Carrie Brownstein Talks Portlandia, '90s Punk Rock & Her New Memoir

Photo: Robb D. Cohen/Invision/AP.
Before making “put a bird on it” a catchphrase, Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein was the co-frontwoman for one of the biggest and most influential punk bands of the '90s, Sleater-Kinney. The Olympia, WA, trio’s powerful anthems “Dig Me Out” and “Get Up" became fierce feminist rallying calls, fueled by the juxtaposition of howling vocals and driving guitar lines. When the group took an “indefinite hiatus” in 2006 for nearly a decade, Brownstein remained in the cultural spotlight, becoming a columnist for NPR, co-creating the hit TV series Portlandia with Fred Armisen, playing in the indie rock band Wild Flag, and appearing in a recurring role on Amazon’s acclaimed series Transparent, which she returns to this season.

With her new book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, Brownstein now adds writing to her growing list of talents.

“It will always feel strange to realize that there are people I don’t know out in the world who know something about me,” she said during a recent interview with Refinery29. “But I guess at the same time, even without a memoir, people think they know you. So at least this time, I’m telling my own story.”

In Hunger, Brownstein candidly chronicles her adolescent years in the suburbs of Seattle and takes us through the formation, success, and implosion of Sleater-Kinney. Fans of the critically acclaimed band will find fascinating details about the genesis and recording sessions for their albums, as well as detailed stories behind songs. “Dig Me Out,” for example, is packed with coded language about the painful demise of Brownstein’s relationship with co-frontwoman Corin Tucker. They dated in the early days of Sleater-Kinney, a fact that was made public without their permission and poorly characterized in the band’s first big feature in Spin magazine.

Brownstein writes with an impressive level of self-awareness and wry humor, even when she’s tackling difficult moments in her life. She writes about needing to be seen by a distant, closeted father and a self-absorbed mother, finding the freedom to experiment in a music community burdened with complex codes of artistry, and being at peace with her body, which, during the height of her success, responded to stress and anxiety with shingles, panic attacks, and hives. She breaks down these issues with a sharp focus, exploring both when she felt hurt by something out of her control (her mother’s anorexia) and when she understands that she was the one causing anguish (most deeply with Tucker).
Here’s what else Brownstein had to say about writing her story.

Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead Books.
What made you decide to write a memoir?
"I’d been writing about music for NPR in between the first generation of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, and in that writing, I always found that the pieces people connected to most [were the ones where I] posited myself in the center of the narrative and drew from my own experiences. I realized that there was a story there in terms of [going from] being a spectator to a participant and sort of feeling like an outsider to immersing myself in a community that really empowered me.

"Also, I read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, a memoir that basically chronicles his life up until he started on Saturday Night Live. That gave me an idea for the form, which was that music would be the story. It wouldn’t really go past that."
You are so honest about your relationships with your parents and your bandmates. It’s one thing to get personal when you’re writing about music, but how did you become comfortable with telling the difficult stories of the people you care about?
"I wanted the book to be honest and revealing. At the same time, I was very deliberate in the stories that I told. They were artistic choices that fed into themes about visibility and invisibility, so it wasn’t a diary. It was part of making creative choices and feeling like those were crucial elements for the journey into Sleater-Kinney’s music. The [stories] had to cohere with the themes, and there’s a lot of stuff I left out."

Were there situations you were able to make peace with through writing this book that you hadn’t thought of until you’d gone through this process?
"When I was done with the book, I felt like it was such a love letter to music and to my bandmates, so that was one part. And then also, I think in terms of my father, I just developed a greater sense of respect and pride for him, even though he’s someone I’m already close to. I think it really deepened that sense of admiration."

Have you gotten reactions yet from the people in your book?
"Just in the last two weeks when I got the final copies, people have been able to read it, and I’ve gotten really wonderful responses from friends. That’s meant a lot to me."

You talk about your anxieties manifesting via physical illnesses that hampered you in a number of ways. What relationship do you have with your body now, and did writing this book help you see those moments in your life differently?
"As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways of mitigating and managing anxiety. I certainly still suffer from it, but I feel a greater self-awareness and try to be kind to myself in terms of where I’m focusing my energy. I’ve also realized that I thrive on busyness and that that actually developed as a means of fighting fire with fire. I need a certain level of drive and activity and chaos to some extent in order to feel fulfilled and happy, and that has its own way of staving off stress. But it really is just striking a balance and learning how to nurture and take care of yourself and surround yourself with good people. I think hopefully that gets easier as one gets older."

Photo: Courtesy of IFC.
Brownstein (with co-star Fred Armisen) on Portlandia.

The book also gives readers a sense of you as someone who constantly pushes past your comfort zones. How did having this attitude in Sleater-Kinney translate to your work in Portlandia and beyond?
"I think I really met my match with Fred [Armisen]. He might surpass me in drive and participation. He is one of the busiest people I know. (Laughs) I’ve learned that busyness is different from fulfillment; fulfillment is more important. But with Portlandia, one way the methodology and sensibility of Sleater-Kinney translated was keeping the roughness, keeping the clumsiness, keeping the mistakes, having that be part of and serve the absurdity, serve the realness, serve the writing, so that it has a fresh feeling and that it can be surprising, so it’s mutable and changes between seasons.

"Fred and I, our points of view really coalesce with Portlandia. So we can work with each other in a way that does enable a little bit of defiance, which I talk a lot about in the book in terms of Sleater-Kinney. I think there’s a shared irascibility that Fred and I have and adoration of the contrary and the irreverent."

How are these elements manifesting in your work moving forward?
"I’ve come to terms with the fact that drive and pushing [myself] and a sense of dissatisfaction in trying to navigate is something I’m drawn to, and something that is part of the way I am and how I approach projects. I love working on Transparent. I think Jill [Soloway] is someone who pushes the envelope, pushes boundaries, and I like surrounding myself with doers and creators, people who are excited by the margins and try to pull the center towards the margins until the margins become the center."

Both you and Kim Gordon make a point in your books to say that you’re not “musicians.” And yet, in your playing and your descriptions of your music and your recording sessions, you’re clearly a musician. Is it a punk rock thing, a female thing, or something else entirely?
"I think it’s semantics. (Laughs)… I think it really is just that I know so many really well-trained musicians. If I really had to clarify, I’d say I’m a self-taught musician. But that’s a clumsy sentence. (Laughs). But sure, I can play music, but I’m aware of the difference from someone with a lot of training. And I think it’s a way of honoring the people who know all that stuff, too. You want to make some kind of partition."
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon.
Brownstein (with co-star Gaby Hoffmann) on Transparent.
Your book also made me think about the connections between the experiences you describe in Olympia and the sketches on Portlandia — specifically the punk rock BBQ sketch. In Hunger, you describe the tension you felt in Olympia — needing to leave all the rules behind but also having so much love for it. How would you describe the ways that struggling with various ethics and issues in Olympia translates to the comedy you’re doing in Portlandia?
"That’s a good question. When people say Portlandia isn’t in the book, I say it definitely is in the subtext. I’d say anyone who read this book and maybe only knows me through Portlandia will see the seeds of that show and the basis from which I came to view notions of community, notions of inclusiveness and exclusivity — ideas about roles and how people align themselves with certain ideologies that are often contradictory. There’s a lot of Olympia and its mindset — which completely shaped me and which I certainly exalt and talk about lovingly in the book. I definitely saw the ways that [people in Olympia] were often hypocritical or contradictory or amusing in their complexity.

"To me, [Portlandia's] Feminist Bookstore characters, Toni and Candace — I always think of them as coming right from that world of indie rock, where it should be something that we all feel really welcome by but many people felt alienated from it, by all the codified rules and ideas about what was cool and what wasn’t. It was so confusing. [I am] someone who completely aligns herself with [the ethos] very strongly, but I think there’s that growing self-awareness of how absurd some of that stuff can get. So yes, a lot of those experiences really shaped the way Fred and I explored couples and someone’s relationship to a community, a culture, a city, or how people are at odds sometimes with their environments.

"With Portlandia, we can be critical and satirical, but we can also be affectionate. I think that's what makes it palatable and relatable."

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