months was signed to notable anti-corporate boutique label, Kill Rock Stars. An attractive independent woman whose ”bad-ass” Jewish mother ultimately supported her decision to be a musician, the motivated string-bending howler quickly gained a solid rep as a tremendous talent. But first she had to convince her mom she wasn’t doing music just to shirk adulthood and avoid responsibilities.

“Once I got the record deal, she came around,” Stern proudly confirms.

Tremendously influenced by avant indie rock pillars Deerhoof, she admits being challenged and compelled by their unexpected jazzy time signatures and classic rock elements. But her childhood favorites were less obscure.

“I grew up listening to what my mom liked, Bruce Springsteen and The Who. That had a big affect on my second record (‘08s extraordinary eye-opening, ear-piercing, verbosely-titled breakthrough, This Is It And I Am It And You Are It And So Is That). It was just straight-up rock,” Stern informs.

Not reliant on typical machismo posturing such as frighteningly distended solos or needless astral wankering, the ambitious This Is It enjoyed underground success as a deliriously kaleidoscopic assortment of tersely convoluted tunes. Like a ticking time bomb exploding outward, Stern’s spangled metallic shards pierce through the dizzying claustrophobic tension unfurled by Hella’s noise-rock drummer Zach Hill. His tribal Siouxsie & The Banshees rhythmic assaults created an askew Burundi beat tumbling beneath Stern’s fleet-fingered curlicue finagling and rampaged childlike rants. “Shea Stadium,” an ode to blustering Storm & Stress timekeeper, Kevin Shea, receives a particularly tumultuous skin-bashed shellacking. On schizoid provocation “Ruler,” Hill’s primal stop ‘n’ go tenacity complements Stern’s vociferously dribbled contrapuntal fury.

Though the lady could truly shred, Stern’s more in tune with popular craftsmen and under-appreciated post-punk denizens than seriously outré stylists like Yngwie Malmsteen. But that’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate far-out metal-edged fretter Mick Barr from experimental band, Krallice (whose Orthrelm solo disc Stern highly regards).

“I like Pete Townshend, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and the two guys in Ponytail, who have a feel similar to Deerhoof. Then there’s Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine of Television. Those are real originals,” Stern says before lighting a cigarette.

Tapping out flashy bottleneck riffs from a Fender Jazzmaster, Stern unwittingly counters her luxuriantly masculine guitar figures with twee-pop, mezzo-soprano utterances. Practically in a league of her own, she finds it difficult to name more than a few female guitar competitors when put to the task. She swigs some soda, then praises Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Erase Errata’s Jenny Hoyston, and genre-bender Kaki King as worthy contemporaries. Heart mainstay Nancy Wilson also gets props.

“On my first record (‘07s formative In Advance Of The Broken Arm), it was really hard to find a place to put in the vocal melodies,” Stern explains. “Because I focus so much on the damn guitar, and listen to all these instrumental bands like Don Caballero, I wasn’t practicing vocals. When I decided to write song melodies, finding vocal placement was tough. I’d sit for hours trying a hundred different things. But I’m trying to use the high-end vocals less now.”

Though Stern’s lyrics seem secondary and indiscernible, she maintains that’s only a function of not being a good studio mixer. After all, as her press release states, she ‘lives between the lines of chaos and harmony.’

“When there’s so much going on, it’s hard to get everything leveled out properly,” she confesses.

A sly progression in touch with the past but headed for the future, Stern’s latest project with collaborative pal, Hill, should expand her audience twofold. Taking its title from a Metropolitan Museum of Art painting, On A Tightrope ups the ante with better singing, frothier axe work, and more detailed tonicity (courtesy of new bassist Matthew Flegel and fledgling mixer Lars Stalfors).

Unafraid to manipulate true-life ordeals via windy song titles and lamenting subject matter, Stern gets to the heart it on typecasting Banshee-wailed tempest “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black” and lampooning mainstream snipe, “Transparency Is The New Mystery.” Breaking away from the typical circular guitar freak-outs, propulsive powder keg, “Building A Body,” utilizes simpler chord progressions to interpret her painter friends’ request to make a musical illustration of the active human anatomy.

Truly, there are deeper thoughts captivating Stern this time out. A quick drum shuffle glides across the catch and release tension of Tightrope’s opening requiem, “For Ash,” a scurried homage to her suicidal ex-boyfriend who’s subsequently given a birthday salute on ruminating rumble, “Cinco De Mayo.” But she leaves some space for less sobering fare. For kicks, her cat-like screeching roars above the splashy percussion reinforcing nifty T. Rex knockoff, “Nothing Left.” And the stoner rock milieu of “Her Confidence” jettisons hurriedly, becoming her most accessible piece yet, with its unifying ‘people get ready’ mantra and easily consumed finger-plucked ostinato cadences.

Though Stern complains about a current bout with writer’s block, it’s probably due to temporarily going all out on Tightrope. But you’d be hard-pressed to count her out. The late coming indie-minded damsel already had the unmitigated audacity to break all the rules by proving a woman over thirty could still become a successful artist on her own terms. For that, there is no denying. I’d bet dollars to donuts her future endeavors are just as formidable. Plus, there’ll be an ever-increasing amount of axe-wielding peers who’ll be genuinely affected by her every move.

Catch Marnie Stern at Brooklyn’s Rock Shop, Oct. 5. Her new, self-titled album is available now via Kill Rock Stars.